The Last of Us is the latest video game adaptation from HBO streaming Max and starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey after a global pandemic destroys civilization. With a large fan base for the game, the show became an instant hit with weekly event-style episode releases. One of the most successful components of both the game and the series adaptation is the immersive quality of the sound design that brings you straight into a world where modern civilization has disappeared from the destruction of the Cordyceps fungus.
Re-recording mixers Marc Fishman and Kevin Roache speak to crafting the auditory world of The Last of Us both inside and outside of the quarantine zone and the different approaches they took in each space. They also detail the process of recording the iconic sound of the ‘clickers’ that is integral to the storytelling of the series.
Read my full conversation with re-recording mixers Marc Fishman and Kevin Roache below.
Hi, this is Danny Jarabek here with Awards Radar, and I am very excited to be speaking with Marc Fishman and Kevin Roache, re-recording mixers for HBO’s hit series The Last of Us. How are you guys doing today? Thank you do much for taking the time to chat with me and join me for this call today.
Marc: Great, thank you.
Kevin: Doing great. Thanks for having us.
Yeah! So, of course, you are involved with the sound behind the scenes of The Last of Us, which is such a huge part of this show and a huge part of the experience of the show. But first, before we get into that I have to ask, have either of you played the game that the show is adapted from?
Marc: I have. Kevin has not.
Kevin: I have not. Nope.
Was it something that you had played before signing up for this?
Marc: I played the game out, yeah. Yeah. I’m a bit of a gamer, so yes, I’d played it a long time ago.
Cool. So, I’m curious now – and we can get two different perspectives on this from someone who had played it before and someone who hasn’t. But yeah, I’m curious to know, going into it, what was the research process with knowing that this was being adapted from a very popular video game? How did you approach knowing that there was a sound landscape associated with that material? Was it something you looked into? Was it something you were sampling?
Marc: Yeah. It’s interesting. So, I played the game when it came out, I think in 2013, and it was very interesting. We had seen a good portion of episodes before we started working. It was an interesting thing. It just felt like the game to me, and I didn’t remember specifics. And then I went back and I rewatched somebody playing the game. I went back and watched a walkthrough, and I stopped about an hour in and I’m like, boy, this gets so different. Maybe two hours in. It changes so much, but what struck me was just how much it was about the feel of the story. So, I didn’t feel like I needed to keep going back and watching that because I realized that it was going to be its own thing. So, it didn’t necessarily shape any way that I thought about the project in terms of mixing, but it was really interesting to see just how much it had captured the spirit of the game with all the different plot changes and character changes and that stuff.
Kevin, from your perspective, how did you approach having not had the experience of the game?
Kevin: Basically, I was there to watch through, and I could be the person without the prior experience of knowing what something is and why it makes sense to the story. I could ask questions like, “Is this relevant? Is this not relevant?” You know. Maybe if I was confused or something seemed out of place, I could always turn to Marc and say, “Is this something that I should focus on? Is this not something I should focus on?” And he, luckily, always had the answer. But it was great to have those two perspectives because the audience was definitely going to be a mix of people who were familiar with the source material and people who weren’t. So, Marc would know, for instance, in the finale, he understood about – I don’t know if you’re familiar with the game or exactly how familiar you are with it – the ladders falling in the warehouse was really a big thing in the game, and it was really important that the gamers would get a big kick out of it. So, that was something we were sure to emphasize. But I wouldn’t have known that living in my bubble. Marc was there to guide me.
Yeah. So, of course, collaborating with Neil [Druckmann] (creator/writer) and Craig [Mazin] (creator/writer), what were some of the early conversations you had as far as what was the tone, what was the approach going to be for you on the sound end of things and how that was going to influence the experience of the show?
Marc: Well, we had, I think, one fairly short meeting with Craig really before work started in earnest just so he could meet us face to face. He just said, “I’m all about sound. I’m going to focus on every little detail.” He didn’t have marching orders and it got to us starting to go through episodes and be able to play back and then get feedback from him. It took us, I don’t know, Kevin, maybe halfway through – maybe as we started our third episode – we kind of finally started to understand exactly what that meant. He’s very much a detail-oriented person. He has thought about everything, and he will have a conversation with you about anything and everything. He is always about finding the right solution. It doesn’t have to be his solution. So, it is very much working with a writer about spit balling ideas and talking about that, but also, somebody that has already gone through this in their own mind and understanding that. Really challenging, but in the most satisfying and collaborative way. Yeah. He got you into his process very quickly.
Kevin: Reality was the most important thing to Craig. The idea is, what if this were to really happen. What if this fungal pandemic were to actually take over the planet. What would the environments be like, what would things really sound like, if we could closely approximate that or guess. If anything ever seemed too Hollywood or too big, that was the wrong direction. Craig would reign us back in. Sometimes we would go in that direction for dramatic effect, but it would just be too much. That’s not what this show is. This is, let’s make this as brutally real as possible so that while people are at home watching, there’s never a moment where they think, “Oh, this wouldn’t happen. This wouldn’t be real.” It was always, “Yeah. Okay. I’m there. I can conceivably think this might happen.” And if we were to play things up too big or in a not real way, it would just take the audience out, so we would change that and make it as realistic as possible.
That’s actually something I wanted to ask about, too, because even from the opening sequence of Episode 1, we’re sort of placed in this world where we’re led to believe that what is happening could really happen. It’s related to climate change and all of these aspects that we can feel in our own world. So, that, I feel like, sets the tone for the show right from the get-go. So, how did that filter into how you went about your process? Were you looking at things like actual fungal soundscapes? What was your process of building a reality?
Kevin: Go ahead, Marc.
Marc: You brought up, Danny, the first scene. I’ll let Kevin get into more of the specifics about realism versus sensationalism in sound design and stuff. But when we talk about setting things up dramatically, you’re talking about that first scene. Right? So, my initial idea and pass of doing the prologue, it was a period piece. Right? It was the 60s, and I wanted to make it kind of flat and not do perspectives with the dialogue because we couldn’t make it sound like it was coming out of a TV thing, but I wanted to make it of the time, and that was not what Craig wanted at all. Craig was like, “No, every cut, I want the perspective, I want the dialogue to go down. I want you to kind of be in the audience.” And it’s such a subliminal thing just in terms of dialogue mixing, but every perspective is hit, and every character is just a little lower on this thing. And when we cut to the big two TV cameras, Kevin has these great sounds and all this perspective. But it’s all those kind of things that he got us into thinking about how to tell the story with sound in ways that were not traditional. And I just think it carries through all nine episodes. There were discussions literally about almost every one of those things in every scene. Kevin, go ahead.
Kevin: Yeah, no, just to further what Marc said. Even if you look at the beginning of Episode 2, it’s the first emergence of the Cordyceps and it’s in Indonesia, in Jakarta. We go into a laboratory where there is, I suppose, a victim of a Cordyceps attack. And it’s our first time looking at some of the Cordyceps that are infecting a person on a lab table who’s now deceased. And a few things happen. This was our first foray into this world. I believe it was the first episode we actually mixed. And our first approach was to make things seem, perhaps, a little sci-fi. There was a door that closes and there was an air lock, but our first approach at the door was just to make this giant, massive, sci-fi-sounding door. And our first approach with the Cordyceps was to make them sound really wormy and slimy and big and gross. And Craig pulled it back. He had us bring it back to this more realistic approach because, you know, as soon as you start to get into this place of sounds in a way that wouldn’t really happen, then the audience can disconnect from it and it’s less terrifying. It takes away that effect from that first scene Marc’s talking about where we are like, “Yeah. Climate change could make this kind of pandemic happen,” when you start to play things in an unrealistic way. So, we very quickly learned that and that became the approach for the rest of the season.
One of the things mentioned is, of course, this opening sequence that is only just part of the first episode, where it is kind of period, as you mentioned. So, you have that and then you have the QZ sequences and scenes and episodes, and then you have outside the QZ. How did you approach the soundscape for each of these different locations relative to each other?
Marc: Well, I know from a dialogue standpoint, the QZ section is one of the few places where we have a lot of people. So, it was one of the places where Craig was very specific about how this was always there. We come to Joel and he’s watching the people being tried for their supposed transgressions in the public square. So, the idea was the place, to always keep that alive, and it was always oppressive. Right? That was a word we talked about and used, and we could do that with all the voices and all the other people. Again, you think about all these things, and you think about that they seem really obvious when you’re mixing a show or when you watch a show that’s been mixed, you think it’s really obvious, but that setup and having Craig have us push some of those voices and push some of those sounds and have us push the off-camera tanks that we hear, the off-camera Jeeps, it all sets up the thing for when there is none of that later. Right? When you work with somebody like Craig Mazin who is really such an amazing writer, you realize that none of this happens by accident. Even though Kevin and I have done this for a long time, you don’t always realize it, but then you go like, oh yeah, that’s what works to inform something down the road. And I think that’s one of the biggest things that I’m proud of with this thing is everything has a purpose and a reason why it was done. Maybe it’s not always obvious in the sound in the moment, but it all pays off. And I think it’s why people connect to the show. The show is so human that people relate to it regardless of if they think that the fungal outbreak is interesting or it’s fantasy or sci-fi or any of that. And I think part of that is Craig’s direction with the sound.
Kevin: Yeah. And to expand upon that a little bit, again, Craig bringing us back down to reality. In that first episode that you’re speaking of, we’re in Austin, Texas, at the turn of the century. And it’s just generally played pretty normal: birds, dogs, traffic. Things like that, which then creates, as Marc says, the difference, the change, when we go into the future and all of these things are missing. I will say that when we get into the quarantine zone, one thing that sound effects people might think of in a rough place in the future run by the military, we would build a space with dog barks and helicopters, perhaps. And we did this originally, and Craig was like, “Why would they be running helicopters all night long above these people inside of this quarantine zone? What would be the reason for that?” And there was no good reason for it. It was something that we did to make texture, and we had all of our good reasons, but ultimately, at the end of the day, there was no story point for it. They would just be wasting gas by doing this 24 hours a day. So, we ended up pulling those things out, which brought us back, again, to that world of “could this really happen,” because you have to do everything for a reason, and Craig’s mind is always so focused on that, which was really wonderful.
You touched on something that I’m really curious [about] and glad that you alluded to. That is, of course, they would be wasting gas, what you said there. I’m curious to know more about if there were a lot of those decisions made in the mixing process where you actually had to put yourself kind of in this world and really say, “Why would people be doing this? What resources would they not have available?” that would actually change and alter what sounds are coming from the background, foreground, you name it. Was there anything else like that where you really had to kind of put yourself in this world and think what sounds might be available or not be available?
Kevin: I think the answer to that is “yes.” I have to think about it for a quick minute. Does anything jump to your mind, Marc?
Marc: Yeah. I mean, I think all the detail was really interesting. We talk about “Left Behind,” which is Episode 7, I believe. And we talk about the mall, right? We talk about Ellie and Riley walking through the mall. We had long conversations about the footsteps. Craig would be like, “Well, you know what, there should be a bunch of glass because a bunch of people looted at the mall.” And it was things that you wouldn’t normally think about. There were conversations all the time about those kind of details, and it wasn’t just because it was an abandoned mall, it was “why would there be glass on the ground,” because people looted the stores or were trying to break into this store and not that. So, it’s a joy not to just have something thrown up and you just throw a sound to it, because we’re used to throwing sound to it. There were discussions almost all the time about most of those types of things, yes.
Kevin: I have nothing further to add right now.
Okay! Yeah. So, of course, we’re outside the QZ. Probably the most iconic sound of the show is the clickers and the infected. So, what was the process of building that sound, knowing that it was the iconic sound/image from the game, it’s going to be the thing that sticks in most people’s heads coming out of watching the show. So, what was the process behind the clickers?
Kevin: I think there was a lot of trial and error. At first, there was an approach, I think, to go at it on our own. When you speak with Michael Benavente, the sound supervisor, he will be able to give you a more detailed answer about this process. It eventually came back around to going with what works, which was finding the actors from the game who had perfected this kind of performance of creating the sound and recording them and getting them to do what they did in the games so that we could have it and it would work in this situation. However, they were guided very closely by Craig because every moment was really specifically crafted story-wise, and every utterance of every clicker meant something in terms of their intention and what they were going for in either attacking or their curiosity with our characters. Yeah.
Marc: And, I think, Kevin, one of the things that was really unique about that is besides the basis of the performance that they did on the ADR stage, one of the things that was unique about this show was Christopher Hume did the sound design for the clickers, was kind of in charge of wrangling that part of the sound design for the show. And one of the things that was unique about this is Craig wanted to work with it on the mixing stage with Chris and with Kevin and just say, “Let’s put up every sound. Let’s go through every little thing.” And a lot of times, they’ll let the mixers go through that, but it was so performance specific that, I mean, Kevin can tell you, has spent hours with just the three of them just going through that, and with Michael Benavente, and going through and shaping it and talking literally about, “They’re making the sound because of this emotion.” And that’s something that you usually don’t have the time to do, and time was a real luxury on the show. But also, it was really unique to that, and, again, just speaks to how we were able to handcraft all those things. There really was not a second of sound that went by that somebody didn’t think a lot or a great deal about.
Yeah. That’s really cool to hear. And that’s something that I think comes through in the show that you might not even think about, too. The clickers, they’re humans first, and I think that shows through in the sound. It’s not just a universal sort of zombie. And that’s what the show is all about, that it’s a deeper level of experience. And I think that comes through in the sound as well. I’d also want to ask, obviously you’re building a ton of sound from scratch, incorporating from different assets, but how do you incorporate and build in from different sound that’s coming in from different places? So, how do you relate to the music that’s coming in through the show? How do you relate with any sound that’s coming through maybe on set that you’re capturing versus building yourselves?
Marc: Well, I’d had discussions before we started mixing, specifically about the music. One of the interesting things about this was because they got Gustavo [Santaolalla] involved, who composed the games, a lot of the music in the series started with the recordings they did in 2013. And they were very smart when they did it in 2013 and they archived and did these really great orchestral sessions and had everything split out. So, they gave me a lot of separation. They didn’t just say, “Here’s a 5.1 mixdown of the score, and do it.” So, I’d had discussions with the music departments at Sony and with some of the people at Naughty Dog that were involved about how that was going to be presented to us. And it was decided we would have a lot of flexibility. And we needed it because there would be a lot of places where we’d want an instrument, or we’d want to keep the music up against the dialogue. In terms of the other parts of it, it just kind of came together. There was not a ton of ADR on the show, but the dialogue, I always had the boom and the lav mics presented to me, so I always had choices. And that’s become something that’s become a lot more common in the last couple of years. It used to be they would usually only give you the boom mic or they’d only give you the lav. I always had a choice of how to make those things work. And then Kevin can talk about getting sound editorial to get it to him in a place that he felt it would be mixable and handleable and all that stuff.
Kevin: Yeah. We had a very large team. We had four, sometimes five sound effects editors on a certain episode. And on top of that, we also had the fantastic Foley team, led by Randy Wilson. And the challenge in that situation then becomes you have five to six different sonic styles and approaches in addition to then working with Marc and getting the style of the recordings and production, all of those things to meld down into one big piece. So, it’s about looking at everything as it comes in and keeping everything as organized as possible because these would be really, really wide Pro Tools sessions. Taking a look and seeing who was responsible for what and making sure everything is covered and sounds like one piece and one intention.
Another thing that I think was really valuable to the experience of this show was … of course, we talked about how there’s a lot of background, there’s a lot more people in the QZ versus when we get outside of the QZ. And one thing that really stood out to me in a lot of the episodes in the latter half of the season is the use of silence amidst the space of what is this really nuanced level of sound coming from this world. So, how did you balance when you knew you wanted to just let the story breathe in silence, which is kind of antithetical to what you do as sound mixers.
Kevin: Well, I think it’s really about focusing on what is the scene about. Where are we with the characters? Where are they in the arc of the season and what is this moment really about? And I will say that I think sometimes, yes, like you say, you might be thinking, “Okay. How am I going to make this scene between these two people, at least from a sound effects perspective, as interesting sonically as possible,” when really, your job is to not get in the way. You’re supposed to let these two characters have this moment and tell the story. So, a lot of the times, we’re in these locations where there aren’t a lot of people, there aren’t a lot of things around, and the idea is to simply let these great actors and let Marc do his work and play some great dialogue and let that be it.
Marc: There are scenes where, yes, it’s just Ellie outside when she gets water for the horse. She’s outside, she hears the birds flap away, but it’s also in those moments of Kevin just trying to find a tree branch thing or a wind gust. It’s about just trying to find all those little details and just taking the time. There were many, many times where we’d go through a scene and then we’d go back and Kevin would have to, like, you know, “It’s playing a little dry because there’s nothing going on, so can we find one thing?” And in these shows it’s so hard because there’s no technology going on, really. There’s no cars, there’s no lawn mowers. You can only put so many birds in a show before it sounds like the same bird. So, it was always just finding those things. And a lot of times, too, when Kevin and I would go, “Oh, we need something,” we could go back to the great sound editing crew and ask, “Can you guys get us something little for here? A little gust here, a little tree branch thing here,” in any of those scenes. Again, I can’t reiterate, it was just also having the time to do that and to watch the things down and not just rush through an episode and then play it back. We’d do multiple passes and really having the time and the ability to do that was really helpful.
Kevin: And to expand upon that, what Marc said, it is kind of a testament to how great our effects and Foley team were so good, and they cut such realistic, natural sounds that, a lot of the time, they are subliminal. They kind of go right past you without being noticed but really can affect you emotionally.
Yeah. That’s really cool to hear how much time you had to really hone this craft. One final question just before we wrap up. Were there any moments that were particularly challenging? Any sequences that you found that you had to do a lot of work to really hone in that you’re proud of how it ended up coming out?
Marc: All of them.
Marc: Honestly. It definitely got a little easier as the season went on because we had had a lot of discussions about things. But, I mean, I think you can look at the pilot, I think you can look at the beginning of Episode 2 in Jakarta. All those things, they’re all just so good. Kevin did such a masterful, amazing job on the clicker sequence. I mean, there are just so many things. I really do think of it as a whole, though. And I think, again, that’s why people responded so well to it because it’s very cohesive. It was a lot of hard work, it was not always easy, but I’m so proud of the way everything came out.
Kevin: Yeah. I’ll just say, everything, again. Craig and Neil put such thought into this story. So much attention. Every little moment between every person is on purpose. Every choice is made very specifically. And our job was to just help them tell that story. And I feel like every single member of the sound department really took every single moment in the story seriously and did their very absolute best. If I had to point out one thing, I guess, that I’m the most proud of, I would say that it is the cul-de-sac scene at the end of Episode 5. That’s where there’s the giant horde attack and there’s the truck. It was just so many things happening at once. That took a lot of concentration and a lot of focus.
Well, thank you so much, both, for your time. I really appreciated getting the opportunity to hear a little bit behind the scenes. As you both said, it’s such a cohesive, really beautiful piece of work, especially on the sound end of things, and just overall. Everything and every detail is incredibly well crafted. So, thank you so much for your time and really appreciate getting the opportunity to chat.
Marc: Thank you so much.
Kevin: Thank you! Thanks a lot.
And congratulations on your efforts.
Kevin: Thank you. Thank you very much.