About a half-hour’s commute from Detroit, in a place called Romulus, Mich., a driver starts his 53-foot semi-truck and departs with top-secret cargo — prototype cars and trucks from Ford Motor Co. — en route to Palm Springs, where he’ll rendezvous with a team that will prep, photograph, and film the vehicles for everything from car shows to magazine covers to next season’s American Idol commercials.
This is the work of Diversified Service Technologies, which operates in relative secrecy in an industrial-park-turned-massive-sound-stage in North Palm Springs.
The unassuming grounds accommodate up to 175 vehicles and, when needed, around-the-clock security personnel. Multiple security cameras also watch over the property.
Dick Taylor, the company’s spokesman and a pioneer in the field of product placement in movies, points to a grassy knoll at the corner of the lot. A wall of pink-flowering oleanders conceals all but the western vista: a panoramic view of palm trees and the picturesque San Jacinto Mountains.
When it’s raining in Romulus, Ford sends its model cars here to be photographed in the sun. DST President and CEO Brenda Lewo has a broader vision for the Palm Springs property. In October, she opened the doors for the first time to Hollywood industry types. They saw the freshly renovated, 11,000-square-foot Building A — the largest professional sound stage and still-photo studio in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
“We’re ready to offer the entertainment industry an alternative to Hollywood,” says Taylor, who negotiated deals with nearby hotels and restaurants to package an enticing film, dine, and unwind experience. “It costs a lot less to house and feed a crew in Palm Springs than it does in Los Angeles.”
Guests who attended the studio opening also toured DST’s 4,750 square feet of shooting space. But they were most impressed by the sound stage, which can accommodate an audience of 100 people with ample room for multiple sets.
Engineers built an 800-pound, soundproof door to hush any trace of planes, trains, or valley winds. The expansive ceiling holds a 23-foot lighting grid; and because of the height in the sound and still photo stages, directors can film from a crane for that omnipresent overhead angle.
DST incorporated in 1955 as Dearborn Steel Tubing and focused on designing and building engine components for muscle cars of the future. More than 45 years later, it has evolved into one of Ford’s most comprehensive go-to companies. In addition to producing advertising, public relations, and display exhibits for the next line of Mustangs and Mercury Milans, DST innovates in vehicle reuse and recycling and has become a leading supplier of custom cars for the TV and film industry.
DST acquired its Palm Springs property from the Pepsi-Cola bottling company in 1965 and constructed the original nuts-and-bolts studio 17 years later. Today, inside Building B, the hangar-sized paint and auto body shop, a row of the newest hybrids, pickups, and a beefy yellow GT with black Le Mans stripes await their closeup.
“Look here,” Taylor says. “See where the back window was removed to mount cameras? See how the roof was cut away?”
DST often works with film crews to nail that money shot. If that requires mechanical surgery, so be it. Taylor explains how the black four-door with the gaping hole in its roof was used for a recent TV commercial in which cameramen filmed the car’s interior from a speeding helicopter.
Some visions require more ingenuity than others.
Eddie “O” Orzechowski manages the Special Vehicle Builds division. His team of designers, engineers, graphic artists, Fiberglas fabricators, and painters converts concepts into reality. “We’ll take a photograph or a rendering done by a designer and create a vehicle from scratch,” he says. His department constructed 11 vehicles for the 2007 blockbuster Transformers, a pinnacle accomplishment in the company’s own 54-year transformation.
Lewo assumed leadership of DST a year ago after the death of her husband and the company’s former CEO, Joseph Lewo. The mother of two teenage boys says she took over the company, in part, to set an example for her kids.
“It’s important to me that I look after my husband’s legacy until my boys are able to do so themselves,” Lewo says. “[My husband] believed in honest, hard work and rewarded it in his employees; it’s important that my kids not only recognize, remember, and respect that, but also that they continue to see the example of hard work in our family.”
Lewo expects DST automobile wizardry to remain integral to the company, but the excitement she showed in October was for the possibilities in Building A — the soundstage — which she sees becoming a self-sustaining dimension.
“It’s perfect for the film and television production,” she says, “and also as a different venue for large, special events.”
DST has also installed amplification for cell phones throughout the studio, which has WiFi access and a digital editing bay where clients can nip and tuck their work on site. Revamped dressing rooms boast theatrical-style makeup lights and full-sized his-and-hers bathrooms — showers included. There’s a production office with a corporate-sized conference table, and the actors’ lounge features a kitchen area, new furniture, and a flat-screen TV.
Lewo defines success as twofold: DST must succeed financially, and her employees must experience happiness in their work. She talks of the future with renegade confidence. She sees hybrid F-150 trucks on the horizon. Someone must build the prototype, right?
She emphasizes her goal to stay current in the entertainment industry and a pending partnership with Lucid Dreams 3D, a San Diego firm that would bring three-dimensional technology to the studio.
“I’d like to infuse more business into the Palm Springs community,” Lewo says. “Everyone could use some stimulus to their economy right now.”
Meanwhile, DST is building 10 custom vehicles for a hush-hush project with DreamWorks Studios. Lewo will not divulge the movie’s title, director, or even who stars in it. But if you catch Steven Spielberg lunching with Tom Hanks in Palm Springs, it’s possible they’re taking a break from filming a scene at nearby DST Studios.