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How Fallout Visually Created a Post-Nuclear War America

How Fallout Visually Created a Post-Nuclear War America

How Fallout Visually Created a Post-Nuclear War America

How do you breathe humanity into a post-nuke, radiation-poisoned America? In Fallout, it comes down to Walton Goggins’ noseless Ghoul, a cyclops vault dweller, bloodthirsty mutated bears and a centuries-decayed Santa Monica Pier, just to name a few of the series’ cataclysmic details.

Amazon MGM Studios’ adaptation of the popular Bethesda video game is set in apocalyptic Los Angeles in 2296, 219 years after an atomic bomb obliterates the U.S. Producers Jonathan “Jonah” Nolan and Lisa Joy tapped longtime collaborator and Emmy-winning VFX supervisor Jay Worth (Westworld, Person of Interest)to build that world alongside showrunners Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Graham Wagner.

“It was fun being able to make a sad little love letter to L.A., mixed with all the different challenges that we had storytelling-wise and where visual effects were really able to support and enhance the characters,” Worth tells THR. “That’s all it really comes down to: How can we support the story? To have such a rich canvas to play with in the Fallout world and the story that Graham and Geneva wrote, and the way Jonah envisioned it — I knew when we were working on it that it was going to be special. We’ve all done this enough to realize that there’s something different about this one.”

Bethesda Game Studios producer Todd Howard’s original Fallout designs “gave us a great starting point for set builds and a lot of our asset builds,” says Worth. Shot entirely on film, the series features a handful of scenes created with the 3D creation tool Unreal Engine — but viewers won’t see any original game footage in the show. (“Fallout 4 came out a few years ago, so even now it’s an [outdated] version of Unreal,” notes Worth.)

It took more than a dozen VFX houses from throughout the world to build Fallout, among them Important Looking Pirates (ILP), Rise Visual Effects, Mavericks, Framestore, FutureWorks, CoSA, One of Us and Refuge — plus the benefit of extra time thanks to the writers and actors strikes.

Worth discusses the technological journey that made Fallout a reality, how his team created season one’s most challenging scenes and why he mapped out vault dweller Lucy MacLean’s (Ella Purnell) exact route from Santa Monica to downtown. (Hint: the 10 freeway is not involved.)

You used Unreal Engine for Westworld. How much did you lean on it for Fallout, given that it’s most often used for video games?

We used Unreal, obviously, for the stuff that we shot on a volume [on-set virtual production], so we did have four different sets that we shot on a volume. We don’t like to shoot everything on [LED backdrops], so we only shot those four.

Which scenes were those?

When [Lucy] is on the farm and we’re in the wedding area where you have the bucolic scene, that was actually all done on Unreal, which worked really well because it needed to have a painterly quality to it. We wanted it to look like a projection and not an LED screen, so we added some imperfections and we changed the way the object rendered.

The other one, which was my favorite, was the vault entrance when Lucy is exiting the vault. All we had there was an elevator, the door plug and a bridge, but all the walls were done on an LED volume stage. People [often] shoot it all in a volume, and then they’re going to replace it all anyway. We pretty much only shoot it if we can get final pixel, so we do some cleanup along the top and we extend where we need to. It was a challenge, but it was really rewarding. 

The other one was all of the flying footage in the Vertibird; we shot plates for that and that was playback.

How did the strikes affect your timeline?

Production started in 2022 and we didn’t deliver until April 2024. It just got delayed by about three months. Honestly, the strikes did help us because it gave us a little more time. It allowed us to refine a few things and say yes to more. Sometimes when you have to rush to get [effects] done, they actually end up costing more money and the quality’s not as great. This time, things were able to marinate a little bit more. We were able to find some different creative things that I just don’t know if we would’ve found if we hadn’t had that time; we were able to really place things where they needed to be placed. This is where [producer] Andrea [Montana Knoll] and all of my producing team got more out of this budget than I’ve ever seen in terms of being able to say yes to a lot of things down the stretch because we knew exactly how much time we had and what the execution was going to be.

Had you played the video game beforehand? How did you land on the same page creativity-wise?

Jonah had definitely played the game. I had not played it very much. When I came to the project, I tried to jump in on it, but I thought, “I don’t have the time for this,” so I watched playthroughs quite a bit. In the bullpen for our VFX group, we basically had playthroughs going at all times to immerse ourselves in the game. We wanted to build off what Howard [Cummings, Fallout production designer] had done for his designs, and we ended up feeling like we knew what the game felt like. We picked a few shots for ourselves in the season, and those were really our benchmarks.

Walton Goggins as The Ghoul on Amazon MGM Studios’ Fallout, set among the ruins of 23rd century Los Angeles.

Courtesy of Amazon

Was there a scene that gave you that wow factor when you saw the final cut?

I watched this thing so many times, so there was no surprise per se. I surf and I take photos basically at the view from where Lucy [emerges from the vault] and sees the Santa Monica Pier. I scouted that with Jonah, Howard and Graham back in March of 2021. When we were there, it was like, “OK, this is what we want the show to feel like.” That really grounded us in a reality and a world that had space and expanse with destruction, but with beauty and nature and how nature took over and what we really wanted it to feel like.

There was definitely [a goal of] how to create that moment because it had to have this feeling of beauty, hope, sadness and dread, all at the same time. Part of it was the beauty of the drone footage that we got, but we really had to create this tableau of the Santa Monica Pier that has all those things baked into it as we exit with [Lucy] from that vault into this new world. When we saw [that shot, we thought], “That’s the show. Let’s just keep coming up to that.”

Definitely part of it is Ramin [Djawadi]’s score. Part of it’s the lighting, part of it’s the beauty of the location. But it gave us a benchmark, something to shoot for and to push for, to keep that idea that it needs to be more and to challenge ourselves to create something really beautiful.

As someone who was born and raised in Los Angeles, seeing the remnants of landmarks in Fallout really brought it close to home.

I grew up here, too, in Malibu, so for me it was such a love letter. I totally made a map of what the route should be, knowing that we weren’t going to use it, but we wanted to ground ourselves. Lucy’s going toward downtown the whole season, then she goes toward Shady Sands and gets there and then goes up to Griffith Park. She has to be down next to the airport, then she walks up and she crosses the freeway, and then she goes to the Baldwin Hills overlook for that shot when she has the head. If you notice, it’s looking more toward the hills of Westwood and Century City. Then she’s going along Paramount [Studios] and Melrose [Avenue], and then she comes down toward downtown and then she wraps around downtown to get to Shady Sands.

It really helps to know how far downtown should be, even though the world that we created is much larger than L.A. We always want to start with some part of reality and then make sure it looks cool after that.

Speaking of challenges, what were some of the most difficult scenes to create?

The ones that were the most challenging were the obvious ones: the cyclops, because we really wanted to figure out a way to capture Chris Parnell’s performance. I remember when Graham called me on that one, and he asked, “How do you feel about cyclopes?” They never look right. They always have a fake stuck-in-the-middle-of-your-forehead mutated [look] instead of a “mutant” vibe, and the feeling of it would’ve taken away from the humor and humanity of his performance. 

We really wrestled [with it], and the early concept art was not pretty. But I partnered with Important Looking Pirates, a company out of Sweden, which did Dolores’ exoskeleton for Westworld and the de-aging of Anthony Hopkins for the Young Ford character, so I trusted them with it. 

It still took a lot more iterations than I thought it would. One of the breakthroughs was when we gave him two eyebrows instead of one, which sounds weird when you look at it now and you think, “Of course he has two eyebrows.” It was a weird “aha” moment we had. We really wanted to keep the humanity of it. He gave such a stinking funny performance. We didn’t want to distract and pull away from that.

The Gulper [in episode three was also a challenge], just because it’s such a big creature and it’s just right out in the middle of broad daylight and no real places to hide. 

There’s little fun ones, like [in episode two] when Max kicks a rock and it hits that brick wall when he first gets the power suit armor on. That was a spur-of-the-moment [decision] from Jonah, who said, “I want to make that wall fall.” So we couldn’t shoot any elements or anything, and we made it fall all in visual effects. All the bricks falling, everything, it’s all completely seamless and really well done by ILP. 

With Walton and the nose, we definitely thought, “We’re going to have our lead actor for a whole season and have to touch every single shot, 500-plus shots.” But it turned out really good and the team at FutureWorks out of India did an incredible job.

How was his nose created?

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We put some tracking markers on it, so we kept all the information from the makeup. All of the movement and all of the way his face moved, we didn’t end up having to change that because the makeup was attached to his skin, so all of his facial performance was captured. We didn’t touch anything else. It was all there on camera. All we had to do was remove the nose, which was great.

It seems the audience isn’t that distracted by the missing nose. 

Completely. We knew when we hit it each time because it’s weird if you make it too big, it almost looked like a pig snout. If it was too light, then you’d see the septum inside, and that didn’t work. If it was too dark, it looked like a black hole. We used to call it “nose-apalooza” review sessions where we would review only the nose shots. We really had to see them back to back. When The Ghoul takes in a blood hit or a set extension or any other shot in between it, you’d lose your rhythm, so we would just hold off on reviewing and we’d look at 20 to 100 noses in a row. We started being able to see it pretty quick. When it became a distraction, when it wasn’t part of his character, you could feel that. 

How long has the VFX road been to get to Fallout?

Jonah and I started trying to work on [this technology] nine years ago. He came to me after Interstellar, and it was season one of Westworld. He’s like, “I’ve got this idea, I wanted to take a projector and I want you to build a supercomputer so we can use a game engine.” This was before The Mandalorian, and I didn’t know anybody doing this. I had a guy who built a supercomputer, and we couldn’t quite get the render power, we couldn’t quite figure it out. So we put a pin in it.

I worked with Jon Favreau — Jonah knew him personally and I’d worked with him on [the NBC sci-fi series] Revolution — and he invited us to go to The Lion King set and then the Mandalorian world. I thought, “Well, you guys just figured out some of these things,” and then we were able to use it for Westworld season three. But even now and then, how film and technology cohesively comes together into this new thing is really fun and exciting.

What was the collaboration process like on Fallout?

Geneva and Grant were incredible to work with. I go back 14 years now with Jonah, and it’s really great to have that connectivity there. From a vendor perspective, I feel like I lucked out because I was able to go and pick all my favorite vendors. I was more confident as a supervisor to be able to go into it saying, “I know we can nail this because I have these trusted people.”

Rise Visual Effects in Germany did the most things throughout the season: the nukes going off, the Vertibirds, all the hard surfaces. They did a lot of heavy lifting for the environment work: Shady Sands, the Super Duper Mart, Griffith Park at the end. They just kept nailing it throughout the season. I love what ILP does hard surface-wise, and what they do digital human-wise and environment-wise. They did some of those invisible effects, all of the Snip Snip robot and the cyclops, the whole cryo chamber room with Norm at the end of the season and the whole CG environment. Framestore in Montreal did all our creatures. Refuge in Oregon did the roaches and other work in the vaults. CoSA, which I’ve worked with my entire career, did a lot of the set extension work. [We also worked with] One of Us and Mavericks. It was just really a team effort to get all the different people involved and to be able to nail everything.

I like splitting it up so not any one vendor is completely overwhelmed, which really helps to share the load when you have a heavy episode. It helps with the pipeline, with reviews and with being able to stay ahead of creative.

You mentioned that some scenes would have been impossible even five years ago. Do you envision enough new technology to experiment with for season two?

I think there will be, and I don’t necessarily know what that’s going to look like. I’m just excited to embrace it. Jonah has always embraced what you can out of the technology that helps from an old-school filmmaking standpoint. We’re still old-school filmmakers; we still shoot on film. We still want to do things practically when we can and utilize new technology when it’s going to help us. 

There’s definitely an “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” [approach]. If there’s a tool that’s going to help make it better, we’re going to 100 percent use it. There’s a lot of technology out there that is creatively focused but isn’t necessarily VFX-ready. They’re starting to make that crossover. I’m really excited to meet with some of our technology partners in the next few weeks because we’re really digging into it now [and asking], “What can you bring to the table that maybe we haven’t thought of?” Thankfully, I get brought in very early with the creative process.

I don’t know what we’re going to be doing in season two, but I’m looking forward to being able to say yes to some new ideas. 

This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

 

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