The Last of Us is one of the best television series of the year, and its cinematography ranks very high among some of the most visually stunning television you’ll ever see. The opening episode’s tracking shot is still the best thing I’ve seen on TV all year. From that moment, I immediately knew that the show would be something special, and it was for eight thrilling episodes.
I recently had the chance to discuss this scene, and way more, with cinematographer Ksenia Sereda, who worked on the first, second, and seventh episodes. We discussed her personal relationship with the game, working with showrunners Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin, using color as a way to signal certain character elements, and how the camera can exacerbate on-screen claustrophobia.
Read the full conversation below:
How familiar were you with Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us before you joined the project?
I had the chance to play the game maybe four years ago. I was not very experienced with video games because I never had the opportunity to play a lot, and I had a broad understanding of the industry in general. I didn’t expect that I would ever play the game. But when I played it, I was enamored at how beautiful it was, and the story was also very interesting and had characters you wanted to follow until the very end. That was something I didn’t know that could happen to you when you’re playing a video game, and it’s part of what makes The Last of Us special and different from any other game.
Did you look at the video game for visual inspiration, or did you want to distance yourself from it to create the show’s visual style?
Of course, I looked at the game and went through the sequences but never tried to copy them or to get a shot-for-shot inspiration. But we were shooting scenes similar to the game because the Naughty Dog team was into details. The game has a strong visual connection to the story. It builds its visual language. That was the same with the show, and Naughty Dog also wanted to preserve certain scenes or elements from the game. Many scenes include the camera movements from the game. For example, in the car escape sequence with Sarah [Nico Parker], you could experience it from Sarah’s perspective in the game. You can choose where you’re looking, but you’re also staying with Sarah and seeing everything from her perspective. In the show, we wanted to preserve that idea from the sequence while giving it a cinematic update.
The first episode of the show is the one that creates the tone and atmosphere that the rest of the series will have. Can you talk about your initial conversations with showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmannn in crafting that specific atmosphere for the pilot?
They are amazing. That’s what I want to say [laughs]. But to expand on that, they are talented, incredibly smart, and have excellent taste. Another really important thing they had was a massive love for the material. It was an outstanding experience to work with people who were deeply in love with every detail of the game and translate that love to show. It was also a collaborative experience because they give you strong guidance and the freedom to bring ideas to be in the conversation, and that’s not always the case. We were like a family in this show because everyone loved the material and wanted to do their best. It was an incredible collaboration.
You briefly mentioned the car scene in episode one. How was the one take conceived? Can you talk about the process of shooting a sequence like this?
Of course! In any production, when you have a very elaborate scene like this one, you must have a lot of prep time and be very thoughtful about how to stage it. A scene like this required a lot of layers, and that started with the storyboarding process. The script clarified our main points and how that scene will form Joel’s [Pedro Pascal] emotional experience. You get the sense of this scene’s most important element. By reading the script, you build the staging through the storyboards and find the location where you will stage the sequence. Once we found the location where we started to build separate stunt rehearsals. They were not on location, but we figured out how to find the right camera motion to secure everything before you start to rehearse with the actors. That was a pretty ambitious sequence, and we put in a lot of time and energy to make it because everyone was so passionate about it. For me, it was the biggest thing I’ve ever done for this show, and it was very exciting and challenging at the same time.
Were there any other specific challenges that arose in shooting some of the bigger action set pieces you worked on?
There were a lot of challenges, but in a good way because the crew was so amazing and professional. Even though the goals were very high and quite complicated, you felt nothing was impossible with the crew. It was very nice how you could figure out everything layer by layer.
Joel, Ellie [Bella Ramsey], and Tess [Anna Torv] cut through a history museum filled with clickers in episode two. What is your approach in representing a claustrophobic feel through a location that is filled with infected? How can the camera exacerbate or amplify the tension on-screen?
The museum gave us the opportunity to establish the clicker as a creature for people who did not play the game. Of course, if you have played the game, you immediately recognize the sound without seeing them. It was very interesting to see how they built the reveal. And for people who didn’t play the game, we wanted to build up the tension while we were hiding something. We only see shadows receding in the background When we meet them. When we reveal the clicker for the first time, it had to be face-to-face with Joel. Another important element about The Last of Us is that there isn’t a lot of electricity in this universe anymore. You have to use your flashlight as a tool. It’s not just not only a tool for the characters to see something but also for us filmmakers. It’s a great opportunity to use the flashlight to guide your attention and to create a darker ambiance inside the space. It provides an opportunity to bring the viewer’s attention to a certain point in the frame.
Was there a contrast that you wanted to establish between shooting the outdoor scenes and scenes set inside poorly lit and dark locations?
Yes. The interior scenes were built to create the feeling that the light is swimming from the outside in. We light the scenes through the cracks in the walls, ceilings, or even boarded-up windows, and you can always feel like it’s a bit dimmed down, so it’s a bit darker. Because of that, we wanted to create this natural feeling of the light streaming in from the outside, which feels more realistic when you have scenes outdoors.
In terms of light and color, that plays a very important role in the seventh episode. How did you want to use, color not only for this episode in particular but for all the episodes you’ve worked on to convey certain elements of the characters throughout the show?
In The Last of Us, you can see nature taking over throughout the show, and the game, which is why you see a lot of greenery. You can see nature taking over the industrial civilization. There’s a lot of green in many buildings. Many textures are motivated by preserving what used to be 2003. The visual look leans more to the natural side, color-wise, and the colors are warmer, dustier, and mossier for the outdoor scenes and the overall settings of the show. Conversely, the mall was a great opportunity to create something completely different. It was like a teenage fairy tale with the arcades, where we used pink. I was very excited about that because it was the first time we can introduce colors we never used in the show.
Is there a specific sequence or moment you’ve shot for the show you’re the proudest of working on?
I actually don’t know. I would say it’s the show in general [laughs]. I love this show. It’s always hard because I feel very shy to personally see any good things about my work. I can see the crew I’ve worked with are the most incredible people out there. And working together with exchanging experiences and building this whole universe was one of my life’s best experiences. I am so passionate about the show. I love the characters. When the season came out, I was a little sad. Even though you were a part of the process, viewing it as an audience member made me love it even more. It’s amazing.
All episodes of The Last of Us are now streaming on Max.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]