LOS ANGELES—Over 400 hundred extras playing high school students watching a musical competition didn’t need to be instructed to clap, cheer, break into appreciative whistles and pump their fists after Charice Pempengco sang Alicia Keys’ “No One” in a scene filmed for “Alvin and the Chipmunks 2: The Squeakquel” last Monday.
Upon the invitation of 20th Century Fox, we visited the set of “The Squeakquel” at the Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California and witnessed Charice shoot her first big scene in the Hollywood movie, which will be shown in December in the US and in January in the Philippines.
From a park across the street, the school appeared like any other campus on a sunny, cool spring morning. Students in their PE uniform—white tees or sweatshirts and maroon shorts—went about their cross-country run.
The giveaway that filming was going on in the area were a catering truck and a long line of star trailers (one of them was for Charice, who was accompanied by her mother, Raquel, and another Filipina companion) parked along the street facing the school. A man grilled chicken fillets beside the catering truck as part of the lunch menu for the cast and crew. Inside the two huge tents erected in the park, catering staffers were setting up for lunch.
When the other invited journalists arrived—one each from Spain and England, and two from Mexico—we hung “Squeakquel” crew ID tags around our necks and, escorted by two Fox publicists, crossed the street to enter the campus.
Things appeared normal until we entered the gym. Thanks to a fog-maker, the gym appeared as if in a haze, underscoring that Hollywood’s dream-making machinery was literally at work here. Outside may be as mundane as any suburban high school campus, but in there, it was musical-talent contest time.
We were going to witness the film’s climax, in which those lovable Chipmunks (Alvin, Theodore and Simon), The Chipettes (Brittany, Eleanor and Jeanette), Charice and other contestants from various high schools were going to duke it out for the $25,000 cash prize. Guess who wins? Hundreds of extras stood on the gym floor or sat in the bleachers. Even the balcony was full of extras—or, at least at first glance, they appeared jam-packed (more about this later).
Two basketball stands were moved to a corner away from camera range to make way for a stage that jutted out from the proscenium. Signs around the stage declared that this was talent-contest time, while in the bleachers and on the balcony railings, posters screaming support for the contestants were hung or were held high by the extras. The swiveling movement of a camera dangling from a long crane, able to swoop low and close to the crowd or hover above, near the ceiling, reminded us of a giraffe or a dinosaur.
We should be jaded by now, but set visits like this still surprise us at how good and to what lengths Hollywood will go to create its make-believe worlds. In this case, it’s one in which furry little creatures interact with humans that include Dave Seville (Jason Lee), his nephew Toby (Zachary Levi), teacher Julie Ortega (Anjelah Johnson), school principal Dr. Rubin (Wendie Malick), and the chipmunk trio’s ex-manager, Ian Hawke (David Cross).
While the crew set up to shoot the next scenes, we went outside to the back of the gym to begin the interviews with the main cast and some of the behind-the-scene talents. We found a quiet spot in between two parked movie equipment trucks and sat on portable chairs.
First to be interviewed was animation supervisor, Chris Bailey, who stressed that, while computer-animation technology has improved drastically in recent years, it still came down to how seamlessly the computer-generated characters appeared. For example, the ’munks (who are voiced by Justin Long, Jesse McCartney and Matthew Gray Gubler), have to come across as rock stars. “And they are rock stars,” Chris quipped.
Anjelah, who was tottering in perilously high heels in one of the earlier scenes we watched, came out in comfortable and much safer Ugg boots, her hair back in clips until the cameras rolled again. Like Charice, she is a YouTube sensation—her “Nail Salon” clip is wildly popular and led to a successful standup comedy career. But, in this film, directed by Betty Thomas, Anjelah reins in her comic impulses because she’s the romantic interest of Zachary’s nebbish character.
“She’s a phenomenal singer!” Anjelah exclaimed about Charice. She said she was struck by how friendly the Filipina singer was, greeting everyone earlier in the make-up room with a hug and a kiss.
(To be continued tomorrow)