In 'Fallout,' a destroyed L.A. comes to life, with some help from … Namibia?


Prime Video’s “Fallout” might have been set in a nuclear war-ravaged Colorado or vaguely defined Southwestern desert, depending on whom you talk to.

When a near-perfect replica of the Santa Monica coastline was found during a West Coast location scout, though, the decision was made to place the postapocalyptic video game adaptation in a sandblasted, future Los Angeles.

That coastline? It was the west coast of Africa, but with some set dressing and judicious digital effects, the striking Elizabeth Bay region of Namibia would more than do.

“L.A. imposed itself, in the most wonderful way, into the creative process by way of Namibia,” says Jonathan Nolan, “Fallout’s” guiding executive producer and director of the show’s first three episodes. “There’s always hesitation for showbiz folks to set something in Los Angeles because it feels like a little narcissism is attached to it. But that actually kind of worked for the unique tone of this show. The final impetus was trying to incorporate the physical production of making the thing into the actual storytelling.”

Although the rest of the series was shot in and around New York City and adjacent to Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, Namibia’s desert-meets-the-sea landscapes and long-abandoned Kolmanskop diamond mining installation provided keynote looks for bomb shelter-raised heroine Lucy MacLean’s (Ella Purnell) journey from her underground vault through L.A.’s irradiated Wasteland.

Nolan had wanted to be the first ever to film at the remote location for his HBO series “Westworld,” but it didn’t mesh visually with that show’s techno-Western look. For the remains of L.A., though, it was perfect.

“It’s just so gorgeously destroyed,” Howard Cummings, a two-time Emmy winner and production designer of both Nolan shows, says of the facility and nearby abandoned town. “Every day for years, 60 mph winds with sandstorms have pitted all the surfaces. When they abandoned the giant processing facility, they blew up the manufacturing parts. That was perfect for us; it looked like an atomic bomb went off. We had to do so little to really make it come alive.”

Another “Westworld” veteran, Emmy-winning visual effects supervisor Jay Worth, says his team had only to add a computer-generated Ferris to the pier and Malibu mountains out to Point Dume to the otherwise untouched African stand-in for Santa Monica Bay. The shot informed the exterior aesthetic for the first season, which has only one set of images actually filmed in Southern California: second-unit drone footage around the Griffith Observatory.

“It was really Howard’s design and finding Namibia that was the touchstone for us; the show should look like this really interesting mixture of practical buildings and this expansive space,” Worth says. “The biggest challenge for us, visual effects-wise, was combining Namibia, New York and Utah to make it look like postapocalyptic L.A. Each one is so varied and disparate in texture, tone, all of it. But having grown up in Los Angeles, it was really fun to be able to figure out which touchstones we could grab onto for the iconic-ness of Los Angeles.”

Worth’s team provided the broken-arch remains of LAX’s Theme Building with a giant, eaten-away Randy’s Donuts nearby for the show’s lead wanderers — Lucy, walking nightmare the Ghoul (Walton Goggins) and Maximus (Aaron Moten), a renegade from the fascistic Brotherhood of Steel — to pass by from various distances and directions. Other Googie-style structures were created for both the retro ’50s, prewar future L.A. scenes and their later, damaged ruins. Hollywood’s Capitol Records Building is both wrecked in the nuclear attack and still partially looming when the Ghoul passes by more than two centuries later.

And the Griffith Observatory, where Season 1’s finale takes place, had to have its exterior (which was practically shot at the Woolworth Estate in suburban New York) digitally replaced while the interior auditorium — missing part of a wall so it looks out on a destroyed downtown L.A. VFX vista — was filmed on a volume stage specially built for “Fallout” at Long Island’s Gold Coast Studios.

Main stages were at Steiner Studios near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Settlements dotting the otherwise empty (actually Namibia) Wasteland were built out of found scrap at an East River container yard and Wade’s Salvage in Atco, N.J. The opening prewar sequence — a children’s birthday party at a glass-walled, Midcentury Modern Case Study home — screams Hollywood Hills but was physically filmed at a house in Nyack, N.Y.; Cummings thinks it was supposed to stand in for L.A.’s Nichols Canyon area.

Imaginative-bordering-on-imaginary SoCal environments were created in upstate New York.

“The cave for the bear sequence was near Woodstock,” Cummings says of the scene where Maximus and a Brotherhood warrior are attacked by an ursine mutant. “It was man-made for the mine that provided the cement to build the Brooklyn Bridge! If it was in L.A., I wanted it to be the cave in Bronson Canyon.

“Visual effects helped on some of the wider shots that show us L.A. is now a patchwork of destroyed and green areas,” Cummings continues. “It isn’t a specific lake where Lucy and the Ghoul encounter the Gulper [a giant, mutated salamander], but it’s supposed to be off Hollywood Boulevard. That [actual] location was a quarry that filled up with water in Verplanck, N.Y., and those buildings that we shot against were actually there. It was so great-looking.”

Yeah, but not looking a whole lot like the L.A. we know. Or does it?

“You hang a sign that says Hollywood Boulevard in front of almost anything and the audience’s imagination fills in the details,” Nolan notes.

Worth believes it’s little details that really sell the illusion. One of his favorite shots involved moving sand to reveal stars underfoot on the Walk of Fame.

“Jay and his team are the best in the business, extraordinary artists in their own right,” says Nolan. “They always do their best work when we’ve given them something to build off of. Even when places have been practically built for most of the shots, which is very seldom in the show, they would do better for having a reference on camera.”

Which brings us back to the dramatic spectacle of Africa-on-the-Pacific, where waves crash up against endless desert sand.

“I always look for a shot that kind of encapsulates what the look of a show like this is, come back to it visually over and over again to make the rest of the shots work,” Worth notes. “The Santa Monica Pier was fascinating because there’s a tone to it. It not only has to look a certain way technically, it actually has to give you that sense of hope and dread at the same time for this new journey Lucy is on. It was fun to try to capture that, then carry that emotion through the rest of the season.”



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