When The Last of Us landed on gaming consoles, it was widely acclaimed by many critics for its great storytelling and its immersive visuals. The game had people not wanting to put the controller down as they needed to know how this story ended. So you can imagine that some people was less than thrilled to hear that MAX would be making a series based on the video game.
It’s no secret that video games have a less-than-successful translation to the TV & Film medium. Just ask Mortal Kombat, Prince of Persia, or 1993’s Super Mario Bros. Occasionally a property comes around that changes the game; one that becomes a beacon for the rest yet to come to follow. Spider-Man was such a film. Without that film, the MCU may have never launched. The Last of Us is/should be the new lighthouse that guides TV & Film properties adapted from video games to the promised land.
MAX decided that it needed to keep the writer of the video game, Neil Druckmann, as the lead writer. This kept the story very close to what the video game had, with small tweaks that only seemed to enhance the show. Adding Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey as the main characters, told the audience they were serious about bringing weight to its spore-infected, post-apocalyptic world. But a great story with great acting can fall flat on its face if the visuals don’t match. We were very fortunate to speak with Alex Wang, the Visual Effects Supervisor for The Last of Us, about bringing this world to life. You can listen to the entire interview below.
“I loved the game when it came out. So right away, I knew what I was in for. The world-building of the post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us is very different than any other game that I’ve seen or played. So I think, trying to figure out a way that the visual effects to be an extension of all these departments so that we never really felt like the audience could see where the sets or the stunts ended and where we began. It just all had to be really cohesive. And that was the biggest challenge for us. Just trying to be heavily involved, but also being in a very supporting role and understanding that we are an extension of all these departments.” Alex explained about the early challenges of preparing for the show.
At the start of our interview, Alex mentioned Jurassic Park and how great those practical effects meshed well with the CGI that was used. Quite fittingly The Last of Us adopted this same mantra of blending the two. This was very evident in the scene in episode two, where Ellie, Joel, and Tess find themselves in the Heritage Museum with the deadly “Clickers”. An advanced form of the infected, Clickers have fungus growing out of their heads and other areas of their body. Usually, monsters like these are relegated to MoCap and CGI. But here they used actors and makeup.
“I think the important thing goes back to what I was saying in the beginning, which is we had to be an extension of all these different departments. There are certain times when there’s a performance that you know, it’s one in a million. That you cannot just put somebody in a MoCap suit, and have them do the same thing that the performer has done. And our clicker performers did an outstanding job. They were fans of the game, and when I saw their performance, I knew that this is important that we capture this now when we’re shooting. So really just hats off to our clicker performers, because they really nailed it. I feel like they came straight out of the video game with their performances.” Alex recalled of knowing when to push practical effects with light touchups versus going full CGI.
The true trick is to go from CGI to live action without anyone seeing the seam. “And there are certain scenes where you probably don’t notice, in the Boston Museum that were fully CG clickers. So yeah, it was important to us to just be seamless, and just practical. Then when we switch off to a fully CG clicker that the audience just enjoys that scene as a whole, but does not understand that’s a really great CG performance.”
Alex and his team understood the assignment, which in the modern production process appears to be like threading a needle. The balance of practical versus full CGI. “I really wanted the visual effects to just kind of dissolve away and just have the show be amazing. Because at the end of the day, it’s about everything that we do. Trying to achieve perfection, only to tell a great story, and to really immerse the audience in every way.”
After watching the entire first season, all I could think was, mission accomplished Alex and Team! I cannot wait to see how they approach season two. The entire first season of The Last of Us is currently streaming on MAX. You can also listen to The ‘Verse!’s coverage of each episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever you stream your favorite podcasts.