By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of HBO.
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of HBO.
As part of a computer class assignment at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, students had to pitch ideas for a zombie video game to the filmmaker credited with establishing the horror subgenre, George Romero. One of the participants was Neil Druckmann, who despite getting turned down would go on to become the Co-President of the acclaimed video game company Naughty Dog. “Whatever concept he picked, we were going to spend a semester developing a prototype of a video game,” recalls Druckmann. “Back then, it was much simpler. A cop and the daughter of a senator had to travel across the country. I tried to make it into a comic book. It evolved again when pitched at Naughty Dog, and we made it into a video game that became The Last of Us. The core emotional trappings remained consistent.” The fully evolved premise of the 2013 video game revolves around an actual fungal parasite called Cordyceps contaminating the food supply and turning its human hosts into volatile monstrous beings. Twenty years later, immune teenager Ellie Williams is escorted through post-apocalyptic America by smuggler Joel Miller to a medical facility with hopes of producing a cure.
“[W]hen you’re watching a show or telling a story, violence has a different purposebecause you’re watching it, not committing it. We tried hard to make acts of violence relevant to characters and their relationships because that’s the matrix through which the audience processes that this is a good story.”
—Neil Druckmann, Co-President, Naughty Dog
Within the first 13 months of being released, Sony sold seven million copies of The Last of Us and talk commenced about a feature film adaptation helmed by Sam Raimi, but creative disagreements over the proper tone and the studio’s request for more action sequences derailed the project. But everything changed when, coming off the success of the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, Craig Mazin got involved and forged a partnership with Druckmann that would see the entire original game released as a nine-episode HBO series and the two of them serve as co-creators, Executive Producers, directors and writers. “I’m obviously a big science dork and love that Neil based this story on science,” notes Mazin. “It’s terrifying but beautiful what the fungus can do. Also, dramatically, I am interested in seeing regular people dealing with extraordinary circumstances and not in the typical B-movie way. Watching people twist, turn and squirm, you find out who they are.”
To do a straight retelling of The Last of Us would have been misguided, as watching television and gameplay are not the same experience. “The Last of Us Part I remake, which we just released, can only render as fast as a PS5 allows, and that game runs at 60 frames per second, which means that we have 1/60 of a second to render the Bloater as detailed as we can,” Druckmann notes. “The amount of detail is proportional to how long we have to render it and the computational power. With the show, Wētā FX can have its render farms rendering a frame for a week if they wanted to, so our imagination is the only limit.”
Then there is the matter of violence, blood and gore. “I love playing The Last of Us Part I and The Last of Us Part II,” Mazin remarks. “Part of the enjoyment is being given these obstacles of NPC [Non-playable Characters]. How do I get around them or through them? Am going to sneak or go in with guns blazing? But when you’re watching a show or telling a story, violence has a different purpose because you’re watching it, not committing it. We tried hard to make acts of violence relevant to characters and their relationships because that’s the matrix through which the audience processes that this is a good story.” Druckmann adds, “It’s not like we’re sanitizing the violence in this world, because our world is violent. We’re reducing the quantity of it so when it’s there it’s much more impactful than if you’re going to watch the same body count from the game.” Iconic moments from the game were recreated for the series. “There were certain things that I felt like as a fan I would want to see,” states Mazin. “It’s not even an Easter egg. We’re putting it right there front and center, and it’s not forced. How would they get across from here to there? Why not do the thing with the ladder? It made total sense, looked great and made me feel something when I played.”
Principal photography took place in Calgary and throughout Alberta. “A big point of discussion was that after 20 years nature would take over and everything would flood,” explains Production Designer John Paino. “We always tried to make the streets look broken up and as ridged as possible. The other big part of the design was making sure that we were building everything in nature, which looked like we were in living in the States. Going from the East to West Coast, especially with Bill’s Town, which is supposed to be a hamlet, which are dotted throughout Massachusetts, we didn’t have a lot of luck finding locations until we got to the part of the story where we are crossing through the middle of America, and the look of Calgary and the feeling of tundra in the Midwest was great. We looked at a lot of reference of natural disasters to help to inform it.” The Quarantine Zone in Boston and Bill’s Town were practically constructed. “The QZ was the first backlot that we built because that kind of federal urban brick architecture doesn’t exist in Calgary. We built that. All of those streets were built as well as the interiors to match them. As we got to Kansas City where they are walking outside more, we were able to find streets that look like that in parts of Calgary and also in Edmonton. Almost all our interiors were built on stages.”
Brought onto the project in December 2020 was Prosthetics Designer Barrie Gower, who previously worked on Chernobyl and House of the Dragon. “There is quite a menu of prosthetics in the show,” Gower observes. “It’s predominately these infected fungal Cordyceps characters, and then you have the Clicker. There were about six Clickers and a child Clicker as well in Episode 105. The big guy who climbs out of the hole had a lot of digital work going on there, but we built a fully practical suit for British stunt performer Adam Basil to wear. For the infected, we established several different stages of a human being bitten or infected, by going from two-dimensional makeup and artwork on a face to conjunctivitis around the eyes, to slightly raised veins. It’s like the fungus burrowing into the skin, and things start to blossom out of the skin like little stalks. We had five different stages going from human to just prior to becoming the Clicker, with big mushrooms on the head. The R&D for that and establishing the look of those probably took about six months.”
Contributions were made to the set decorations. Comments Gower, “In Episode 102, where they are walking through a warehouse by torchlight and see a body fused into the wall, that was the first set piece that we built. We sculpted it in modeling clay, made molds and created sections. When we made the whole piece, it was split like a jigsaw puzzle, disassembled and shipped to Canada from the U.K. We had already pre-painted a lot of it and, one of our key artists Joel Hall, who painted it here, we shipped him to Canada as well. He worked with the art department in Calgary installing it into the set against a turquoise ceramic wall with a TV and bits of covered units.”
The weather was not cooperative, causing a logistical nightmare. “Snow was the biggest thorn in our side,” admits Special Effects Supervisor Joel Whist. “The episode we shot in Waterton is supposed to be a town where the cannibals live, and it was to be completely covered in 15 feet of snow with big drifts forming off buildings. They chose Waterton because normally the town shuts down for the winter and becomes a big snowbank. But when we went, there were some remnants of drifts up against the houses and buildings. We could only use snow from within the park and brought in 350 dump truckloads of snow in four days. Me and 10 guys and a bunch of equipment hand dressed, hand blew, hand raked and hand shoveled for four days straight to get the town to look like it had snow. It would melt as we were doing it, but we got it done. When we came in the next day to shoot, there was an inch or two of fresh snow over everything that we had dressed, so it looked perfect.”
Fire was a dominant element, such as the house being set ablaze. “The house crash was a one-shot deal,” Whist reveals. “We did a test to see how the truck reacted. This truck had a giant snowplow on the front designed to come in and knock abandoned cars out of the way. The truck practically hit these lightened cars loaded up with dust, and sparks would fly. Then that truck had to crash into the house. There was a lot of rehearsal and testing to say, ‘Does this work? How does it look when hitting the house? We can tweak it and cross our fingers that on the day the stunt guy really hits it hard and it works.’ It was constant testing. We did a complete fire set inside of a stage, with the burning of a steakhouse all controlled by us. Tons of spot fires on the street. We did lots of burning cars. We had the burning cop car that was on fire, driven by a stunt guy in a fire suit hooked up with propane that would come in and smash an upside-down pickup. A lot of old school effects.”
Around 3,000 visual effects shots were produced by DNEG, Wētā FX, Distillery VFX, Zero VFX, Important Looking Pirates, beloFX, Storm Studios, Wylie Co., RVX, Assembly, Crafty Apes, UPP, RISE, Framestore, Digital Domain and MAS. Amongst the digital augmentation was how the parasite spreads. “That was probably one of the most abstract challenging and fun creations for visual effects,” states Visual Effects Supervisor Alex Wang. “We call them the tendrils. In the game, we have the spores – that’s how the ‘infected’ transfer their infection to other human beings. The tendrils come out of their mouth. Craig wanted that to feel real, in the sense that when the Cordyceps are done with the insect, they burst out of their brain; that was our foundation. Then there was the whole other research part of what characteristics they carry. The minute when the animation starts to feel like they have a personality, it automatically felt like aliens on the Syfy Channel. We didn’t want to go there. These Cordyceps have one motive, which is to keep infecting to survive.”
Two teams were sent twice to Boston to LiDAR scan, photograph and capture drone footage to ensure the city appeared to be authentic in the devastated open city. “As far as the vines, it’s trickier than you think, especially when you’re trying to deal with buildings at scale and you’re not used to seeing vegetation growing on skyscrapers,” observes Wang. “When they’re overlooking the hotel terrace and see a swarm of infected, that is a crucial defining moment of the show where we understand that the infected are connected to each other in some ways. We call it a dog pile. You can see them like synchronized swimmers start to move in unison. That was challenging because it’s abstract in nature. We were talking about everything from their movement to where we are high up looking at it from scale. All the aspects of it made it a challenging shot. Wētā FX was in charge of that work and used their Massive for crowd simulations and did a lot of performance capture to feed the Massive library.”
DNEG was the lead VFX vendor on the majority of VFX work across most episodes. Remarks Stephen James, VFX Supervisor at DNEG, “I traveled to Boston with our DNEG shoot team to do the data and reference capture needed to recreate a lot of the iconic [Boston] locations seen in Episodes 1 and 2. One sequence in particular that was brought to life directly from reference was the ladder-crossing sequence in Episode 2. This is such a memorable scene from the game that we wanted to do it justice. Even though the characters are six stories up and looking out at a bombed city, the scene provides a sense of relief, beauty and hope to the characters and the audience with them.”
Most challenging for James and his team was capturing the deteriorating post-apocalyptic environments. Comments James, “The main creative and technical challenges came in our environment work which often involved building or augmenting real-life locations and adding the heavy destruction and overgrowth that the series is so well known for. Much like in the games, the environments had to set the tone and tell their own story. What happened to this place 20 years ago? How has Mother Nature impacted it since then?”
“For any building destruction,” he adds, “it was very important to Alex Wang that you could feel the weight of the buildings pressing down over decades. Our DNEG Environment Supervisor, Adrien Lambert, built custom tools for Houdini that would give us base destruction simulations. This gave us a realistic collapse, broken windows and framework. Those were then cleaned up and manually set dressed in great detail. Every floor was filled with furniture, debris, cables, curtains blowing in the wind and so on. Once our destruction was in place, we would be able to add weathering and overgrowth. A great deal of thought went into the types of vegetation, the seasons and where and how it was growing.”
A complex shot occurs when the pandemic actually begins when Joel along with his daughter Sarah and brother Tommy are fleeing. “It’s a long shot that goes through many stages of that town. In the end, they encounter a plane that is starting to fall and crashes and explodes,” Wang recounts. “A piece of landing gear is pushed out of that explosion, and that’s what knocks their truck over. We’re talking thousands of frames. Because the camera was essentially inside the truck, they drove over a wedge, and that was enough to knock it over. On top of that, we would add some camera shake to that as well.” And, of course, one cannot forget the cameo of a particular animal. Explains Wang, “In Episode 109, we have an iconic moment with Ellie and a giraffe. We built a proprietary scanning booth that enabled our hero giraffe to come into it because we were cutting between a live-action and CG giraffe, and it needed to feel seamless.” Seamless is a key word when describing the visual effects work in The Last of Us. “I wanted the world to feel like if I embraced the location, I shot it without replacing every single thing, but touching every portion,” says Wang. “It has to feel grounded and believable that we are there. The best compliment would be, ‘Where are the visual effects here?’”