Creator-executive producer-writer David Appelbaum


Visual effects supervisor Andy Brown


Chiké Okonkwo and Karina Logue


Rubble in the aftermath of an enormous sinkhole opening in Los Angeles

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November 21, 2021
In The Mix

Vested in the Under-Over

With hundreds of visual effects, NBC's La Brea unearths an ancient underworld in modern L.A.

Ramin Zahed

When David Appelbaum first came up with the idea for La Brea a couple of years ago, he knew a giant sinkhole would play a huge role. “I thought about this image of a sinkhole opening up in the middle of L.A. and realized that it was something that I’d never seen before,” says the writer-producer, who’s also worked on hit shows such as The Mentalist and NCIS: New Orleans.

“It was a dynamic way of beginning the story and it established an epic, visual tone,” he adds. “We meet the characters who fall into this sinkhole and discover this primeval world from 10,000 B.C., and they encounter these creatures that live there.”

The series premiered on NBC September 28 with a large cast of regulars that includes Natalie Zea, Eoin Macken, Jon Seda, Chiké Okonkwo, Zyra Gorecki, Karina Logue and Jack Martin. The original pilot was shot in Vancouver in 2020, but Covid halted production and a new pilot was shot in Australia earlier this year.

La Brea’s first episode was the top-rated premiere among all new fall series, and it has remained a strong performer. Two weeks before the sci-fi drama’s November 30 finale, NBC announced that it had been renewed for a second season.

To help bring this fantastic underworld to life, executive producer Appelbaum and his team relied on Melbourne-based visual effects supervisor Andy Brown and the artists at FuseFX, Mr. X and Fin Design + Effects. With the show shot in Melbourne and regional Victoria, the effects work also included making the backdrops look like familiar L.A. locations, such as the La Brea Tar Pits and the Hollywood Hills. About two-thirds of the show happens in the prehistoric underworld, while the rest takes place in modern-day L.A. as family members of the lost people try to bring them back.

“The first episode required about 240 visual effects shots,” says Brown, the lead VFX supervisor on the show. “So far, our biggest challenge was creating the environment around the sinkhole. We did a LiDAR [3D] scan of the areas around the tar pits and did some digital environmental enhancements to the Melbourne footage. We also had to digitally create seven creatures that live in that world. We did research and looked at the skeletal remains of the animals that lived in L.A. back in 20,000 B.C. We also looked at movies such as San Andreas and 2012, which are similarly themed.”

Appelbaum and Brown won’t reveal which extinct creatures greet the Angelenos in the underground world, because they don’t want to ruin any surprises. Appelbaum does say that as he was dreaming up the show’s details, he realized the visuals would play a big role.

“For me, the visual effects and the spectacle play an important part,” he explains. “But none of it is significant unless it’s tied to the emotions experienced by the main characters. The heart of the show is the story of this family that has been separated because of the sinkhole. What I really want is for the audience to go on this journey with these characters, and the spectacular visual effects of the sinkhole help reinforce their emotional journey.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2021

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