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The Last of Us is one of the most beloved and critically acclaimed video games of all time, known for its gripping storytelling and unforgettable characters. Fans have eagerly awaited the HBO adaptation of the game, which stars Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsay in the lead roles. A new behind-the-scenes documentary called "Making of The Last of Us" finishes Season 1 and offers an exclusive look into the production. We're delving into the behind-the-scenes insights from the set of The Last of Us, exploring the challenges and triumphs of adapting this beloved game for the small screen. From the casting of the lead roles to the extensive special effects, join us for an in-depth analysis of what it took to bring this video game to life on television. Giraffes included!
One of the most popular series on TV in 2023, is the on-screen adaptation of the video game “The Last Of Us” starring Pedro, Pascal and Bella Ramsey in the lead roles of Joel and Ellie. The production has been praised widely by critics and fans alike for the undeniable chemistry between the two actors and their friendship which overflows into their interviews. However, one of the largest successes of The Last Of Us is its re-creation of the post-apocalyptic world presented in the video game.
Fans of the video game were astonished to see many of their favourite moments recreated almost shot by shot from the gameplay in the HBO series. This is one of the epic production challenges explored in the final episode of the series, which was named “Making Of The Last Of Us”, and it was a 30 minute documentary with several creatives from the production, describing the mammoth lengths the team went to in order to pay tribute to the popular video game and do it justice for fans.
The Making Of The Last Of Us documentary discusses everything from getting the score right to physically creating the costume for the Clickers and representing the Cordyceps fungus and making it completely believable. The Last Of Us had a multitude of special effects, including a plane crash right at the beginning to smaller tendrils that were physically created and then digitally adapted in post-production.
Casting The Last Of Us
Ashley Johnson plays Anna in the HBO series and is Ellie in the original video game. Troy Baker plays Joel in the original video game and James in the HBO production. Baker says that he “was originally in conflict… As we’ve already done it” before starting the on screen adaptation. Viewers of the documentary are treated to some behind-the-scenes footage constructing the gameplay with both Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker in suits for motion capture. Baker was persuaded to take part in the HBO adaptation because “there are people out there that will never pick up a controller and they will never experience the story and [he] thinks [the] story is a special offer to bring it to them.”
Merle Dandridge, who plays Marlene in both the HBO series and the video game, claims in the documentary that she desperately wanted to continue her part saying, “Mommy wants that!” She claims that she knew the adaptation was going to be spectacular, because it was a collaboration with the original creator Neil Druckmann.
The Last Of Us was a truly unique project when it came to casting, as the characters were already so beloved by fans of the video game, and held a special place in people's hearts due to the emotional storyline and because players were able to interact with and become the characters themselves. It was a unique task to cast both Joel and Ellie as this would be the second time they would be cinematically brought to life.
Pedro Pascal shared in the documentary that he realised very quickly how popular the character of Joel was after explaining the role to his sister and nephews. He says that even before he finished saying the name of the video game, his nephews cut into the conversation finishing his sentence for him, so he knew just how special and large the fan base the story already had.
Bella Ramsey was advised when beginning the role of Ellie to not play any of the video game or to take a look at the gameplay as to not emulate Ashley Johnson’s performance. However, she let slip that she did watch a few videos in the documentary.
“[Bella] has the essence of Ellie already in her” - Ashley Johnson
The Science of The Last Of Us
In the Making Of The Last Of Us, Craig Mazin details that the scientific aspects of Cordyceps and fungal infections had to be true to life. He states that the fungus shown on screen is absolutely real and it does “those things to insects” and if it were to infect humans, this scenario would be entirely believable.
“We want people to feel the reality of the science here” - Craig Mazin
The HBO adaptation did change the way the fungus was spread from person to person however. The team claimed that they liked the primal nature of being bitten, but they looked at mycelium threads which “worm their way into an insect’s brain” for the series.
Physical Effects in The Last Of Us
Barrie Gower and his team worked to create a physical mesh of humans and fungus together. Initially the team put together physical tendrils on a dental plate to go inside the actors’ mouths which had silicon cords that would attach onto another body, and they would individually peel back when pulled away. Despite these looking very convincing, they became a nuisance when wanting to reset a scene.
The team also made a conscious decision to keep the eyebrows visible on the actors wearing the Cordyceps prosthetics, as they were concerned that once you take the eyebrows away from a human face, you stray too much into zombie territory which was not where the show wanted to head.
“When it has more of a human side, more of a beautiful side, it makes it even scarier and you can relate to it more” - Neil Druckmann
Infected characters would be made up in stages with the first and more newly infected characters just having scarring and redness on the skin. Stage two would see tiny little bits of the fungus breaking through the skin. Stage three is where you begin to see real mushrooms emerging from the skin. Stage five is where you can see the head shape really distorting with a mushroom splitting the cranium in half.
Anna Torv, who plays Tess in the HBO adaptation of The Last Of Us, claims in the documentary that she didn’t even want to look at the characters with the stage five Cordyceps makeup on as she did not want to go home thinking about them in her sleep! She went on to say that it is not just the physical makeup of the Infected, but the way the actors move their bodies that makes them so scary.
The costume team would have to make sure that the “gills” a.k.a. grooves on the mushrooms were pointing downwards in cohesion with the natural world, and how mushrooms would actually form in nature.
Sound Effects in The Last Of Us
Actor Misty Lee is responsible for creating the sounds of the female clickers and one of the hardest tasks for the sound design team on The Last Of Us was to make sure that the clicking sounded exactly like what was heard in the video game.
The male (Philip Kovats) and female duo or as Craig Mazin names them, “the Adam and Eve of Clicking”, can be seen watching clips of the actors performing the scenes and dubbing throat noises over the top matching them with the action being shown.
The Beginning of The Last of Us
At the beginning of the HBO adaptation of The Last Of Us, audiences had to understand right away the connection between Joel and his daughter Sarah and just how much she meant to him. Creator of the original video game, Neil Druckmann describes walking into the set of Joel’s house and seeing the care and attention the production team had taken, even down to creating the same bedsheets on Sarah’s bed from the video game.
“I was emotionally moved by it” - Neil Druckmann
Set Design in The Last Of Us
Anna Torv, who plays Tess, exclaimed that “it was so fucking magical” on set because of the level of detail taken to dress the scenery. This allowed the camera crew to shoot in 360°, something that is very rare on other TV productions. Pedro Pascal, who plays Joel, states that “very little was left to the imagination” because of the quality and detail taken in preparing each set.
Matt Palmer, Location Manager, states in the Making Of The Last Of Us that it was crucial to have different types of landscapes for Joel and Ellie to track through to really represent the length of their journey taken across the United States.
The set dressed to look like Austin Texas at the beginning of The Last Of Us is particularly detailed as the production team wanted to include neon signs and colours that you wouldn’t see once the infection had taken hold making the rest of the locations after the fungus has swept through look in grey contrast.
In the scene in which Joel, Tess, and Ellie walk through the tunnel, there are even small sesame seeds painted to look like mouse droppings on the floor.
Jason Nolan was responsible for creating Bill’s town and he had in the back of his mind, the location that he wanted to go to in High River, which was deserted after a flood in 2013. The community had to tear down their homes, but what was left was the infrastructure and the streets, making it a perfect place to build the front of houses in Bill’s deserted neighbourhood.
Set decorator Paul Healy says that one of his favourite sets which stood up above the rest in The Last Of Us was the mall. The team had to get a carousel on site, dress a store up for Halloween and had to create a derelict Victoria’s Secret store. The mall location itself was Northland Village Mall in Alberta, which was going to be torn down in real life so the art department had a free reign to completely destroy it and make it their own, and at the end of the production, it would be finally torn down.
When the team arrived at the location for David’s cannibalism colony, there was actually very little snow despite the team choosing that location because of its prolific snowfall. So the production had to move snow from around the town, which had built up in drifts and move it in 350 dump trucks to cover 10 city blocks. And as luck would have it… the night before shooting began, real snow fell on the area!
The Last Of Us Score
The score in both the original video game, and in the HBO adaptation was created by Gustavo Santaolalla in a very minimalist fashion that Neil Druckmann says is unlike the usual process of making TV. He would detail the story to Gustavo, and he would come back with lengthy audio that they would both whittle down together to find the right piece.
“What is the least we need to do to achieve this moment?” - Neil Druckmann
Gustavo Santaolalla discusses how alongside strings he uses pipes and cans to make sounds in the score fit in with the idea of a post-apocalyptic wasteland and using found objects to create a primitive folk sound.
Visual Effects In The Last Of Us
SPSX supervisor, Joel Whist claims in the documentary that “right from the get go the impetus was to do as much practical [effects] as possible” and the inclusion of digital effects had to be seamless. The digital effects teams would build on what was already there in the scene during production.
The Last Of Us was a huge project for visual effects to work on as there were a multitude of designs needed from small tendrils to huge cityscapes that have been worn away by the passage of time. Alex Wang, the Visual Effects Supervisor on The Last Of Us said in the documentary that the team used drone footage to be able to look at locations from all angles, making it much easier to re-create some of the setting in post production. They also used LIDAR technology to create 3D reconstructions.
The team also did cyber scanning which involves a circle of cameras and lights which flash simultaneously to scan every character on the show in case they need to create a digital version of them.
For one of the most impressive scenes in The Last Of Us, the initial escape scene with Joel and Sarah in Tommy’s truck, a rig was placed on top of the truck so the stunt driver could sit on the roof and drive the car so the production team could easily capture the expressions of the actors inside the car in 360°.
The Cul-De-Sac Scene In The Last Of Us
The toughest sequence to create for The Last Of Us production team was the one in the cul-de-sac, as they needed explosions, vehicles, visual effects, the practical effects of the infected, and it had a lot of impressive choreography with the characters and the horde of infected extras. Before the team came in to create the set of the cul-de-sac, the area used to just be a barren field, which makes it even more impressive!
The rebels’ plough that barrages through the cul-de-sac into cars and then later a house, had to be reconstructed after the first night as it broke. As it crashed into the house, the building had to stay intact as it was prepped for explosions so after the shot was filmed, the team had to remove the initial truck and place another one in its spot, so it could explode with fire effectively.
Most of the climactic battle scene in the cul-de-sac was created practically through costumes and make-up however, the visual effects team felt that they needed to triple the amount of people there in post. So they held a mocap session to capture the movements of as many stunt people as possible to get true to life visual effects. These additions are really impressive to see in the documentary itself when added to the original footage.
Costumes in The Last Of Us
Costume designer, Cynthia Summers explains that each Clicker that we see throughout The Last Of Us was designed individually and their costumes had to be durable enough to go through all of the contortions created by actors on set. Summers explains that you usually do not go into production with just one costume, but because of the sheer amount of intricacies used for the Clickers, these actors were going on to set with just one costume and the design team had their fingers crossed that they would not get damaged.
On many of the actors' Clicker costumes, they had a removable panel that would sit over their eyes that could be taken off in wider shots, and put back on for close-ups, allowing the actors to clearly see where they had to move in the scene. The seams around this area would have been edited out in post production
The 7ft Bloater suit proved too much for the actor to be able to do all of the moves that he needed to do in order to get the final shot in the cul-de-sac scene. The team also shot clean slates where they could visually add a recreation of the Bloater in post. The main limitations were that the costume needed to be bigger to look imposing and the actor inside had to move faster.
This was a similar process to the child Clicker that finds Ellie tucked away in a car during the cul-de-sac scene. A contortionist from Toronto named Skye played the physical character of the child Clicker, but the team also decided to slightly change the design in terms of the prosthetic make up in post so audiences could feel both frightened and sympathetic when looking at the character. Some of her more childlike features, including her pigtails and long hair, were added into the scene afterwards.
Filming The Giraffe In The Last Of Us
Matt Palmer, the Location Manager on The Last Of Us, comments in the documentary that the giraffe scene was one of the most pivotal moments in the show in terms of meaning. Bella Ramsey describes filming with the real giraffe as “a spiritual experience”. John Paino, the Production Designer on The Last Of Us, was able to source a real giraffe from Alberta Zoo and then spent time putting blue screens up around the enclosure to try and get the giraffe acclimated ready to film a scene with Pedro and Bella without it being in distress.
The behind-the-scenes documentary "Making of The Last of Us" has provided an exclusive look at the creative process behind the adaptation that we rarely get to see as audience members which is really special. Viewers gain a comprehensive insight into the challenges of bringing the beloved video game to the small screen and the passion and dedication of the cast and crew really is unmatched. Making of The Last of Us is truly worth the watch for anyone interested in large scale TV production, special effects and make up. You will not be able to watch the series itself without marvelling at the work that has gone into it again.
Thanks for reading "Making Of The Last Of Us: Behind The Scenes Insights From The Set Of The Last Of Us" on January Media.