SHEENA (2000-2002 TV series)
Page 3: The Location


Trying to find a substitute for Africa to use in a television series was a hurdle faced by many Hollywood producers in the past.  In the mid-Fifties the Nassour Brothers opted to use Las Estacas in Mexico for the Sheena Queen of the Jungle television series starring Irish McCalla.  A decade later Sy Weintraub returned to the exact same location to film the first Tarzan television series featuring Ron Ely.  The Tanya Roberts' 1984 Sheena film did not bother about any substitutes and had the luxury of filming in the lush locales of Kenya, with wonderfully satisfying results.

 When ex-Baywatch producer, and co-creator/executive producer of the new Sheena series, Douglas Schwartz, encountered this problem he already had the answer.  Back in 1994-95 Schwartz had produced an action/adventure series called, Thunder In Paradise, starring ex-professional wrestler, Terry "Hulk" Hogan.  At that time Schwartz made the bold move of approaching the Disney Corporation about using locations within the EPCOT Centre as shooting locations.  The site had all of the production facilities of a film studio, as well as 13 different sets representing 13 different countries.  Schwartz negotiated a deal with Disney to use EPCOT for Sheena, with  

Disney benefiting by having a live television production on site as an added attraction to their theme park.  In exchange, the production crew were given access to 38,000 acres (15,400 hectares) of natural habitat and 44 square miles (114 sq km) of other suitable locations, as well as sound stages and production offices.  "They did it, and for a minimal charge," said Schwartz, "but that was the only way we could produce Sheena for under $1 million per hour."
Another benefit of filming in Florida was that they could draw on that state's extensive talent pool for a fraction of the price of filming in LA.  The digital effects of the series were provided by Victory FX Animation, run by a talented CGI designer named Art David, whose company was located in Orlando.  David had worked on Die Hard: With Vengeance (aka Die Hard III - 1995), The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), and The Matrix (1999).  Disney i.d.e.a.s., the elite post-production facility located on the backlots of Disney MGM Studios in Florida, were keen to get involved because they wanted on opportunity to show what they could do.  It was a win-win situation - Disney i.d.e.a.s., who are credited with post-production on Sheena, wanted to attract other production companies to Florida and Sheena benefited by having low-cost but extremely high-quality visual effects.  The prosthetic effects on the series were provided by Lee Grimes, a talented makeup artist .
The down side of working in Florida was that the actors were forced to spend long periods of time away from their families in LA.  Gena Lee Nolin (right photo above), had her young son, Spencer, with her for part of the shoot, and would spend time playing with him between takes.  John Allen Nelson (left photo above), interviewed about the second season of the series, said, "I'm fortunate in that this is my first job where I've had to be away from my family for an extended period of time.  If the series is picked up for another series then I'll have to figure out a way to get them to Orlando.  I don't think I could handle us being apart for another year."  He was relieved of this burden as no third season of Sheena was made (Xpose).

The producers' comments about working with Gena Lee Nolin are interesting.  Steven Sears said that the company was able to maintain high morale over 35 episodes because Ms Nolin was such a sweetheart to work with.  "Gena has impressed everybody." he declared.  "Guest stars show up here and there, and they say we have the nicest people.  Everybody walks away saying Gena is somebody who hasn't let this go to her head.  If we're shooting in the Disney park and she happens to see a little girl or boy watching us, she'll start talking to the parents.  She'll just start chatting, and she's like that with the crew."  There seem to be some parallels here with Irish McCalla, who also managed to maintain her Midwestern earthiness throughout her career (see Sheena [2000] - Page 2: The Star page).
In her interview with Femme Fatales magazine Gena Lee Nolin said, "When we did the pilot, we did the effects in a different way, but it was the same idea and it worked absolutely beautifully.  This time was much more intense".  I am not sure what she means by effects being done differently in the pilot.  Is she talking about the impressive scene of Sheena morphing into a leopard, complete with spine-tingling bone cracking sounds, well known from the episode where Cutter first meets Sheena?  This is the episode commonly referred to as the Sheena Pilot.  Another possibility is that she is talking about the "test reel" referred to by Steven L Sears on his website.  The episode I have just described was the first one screened when the series commenced in October 2000.  Art David was definitely on board for this episode, because Victory FX Animation are credited for digital effects, and Lee Grimes was also involved for prosthetic make up.  It seems highly unlikely that things were done differently here than from the rest of the series that these two inspired men continued to work on.  This suggests she was talking about the "test reel" Steve Sears mentioned (click HERE to see three rare photos from that test reel; they are right at the bottom of the page).
In that interview Nolin also said that she had to go down to Daytona where a complete scan of her face and body were done.  "It basically copied every single inch of me.  They could almost make a sculpture of of me.  Now, they can have Sheena walking through the most dangerous terrain with lions and tigers or whatever and it's just a computerized version of me."
Nolin also enjoyed working with a variety of animals.  "Yesterday I was riding an an elephant through the Disney property and it looked like we were in Africa.  Things like that are a blast and are what makes me want to get up in the morning." (Femme Fatales)  Many publicity shots were taken of Nolin on the elephant (see Steven L Sears Sheena Photos), and Sheena is shown riding the elephant in the opening credits (left).  Douglas Schwartz said that Bubbles the elephant was the most expensive actor they hired, costing $25,000 a day.  "Big cats range about $10,000 a day." he added.   In the episode featuring Bubbles (Tourist Trap - Season 1, Episode 5 - see Sheena Episodes Page 1), it is actually Cutter who is shown on top of Bubbles, because Sheena has morphed into an elephant.

The Femme Fatales story also said that the producers took a page from the theatrical Sheena and had Nolin galloping through the jungle on a zebra.  "It was a horse named Rosey," the actress admitted.  "She came through in spades.  They painted her and we rode off into the sunset.  I did that for the pilot but I haven't used one since." she said.  (Authors' comment: Again, Nolin must be talking about the test reel Steven Sears mentions on his website, because Sheena is not shown riding a zebra in the pilot that was screened)  Working with animals on Sheena seems to have had a dramatic effect on Nolin, who has appeared on posters for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).  According to Wikipedia she posed nude, with her body painted like snakeskin for PETA's "Exotic Skins Belong in the Jungle, Not in Your Closet" campaign.

Steven L Sears', Douglas Schwatz's co-producer, lists the interior locations built on the sound stages at Disney MGM Studios in Orlando.  The three most commonly used sets are:
           • Cutter's Office - It is located beside a river in the backcounty on the outskirts of Uhura, the capital city of Maltaka.  Sears says that it " looks like a roadside bar that has been converted into a garage".  Cutter's zebra stripe Land Rover, single-engine plane and military style river recon boat are located outside.
• Kali's village - This is home of Sheena's wise and gentle mentor, the shamaness Kali.  The huts are circular mud daub huts with thatched conical roofs, very similar, and almost certainly based on, the rondavels of Africa.  Many crucial expositionary scenes take place here, mostly as Sheena and Kali walk along it's single street, which is located beside a river.  The huts are decorated with exotic African artefacts and the streets are a busy, evocative scene of goats, children and villagers.
           • Sheena's lair - Sheena lives in a small cavern located behind a waterfall.  In it she keeps several precious items that once belonged to her parents and some very basic personal items.  She also has a collection of books, which she cherishes immensely.

On revisiting this series in order to write plot summaries for this site (see link below), I have been pleasantly surprised at how effective the series is at evoking the feel of wild, exotic Africa.  Considering that we are actually looking at Florida, that is quite an astounding achievement.  Part of my fascination with jungle films generally, stems from my deep love of untamed places, and my all time favourite untamed place is the Dark Continent.  This makes me a very discerning viewer when Hollywood attempts to "create" Africa.  The Gena Lee Nolin Sheena series scores top marks for this.  I have frequently been impressed by scenes of Cutter flying over vast stretches of jungle, big rivers, expansive wetlands and rolling savannah, and I find myself asking the question, "Is this really Florida?"  Up close the jungles are also convincing - glossy large-leafed plants; thick, tangled scrub; and towering trees.  The exterior sets, like the streets of Uhura near Cutter's office, and Kali's village, are less convincing.  The set decorations have become more sophisticated but they aren't all that far removed from some of the hokey sets in Bing and Bob's Road movies.

I am a little surprised that it has taken this long for Florida to emerge as an ersatz Africa.  I spent several years researching Tarzan films (click on link to visit those pages) and none of the Tarzan films made between 1918 and 1998 were made there, and as far as I know, no-one ever considered filming any there.  One thing is certain, the Nassour Brothers could have saved themselves a lot of headaches if the previous Sheena television series had been filmed in The Sunshine State (see Irish McCalla - Filming In Mexico pages).

Click on the image below to read plot summaries and to see video captures for each episode of this series:

Xpose (Special) magazine, Sep 2001

Femme Fatales magazine, May/Jun 2001

• The photo of Gena Lee Nolin and John Allen Nelson with a film crew is from an unidentified TV Zone magazine article
• The vidcap of Sheena morphing into a leopard from the pilot episode is from my set of DVD-Rs of this series
• The vidcap from the opening credits of Gena Lee Nolan (or Vicki Phillips) riding Bubbles is from my set of DVD-Rs of this series
• The vidcaps from the opening credits of this series are from my set of DVD-Rs of this series
• Read Steven L Sears' wonderful Sheena Bible page at his personal PondaLee Productions website
• See many fascinating production photos featuring the cast and crew at Steven L Sears' Sheena Photos page, which are especially relevant to this page
• Read Douglas Schwartz's comprehensive filmography at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
• Read Steven L Sears' comprehensive filmography at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb)

SHEENA © is the property of Sony Pictures Corporation
This independent, fan-based analysis of the Sheena material is copyright © 2006 Paul Wickham