After five years of working with this cast, Ortega is clearly a director who rules through love, not fear -- and it's hard not to love a man who walks around orchestrating an extremely complicated dance number with his teacup terrier Manly (yes, the same one owned by the scheming Sharpay in the movies) carelessly cradled in his arm.
But don't be fooled. The minute the cameras and lights are ready, everyone is all business, and if something -- a light, a car, a line -- is not the way he wants it, Ortega's displeasure is expressed in clarion tones.
For all the playfulness, high spirits and collective chorus of "we really are one big happy family" that infuses the set of Disney's bullet train of a film franchise, the folks involved in the third "HSM" are focused. Because there's a lot at stake. The little movie Peter Barsocchini wrote as a simple paean to his own high school experience, that Ortega took as a way to get back into films after spending years choreographing dance numbers at mega-events like the Super Bowl, that was cast with kids previously known only to Disney Channel devotees, has become an international multibillion-dollar industry.
All over the world teens and tweens jam to the soundtrack and scarf up the merchandise. It has become one of the most popular plays staged by real high school drama departments; there's a traveling show, an ice show and a new reality series called "High School Musical: Get in the Picture." But even with its built-in audience, "Senior Year" is a very big deal. This one isn't being shown free on TV; this one will be headed Oct. 24 for the multiplex, where families must shell out roughly $9 each to see the cast sing and dance. And as Efron, Hudgens, Bleu and the rest of the cast continually mention, it's the last film that this particular group will do together.
So although no one seems nervous exactly, the terms "high energy" and "110%" are used a lot. Even Efron, who expressed impatience with his Disney fetters during the filming of "HSM2," has, as one insider puts it, put his game face on.
"Let's do it again, just better," he says at one point after Ortega has pointed out a few ways in which he could improve a scene.