A Geographic Approach to Old Tucson

Chris Lukinbeal explains how GIS techniques, drone technology, and multi-layer mapping data can help trace the topography of location shoots.

Cartography, landscape, and cinema can be conceptualized through products and practices, inscriptionsand incorporations, visuality and montage. A geographic approach to research on Old Tucson is a (re)construction project, one that aims to inform the formation of the Sonoran Westerns landscape. (Re)constructing this cinematic landscape, however, is not only about discovering, documenting, and mapping locational data, although these are part of it. This research is also about explaining, representing, and defining this spatial-temporal cinematic landscape through a focus on the underlying processes that led to its past, present, and future formation. The Sonoran landscape is a defining landscape of the Western film genre – take the saguaro cactus, an icon of the genre that only grows natively in the Sonoran desert. The landscapes of Western films are, therefore, as much about the evolution of the desert’s topography, biomes, and unique landforms as they are about the cinematic framing of the region as a backdrop.

The productive practices of filmmaking facilitated by Old Tucson are equally crucial to the formation of this cinematic landscape. Mapping the cinematic landscapes of Old Tucson is therefore an “inferential walk,” a cartographic bricolage, that brings together bits and pieces of information from a variety of sources to reveal a landscape that is always forming and becoming, always changing with every viewing and production.1Giuliana Bruno, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

A cinematic landscape is not a pre-existing inscription or text waiting to be read or viewed but instead is simultaneously both inscriptive and incorporative. Incorporation moves us “away from a referential system of representation” to focus on the “embodied movements inherent in the taskscapes of production where landscape’s form is perpetually in flux. With landscape as a noun we inscribe meaning onto form; with landscape as a verb we incorporate meaning into the production of form.”2Chris Lukinbeal, “On Location” Filming in San Diego County from 1985—2005: How a Cinematic Landscape is Formed Through Incorporative Tasks and Represented through Mapped Inscriptions. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 102(1), 2012: 171-190. A region’s cinematic landscape, like the domain of the Sonoran Westerns of Old Tucson, can never be fully captured or articulated through a single filmic inscription because the desert is always a series of unfolding geomorphological events, just as film production practices are cultural tasks that emerge and generate the landscape anew.

The Cartographic Methodology

Film production records from Old Tucson form the foundational basis for this research project by providing the historical and empirical evidence from which a chronological, visual, and cartographic analysis can be conducted. Key to the film production data from a cartographic perspective is the locational information and its quality. The research process begins with geocoding, or the conversion of a descriptive location into geographic coordinates that are then digitally transformed into a spatial database for cartographic purposes. Building a cartographic imaginary of the Western landscapes of the Sonoran Desert requires a compilation and aggregation of a digital geodatabase. For all locations, the creation of a geodatabase of film production activity consists of a series of attributions associated with an individual production. This allows for the basis of spatial analysis within and across attribute fields but also between film production data in general and other geographic data from the same area. This is where cinematic cartography gets exciting: placing and analyzing film production within the broader cultural and physical landscape.

Due to the studio’s development process, mapping Old Tucson across time presents a unique GIS scenario. The studio originates from a Colombia Pictures set designed to look like the City of Tucson in the 1860s for the film Arizona (1940). The studio developed slowly, growing through the construction of additional buildings with each new Hollywood-based film shot on site. Buildings were commonly referenced by the film for which they were initially built, like the “Rio Lobo Jail.” Because of the studio’s haphazard development, creating a cartographic model and spatial archive of Old Tucson requires a foundation from which to build a series of spatial and temporal layers of data. This foundation will derive from digitizing the Colombia Pictures map and a 1995 map of fire damage to the studio. Once studio buildings and county and state data are compiled, all mapped data will be registered to current drone-mapped data acquired on September 8, 2018. This data will be converted to a three-dimensional format using digital elevations models (DEM), drone data, and (as yet to be collected) terrestrial LiDAR data.
The result will be a three-dimensional interactive web map of the studio that can be used for research, preservation and the production of specialized geovisualization tours for the studio and Western film fans.

Mapping the peripheral locations requires the aggregation of data from primary (film production data) and secondary (Western historians, local and online news and media) sources. Following the process of geocoding comes ground truthing or the validation of data. Ground truthing is traditionally done by visiting the locations to ensure the phenomenon mapped exists in the landscape. Given that the cinematic landscape produces a space-time effect that can elide site validation, ground truthing takes on a slightly different meaning. Validating the cinematic landscape is a process of corroborating the ecologies that gave rise to a particular mise en scène. This process moves beyond scientifically confirming a phenomena’s presence to focus on a means through which to understand the development and character of the cinematic landscape’s “sense of place.”


A geographer’s approach to a regional historical film production center situates Old Tucson within the context of a cinematic landscape. The methods of geocoding, ground truthing, attribution, and aggregation produce cartographic inscriptions and work to uncover the processes and practices within film production as well as in the cultural and physical landscape. A geographer’s approach to Old Tucson highlights how a cinematic landscape can be conceptualized as a noun where we inscribe research outcomes on a map. This approach also conceptualizes cinematic landscape as a verb, which necessitates that we situate the Sonoran Westerns of Old Tucson in a series of ongoing practices and events that inform and produce its form that is never fixed or static but rather always becoming.

The authors wish to thank Old Tucson Studios for graciously providing regular access to their archive and facilities, as well as generous assistance. You can see the overview of their project elsewhere in this issue.


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