The Last of Us was one of the most-anticipated projects of 2023. The video game it was based on was one of the most revered contemporary games in the past decade, and its sequel was also just as well-received, even amidst the polarizing reception from fans. An adaptation was inevitable, and the HBO series based on the game knocked it out of the park. It was ultra-faithful to the source material, expanded upon some aspects of the game, and delivered a much richer show.
Designing sets for a video game adaptation proved challenging for production designer John Paino, who had to not only stay faithful to the source material but develop some aspects for a cinematic feel:
“I feel we were faithful to the game. The atmospheric, cinematic feel of the game appealed to me and everybody involved in the production, and we were very faithful to that. In the game, we are following the path of Joel [Pedro Pascal] and Ellie [Bella Ramsey] from their points of view. However, in the show, we are practically making the game’s world for several camera positions that give the characters an external point of view. But for the atmosphere, we were very faithful to that. For the South Boston QZ, it feels much more realistic than the game because it has to be made, and feels like it’s been abandoned for about twenty years.”
Paino explained that he had a small personal connection to the game, stating that he was “very much aware of the concept art because it’s so cinematic and beautiful. I was enamored with it as soon as I saw the concept art because it’s the kind of art that would do for major motion pictures. In that respect, we tried to stay faithful to the game and give it that gravitas.”
The most extensive prep time for a set on this series was the Quarantine Zone, with Paino explaining that they were “establishing the whole world and the characters. We had a lot of time for the first two episodes to realize the QZ, which was completely built. After that, prep time fell into your typical TV schedule, where we try to keep up with things. We had a Bible for the show that [showrunners] Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin had made for the show. We had an idea of where everything was going, we had the game, but sometimes we were waiting on the scripts, which had specific things on them. Sometimes we couldn’t do anything until we had them, but that did not happen often. We had a good amount of prep time initially, but after this, we had to complete subsequent episodes in a tight schedule.”
On shooting the show in Alberta, Paino explained that it was a good location for “a particular block of when Joe and Ellie get out of the east coast and go in the middle of America.” and in building Tommy’s (Gabriel Luna) village where “some of the great towers in Alberta, outside of Calgary, really helped. Canada was a great stand-in for parts of Jackson, Wyoming, because it has the quintessential shot where you’re looking down the main street and seeing the Rockies. It also resembled the rustic touristy town to some degree of Jackson. We could change facades and put the wall up because it had the right environment around it, with the snow in the background.”
Building the mall in episode seven was “challenging, but in a fun way, because we have all been in malls. It was great to make an arcade. We were lucky to get a completely empty model with nothing in it. We brought all the desiccation in the stores, and the arcade was built into the mall. It was challenging. We knew the mall would be a big centerpiece and spent quite a bit of time building it, at least a month and a half. We had to figure out where we would place the stores in the mall and what we could do with the water leaking in and all the dirt and everything. We had a good amount of time because it was abandoned. And it’s an important episode for the show, so we had to spend much time on it.”
Aside from the video game that acted as the primary source material, “our big reference was to look at the concept art for Naughty Dog and our references that we had developed through books and spreadsheets of textures and references that we’ve gone over with Neil and looked at what Naughty Dog had used. Chernobyl was another reference we looked at, because we saw that world taken over by vegetation. After the disaster, cities around it were abandoned, growth took over, and vines were broken through windows. We had to recreate scenes in the game because of the scripts. Because we have real actors and open positions, with the practicality of effects and locations, we had to adapt our sets to the reality of shooting a major production like this one.”
All episodes of The Last of Us are now available to stream on HBO Max.
[Some quotes were edited for length and clarity]