As character-driven as The Last of Us is, the show boasts incredible visual effects to build its post-apocalyptic world. There was a lot of thought and effort into crafting the world of the show that feels lived-in and grounded in reality while also respecting Naughty Dog’s original video game.
Awards Radar recently had the chance to discuss with Visual Effects Supervisor Alex Wang to reveal how the world of The Last of Us was crafted. We talked about his connection with the game, how he collaborated hand-in-hand with the makeup and prosthetics department to create some of the infected, and production designer John Paino on creating the borders of visual effects while discussing key VFX-heavy setpieces.
Read the full conversation below:
What was your personal relationship with the video game? How familiar were you with the world of The Last of Us before you joined the show?
I was very familiar. I was a huge fan of the game when it came out in 2013. I wouldn’t call myself a serious gamer. I pick and choose the games that I play. I would often start a game, but I would not finish it. But when The Last of Us came around, it was probably one of the few games I played from start to finish. I wanted more after the game was done. I remember finishing the game and sitting there, like, “What did I just play? What just happened?” On every level, it was a very emotional experience.
Yeah, same here. I don’t play a lot of video games, and I rarely finish them. But I’ve actually beaten The Last of Us Parts One and Two games.
So how big of a responsibility was it to step into the world of The Last of Us when you initially joined the show?
Huge. As a fan of the game when it came out in 2013, I think everyone’s expectations were already like, “Oh, this story has to be made into a movie or a TV series.” This kept happening for ten years. As a fan, before I even joined the show, that was what I wanted. I was excited when I heard HBO was going to pick it up. And I got excited when Craig Mazin announced he will work with Neil Druckmann to make this happen. Everything was aligned for it to be a hyped-up TV series. For the visual effects, I think the expectations were high on every single level, whether prosthetics to makeup or set decoration to production design. The bar was set quite high when we came into this show.
Can you discuss your collaboration with showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann on the show? Did they have a specific vision of how the visual effects should look like?
Yeah, definitely. Watching Craig’s show, Chernobyl, before The Last of Us helped me understand how Craig utilizes visual effects for storytelling. I have done this for 20 years, and the way he focuses on visual effects for storytelling is the type that I like. It’s there to support the story purely. His shows are always character-based, so the visual effects surround everything within the show and support the character development and storytelling. I loved the grounded nature of his aesthetics and sensibility for the visuals of the TV series. When I came into this show, the challenge is to craft visual effects for a post-apocalyptic world. That’s hard to pull references from, but we still wanted it to be as grounded, realistic, and authentic as possible.
How do you think adding visual effects to a show like this can enhance or elevate the sensation of terror and claustrophobia on-screen?
I think it’s everything. Because visual effects can help with scope, especially in an episode like episode two, where we’re really trying to showcase the world of The Last of Us, the devastation, and the overground nature of the world. I think that will be hard to do without visual effects. I think showing that scope really helps the audience buy into that world.
Was there some collaboration between the visual effects department and production designer John Paino in how he wanted the sets to accompany the visual effects?
Absolutely. We worked hand-in-hand from day one. It was important for me to understand the style that production designer John Paino was after. I think it’s really important for us to be seamless. It’s successful if you don’t know where the practical ends and where visual effects begin. That was always our main goal. The production design department had to see eye to eye with the visual effects department to make it seamless and should never be distracting because everything should always be based on the characters.
When designing the outdoor scenes, when Ellie [Bella Ramsey], Joel [Pedro Pascal], and Tess [Anna Torv] explored the outdoor environments, how much of them were practical and visual effects?
A lot of it was. I always explained to the production designer that there would be some limitations, not just with time but also through manpower. They would always ask me what was the most important for me, and I always say the foreground, where actors can be immersed in that space. Everything else, from the midground to the background, is all visual effects. I’m glad you’re asking that question because that means it’s working [laughs].
Of course! Can you talk a bit about the process of designing invisible effects? How does that work out on a show like this?
There are multiple ways that we accomplished that in The Last of Us. One of them was, rather than having just pure blue screen, which we did on certain scenes, I also wanted to find a location within the city where we could shoot and utilize the surroundings, even though we ended up changing many of them around us. It gave us a really strong base to build. I always feel like having some form of reference or some base to work with for visual effects is always a really good step to success.
Were there any overall challenges that went into designing the world of The Last of Us?
The biggest challenge was looking at the game and respecting the source material. With the game, I always felt, at least when I was playing, how beautiful this post-apocalyptic world was and that it was constantly very sad. Of course, it wasn’t always sad. There were moments Ellie and Joel were happy as they built their relationship. That’s something we wanted to emphasize in the TV series as well. In making the visual effects and environments as grounded as possible, we went through a lot of research as to what happens when the world is left for 20 years, what elements overgrow, and what would be the first things to crumble in by itself, whether it’s the plumbing, the pipes of a building and whatnot. We took that extra care and attention to detail to ensure things felt realistic and authentic.
For the infected, how much of it was practical and visual effects?
I think it really depends on the scenes. Working with prosthetics designer Barrie Gower, their work was always top-notch. I would say that many of the intimate scenes were a seamless blend between prosthetics and visual effects. My goal was to ensure that the bar was set high because the bar for the practical infected was set so high that the digitally infected creatures had to be seamless.
Regarding the scene in episode five where all the infected attack simultaneously, can you talk about crafting that scene?
Absolutely. A lot of planning went into the scene. The point of that scene was to make it feel chaotic, and there’s no planning when you’re in the middle of chaos. You’re dropped into that cul de sac and are basically surprised at what awaits you. The planning started months before we shot the scene, probably six or seven months before. We had episode five’s cul-de-sac circled in our calendar because we knew that would be a big investment for visual effects. We really needed to understand visual effects and what had to be practical. For it to feel seamless, we really needed to plan ahead. Once we had some of the wider shots, within the chaos, the visual effects crew seamlessly added more digital infected into the practical infected crowd, especially when pouring out of the hole. Much of that was digital, just because we couldn’t physically get that safely or we wouldn’t have the numbers to accomplish that shot. A lot of that was visual effects done by WETA FX, based on a lot of the scans, the detail scans, and models we got from Barrie Gower’s team.à
Can you also talk about the process of designing the bloater in episode five?
The funny thing about the bloater is that a lot of the design that went into it was crafted with the mindset that we wanted to try to capture some, if not all, of it practically. Once Barrie Gower built this amazing prosthetic suit and we saw the shots, it felt like the bloater needed to feel a little more aggressive and faster. We also didn’t want to convey the feeling that someone is wearing a suit to the audience. Because of this, the bloater ended up being fully digital. We also took some artistic licenses in redesigning the bloater with a bit more cavity within the head to pay homage to the game bloaters. We also wanted to ensure we got the sign from Naughty Dog to ensure we weren’t steering too far away from their initial designs and Barrie Gower’s prosthetic designs. We created this hybrid of the best of both worlds in our digital bloater to make it grounded in the story.
Apart from this scene in episode five, how extensive was the planning and prep process for other visual effects-heavy scenes from the show?
The interesting thing about The Last of Us that I loved was that every episode was different, through our journey with Joel and Ellie, because they were going across America. Because of this, a lot of prep and planning had to be done for visual effects within each episode. Because in one episode, they’re in Boston, and then in Kansas, and so on and so forth. Craig also wanted a sense of change, so our visual effects couldn’t be reused. From a visual effects standpoint, it was very bespoke between each episode to make sure that the qualities felt special and different within each episode.
And is there any visual effect you’ve worked on the show you’re the proudest of?
So many. [laughs] The cul de sac was really special. I’m proud of how that came about. Many people wondered if there were any visual effects in that scene, and there definitely was a lot. I was also proud of episode two because we had the fun challenge of defining the world of The Last of Us, taking the concept from the game, and making it into this new medium that we have for the audience to believe in the world. I think that was really special. And, of course, the giraffe. The great thing about this show is that the challenges were so broad, from the environments to creatures like the bloater and the infected, and then we had to create photorealistic creatures like the giraffe and the deer. We shot the giraffe at the Calgary Zoo and had some shots of the real giraffe. We then scanned digitally so we could seamlessly blend between performances of the digital giraffe and the real giraffe. There’s a wide scope of different things. We had over 3000 visual effects shots across the season. That’s a high number, so it’s hard to say what I’m most proud of. But it would be those three if I had to pick three things.
All episodes of The Last of Us are currently available to stream on Max.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]