In a desolate region of northern Los Angeles County where the freeways have given way to brush-covered mountains, a television crew for CBS’ new drama series “SEAL Team” was busy putting the final touches on their effort to transform a dusty stretch of land into present-day Afghanistan.
On the edge of a barren outcrop, the crew arranged props on an Army command outpost cluttered with artillery, ammunition and even free weights for a makeshift gym. Crew members applied a brownish liquid solution to wood frames to make the structures appear convincingly weathered.
Farther up a winding dirt road, actor was shooting a separate scene where his elite group of SEALs confronts members of the Pakistani military while driving to a prisoner exchange. After blocking the scene, the cast and crew shot several takes of the tense standoff for an upcoming episode inspired by the Bowe Bergdahl incident, in which a U.S. Army soldier deserts his post and is captured by Taliban forces.
The dry, rocky terrain of rural L.A. County has historically served as a backdrop for Hollywood westerns, but it has now established a second showbiz life as a theater for the war against terror. The like “SEAL Team” is giving blue California an economic lift as studios produce many of these armed forces shows in the L.A. County region, employing hundreds of local technicians and actors.
Other military-themed series that film entirely or partially in the Los Angeles area include the History channel’s “Six,” USA’s “Shooter,” ’s “The Last Ship” and the long-running “NCIS” and “NCIS: Los Angeles” on CBS.
The county’s varied topography is a boon to military-themed dramas that call for sequences set in far-flung parts of the world as well as domestic scenes set in the U.S. Since TV series often film in highly compressed schedules — “SEAL Team” shoots each episode in eight days, with a week of preparation — the close proximity of so many diverse locations becomes a logistical advantage.
“SEAL Team” has used the Pomona area to stand in for South Sudan, for an episode in which SEALs are sent to rescue civilians in a city under siege. It has also used San Pedro to stand in for the Philippines and Soledad Canyon near Acton as Paraguay.
“We want to shoot it as realistically as we can and you can’t fake that many landscapes,” said Christopher Chulack, an executive producer on “SEAL Team.” “Here in California, you have oceans and the desert, and it’s the variances of the landscape that is conducive to transporting the audience to foreign lands.”
“SEAL Team” reached 9.9 million viewers in its premiere on Sept. 27, giving CBS the most watched show in the Wednesday 9 p.m. slot. The series was picked up for a full season last month. The pilot episode was shot in New Orleans but producers relocated the series to L.A. County for the rest of the season.
The series applied for California’s tax incentives for film and TV projects but was not chosen in the most recent application round, according to Chulack. He said the show directly employs about 200 people, not including vendors and other contractors. Each episode costs about $4 million to produce, which is average for an hourlong network drama series.
The series schedules multiple scenes at each location to minimize transportation costs.
“We’re always trying to find locations where we can shoot as much as possible,” said Stuart Blatt, the series’ production designer.
Among the major economic beneficiaries of the surge in military dramas are Southern California’s movie ranches, which rent out their acres of space to movies, TV and commercial shoots. Blue Cloud, which features 250 acres of parched landscape in Santa Clarita, offers standing Middle Eastern sets and war props including a fleet of military vehicles.
“SEAL Team” used Blue Cloud to represent Syria in the series’ second episode where the team investigates the use of biological weapons. “American Sniper,” the Clint Eastwood film about the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, at the ranch in 2014. More recently, the CBS series “Scorpion,” about a high-tech team of crime fighters, shot exterior scenes at the ranch.
The ranch recently constructed a forward operating base (FOB) set that can be used for war scenes. “There’s isn’t a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan that comes to the ranch that doesn’t mention, often with a bit of a shudder, how both our FOB and our town bring them back,” said Dylan Lewis, the owner of Blue Cloud.
Other economic beneficiaries are pyrotechnic specialists. “SEAL Team” and other shows frequently require pyrotechnic expertise to safely simulate the violence of battle in exterior scenes. “One of the things Hollywood is willing to spend money on is safety,” said J.D. Streett, a visual effects coordinator who specializes in on-screen pyrotechnics.
The companies that manufacture explosives for film and TV productions are all located in California. Series that shoot in the L.A. County area can usually procure explosives on short notice, which is an advantage in the fast-moving world of TV production.
“If they need it tomorrow, they will order it tomorrow. They can send a driver over to pick it up,” said Thaine Morris, who owns Roger George Rentals in Van Nuys and MP Associates in Ione, both of which supply Hollywood pyrotechnics.
Despite its geographic and logistical advantages, California has lost some high-profile military dramas to other states.
NBC’s “The Brave,” which is also in its first season, shoots in New Mexico. The drama series follows a special forces team that travels the globe to eliminate threats to American interests. CW’s freshman series “Valor” shoots in Georgia.
The movie “Thank You for Your Service,” which Universal Pictures recently released in cinemas, also filmed primarily in Georgia.
Both Georgia and New Mexico offer tax incentives to Hollywood productions. The states have built up infrastructure and local crews, drawing TV and movie shoots away from California, where it is more expensive to shoot due in part to the higher cost of living.
But California still offers a distinct advantage with its large number of military bases and facilities, many of which accommodate film and TV shoots, according to Amy Lemisch, executive director of the California Film Commission.
Edwards Air Force Base has served as a backdrop for military scenes in the “Transformers” and “Iron Man” movies. The state also has decommissioned Navy ships that allow filming, like the battleship Iowa in San Pedro, which has hosted “The Last Ship” and “NCIS: L.A.”
California remains the easiest state to shoot in because the on-location permitting process is streamlined and well established, according to Curtis Collins, a location manager on “SEAL Team.”
“Filming has been entrenched here for years. In different areas of Georgia, you have to walk them through the process,” said Collins.
The biggest advantage of shooting shows locally is the easy commute, according to Ross C. Day, another location manager on “SEAL Team.”
“We get to go home at night,” he said.