Sundays just aren’t the same without the weekly emotional rollercoaster of a new episode of The Last of Us. HBO’s series adaptation of the beloved video game of the same name recently concluded its first season to absolutely rave reviews from both fans and critics. The Last of Us games, which are only available on the PlayStation, are widely considered some of the best video games in the history of the medium because of their storytelling, and with Neil Druckmann in the driver’s seat along with master of tension Craig Mazin, the duo has delivered an adaptation that lives up to the hype.
In order to live up to the high standard set by the game, HBO’s The Last of Us had to invoke the same level of care and commitment throughout every level of the series—especially the show’s visuals. Over the course of its nine episodes, Season 1 has received its share of well-earned praise for how perfectly the show brought to life iconic locations and monsters from the games. I recently sat down with VFX Supervisor Simon Jung and Animation Supervisor Dennis Yoo to discuss their work on the post-apocalyptic series.
The Last of Us follows hardened survivor Joel (Pedro Pascal) on a journey across the country as he is tasked with delivering Ellie (Bella Ramsey) to a resistance group called the Fireflies who believe they can manufacture a cure from her as she appears to be immune to the infection that ended the world. During my conversation with Jung and Yoo, we discussed their work on the epic infected battle scene at the end of Episode 5, building out recognizable landscapes and creating destroyed environments, and recreating Nabo the giraffe with VFX to create a cohesive final product.
Crumpa: As a viewer, the line between visual and practical effects is so seamless in this series, which I’m sure is the goal. How did you go about blending the VFX of The Last of Us with the show’s practical effects?
SIMON JUNG: Yeah, we’re basically just jumping on that. We’re using the 3D scans that they’re giving us of the creatures. We’re looking very closely at the textures and the materials that they had on set, and then reapplying them digitally. And then from there, in some cases, we refine it a little bit to get a slightly different material response, for example, or do some things with the creatures that maybe a prosthetic wouldn’t be able to do. But yeah, generally we’re always leaning on what’s already there and expanding on that, in the case of The Last of Us, because the prosthetic work was so great.
DENNIS YOO: And then motion-wise, we’re basing everything on motion capture. Even though we might not have captured stuff on set or on a certain shoot, we go recapture and try to get a base of motion, and then we keyframe on top. So, we’re animated on top of that motion capture. So, there’s always a base to reality.
So, one of the biggest moments from the season and one of the biggest moments that you guys worked on is that epic final scene in Episode 5 with the reveal of the Bloater and the absolute carnage of that moment. Can you talk about recreating those prosthetics and what you did to enhance that monster?
JUNG: Yeah. So, we created a whole army of Infected and used the Clickers that we built in the Bostonian as a base to build more variants of that. So, we had gender variants and ethnicity and different Cordyceps growth and all of that for our clickers. And then we did the same thing. We had scans for the Infected, so we did the same thing for them. We gave him different wardrobes and different skin tones and all of that. So, that helped us bulk all of that out. And then a very similar approach for the bloater as well. He was a prosthetic. He was a guy in a suit originally. And because his dimensions, like his proportions, weren’t quite right, he was a little bit… Even though he was a very tall guy, he still felt a little bit short for those guys. So, we made him a little bit taller.
And yeah, it became clear that if we are going to go a digital route with him, then we might as well, similar to some of the other creatures, we might as well change proportions around a little bit, like make the legs look a little bit stronger. For example, for a person in a suit, the joints are always really thick because they obviously have a suit over it. So, we could get a much more naturalistic sculpt out of him. And the same with the materials. Generally, the material that they’re using for a prosthetic suit, you can’t really do too much with it. But because we went digital, we had the opportunity to make some of it a lot dryer and harder shelled, and other pieces more slimy and moldy looking, or even had some hairy fuzz going through the Cordyceps shape on his head. So, it just freed up a lot of the design of the bloater, and similar performance-wise. Maybe Dennis can elaborate on that a little bit.
YOO: Yeah. One of the big things Craig [Mazin] was not happy with about the suit was the way he moved. And it makes sense. You have a guy in a giant rubber suit, he’s going to move funny. And so, one of the things that we did was try to search for that performance, and we did that through motion capture. We got Ike Hamon, our stunty here in New Zealand, to try to recreate different types of motion. We had a series of different types of motions based on certain shots and we’d show Craig and he’d handpick which things he liked. And then from there, we could build on top of that. And yeah, it was quite interesting how we’re trying to get him to move. So, yeah, we added a lot of weight. We actually tried putting weights on the motion capture actor. That covered him too much.
And so in the end we just had to hand animate that weight in there so that he just feels a bit heavier. And then trying to find the performances, since they weren’t able to get the performances on the day because of the suit, Craig wanted us to explore what the bloater might be doing. So, we eventually ended up grabbing a lot of game footage because obviously, that is the bloater. And so we grabbed little snippets of the game footage and then try to fit them into the shot. And that way Craig could give comments on, he’s like, « No, I want him to move a certain way. No, I want his hand to be raised here. » And so we’d just try to find game footage that way and piece that all together in a way where we can use that as a reference and then animate our own bloater based off of the things that Craig liked with those types of collage type performances that we just cobbled together. It was a lot easier than trying to animate it fully and then him going, « No, no, no, I didn’t want him to do the three steps. I wanted him to do five steps there. » That’s going to just throw away all our work and then redo it. So, that’s one way we solved that issue, trying to find that performance.
YOO: I think you mentioned the last shot, which was the wide [shot] and the camera eye and the Infected coming in, that was one of my favorite shots. I know Simon had a lot to do with that shot, but particularly I did the camera for that shot, actually. I love animated cameras, trying to make it feel like a real on-set camera. So, that was one of the things that I’m really proud of. The other thing was we used different types of aspects of motion. So, there’s a crowd motion that we call Massive in there, and that’s all the little Infected in the background. And that’s driven by a sim, and they have their little sim brains and they do their own thing, and you can influence them to do things.
And Jeff Tobin, our Massive artist, he was in charge of that stuff. And then all the stuff in the mid-ground and foreground, that’s all of our motion capture. We used motion edit. So, motion editing is animation, but they use different tools to do it. And they also have a different mindset where they’re trying to keep all that motion as realistic as possible, not trying to change too much. And so that was the motion editors. And then in the front end, that’s all of our key framework where we’re really changing the performance. The animators are definitely not trying to keep the performances, and they’re trying to enhance things differently. So, it was interesting with all the different types of creatures and the bloater that was in there as well. And then Simon, you can definitely speak to all the effects that were in there and lighting and all that amazing work that you guys did in comp.
JUNG: Yeah, because initially, the camera of that shot was very different. It was just a steady camera that rose a little bit, and it just didn’t give Craig Mazin the scope that he was after for that shot. And so they wanted to have the camera keep going further up, and that meant that basically, we couldn’t hold on to anything in the plate apart from the very foreground because the perspective changes so much if a camera rises up. That basically meant for us, we had to build the entire set completely digitally with all the cars, all the trees, fences, houses, everything, the road, all the leaves on the road, all the gravel down to every little blood stain.
Everything had to be built basically. But doing that obviously then completely freed up the camera so that we could, in that fully CG environment, we could basically do whatever we wanted. And then there was a big fire effects sim, for example, on the building that’s on fire, where a big portion of it just drops down, which triggers the burst of Infected coming out like ants out of a disturbed anthill, for example. So, yeah, once we had a full digital playground, we were free to do with it whatever we wanted, basically.
With the fire in particular, something like that affects pretty much all of that scene with the lighting and where it is and where it moves. How are you mindful of how the lighting moves through a scene like that with the fire?
JUNG: Yeah, I mean, we’ve stayed pretty true to the on-set lighting. The main light source for these shots was the burning building. They had a burning building on set and that was illuminating the scene. They had massive light backs obviously on top as well and had flickering fire lights that they placed to beauty light specific beats around the cul-de-sac where Ellie steps, the clickers for example, or the Infected that are pulling the kids from another car. But generally, we stayed very true to the lighting that we had on set. And there are a few occasions where, for example, where Perry gets his head ripped off by the bloater, the child clicker. In some of those cases, we tweaked the lighting a little bit to make the action a little bit more visible. But it was only very subtle changes or deviations from the on-set lighting. We stayed very accurate to it.
It really enhances those particular scenes that you just called out. I was actually going to ask about the child clicker, I think I’ve read that you guys worked with a contortionist as well for that. How did you go about creating that movement? She moves so quickly and is just absolutely terrifying.
JUNG: Yeah, she’s very terrifying. So, for the body performance of the child clicker, we stayed true to the performance that was on set. There was a straight match move. We didn’t change that performance even slightly. We kept that fully intact. We did, however, replace her wholesale. Initially, the idea was to just replace the head of the child clicker because the proportions of the head, due to the prosthetics, were so large that it didn’t look like a child at all anymore. And that was something that Craig really was keen on portraying her as a child.
So, initially, we were only going to do the head, but once we changed the proportions of the head and put that on the existing body, then that didn’t work anymore. So, any proportion change on any part of the child clicker, whether it was making the pajamas tighter, immediately had a knock-on effect on the shoulders or the neck length. So, it was really difficult, and a really long-winded process to get the proportions of that child right and to make it immediately recognizable as a child.
YOO: Yeah. So, we did stay true to the performance of the actress who did that contortionist-type work. Yeah, it was creepy as hell.
With one of the lighter scenes from the series is that finale moment with the giraffe. And so they worked with an actual giraffe and then you guys also built the environment around her and then the other giraffes as well. Can you speak about creating that environment?
YOO: Well, we did actually did the giraffe though. Most people don’t know. They just think it’s a real giraffe. So, a lot of the shots, while they’re feeding the giraffe, is our CG giraffe.
That’s awesome. So, did you guys blend it on top of the giraffe that they worked with or how did that come together?
JUNG: In some cases, because initially, they shot Joel and Ellie at a zoo in a blue screen environment feeding a giraffe. So, that was one of the plates that we had to work with. And in those cases where there were some more close-up moments of Ellie feeding, for example, where you just see the top of the head, that was all real photography and we only replaced the backgrounds with a CG environment and stayed true to that. And then there are other closeups of the giraffe feeding though, where it’s an all-CG giraffe. It’s completely replaced. And in the semi-wide shots where you see the opening in that wall where Joel and Ellie stand in front of the giraffe, all of those shots are all digital as well. So, the key was in order to make those shots cut back to back, we had to match the sculpt.
Giraffes in general have very unique features, for some reason. We noticed that when we went to our Zoo here too, they all look very different and have very different features. And Nabo had these nobby hair bits on her head, for example. And there are very distinct behavioral features as well, the way she ate and all of that. So, we had to get extremely, extremely close to it. Dennis and his team even did a take where we matched one of the plate scenes where we didn’t even have to replace her just to get the behavior exactly right, just as a study, which is a lot of work actually, and kudos to him for doing that because that taught us so much about the giraffe and what is that animal, how can we make this animal really Nabo-like and not just a giraffe, but really get us so close to the original one that it’s going to be hard to tell the difference, which is what it ended up being.
People really struggle to figure out which one is our CG or which one is just a partial replacement. Because in some of the blue screenshots, for example, there was a barrier that was chest high to Ellie. We had to replace part of the neck, for example, of the giraffe. So, in some cases, it’s also just a blend between the live-action giraffe and we just did a CG extension to her basically for the body or the neck.
YOO: I think Simon’s being too kind. So, we did do a little bit of Frankenstein with that plate too, just for some of the highlights that they wanted to see. So, the lighting wasn’t great with the actual plate, because of the fact that it was enclosure and everything’s blue. Which light spills blue everywhere. And so when you comp that out, you’re going to be missing parts of that giraffe. And so Simon and his comp team edged out our CG giraffe and we kind of match-moved that into place. And so it’s like this blend that it’s really hard to tell. But that lighting kicks on it, it just bumps everything up back to reality in a way where they wanted to shoot it like that, but they couldn’t because they couldn’t add many more lights because they weren’t allowed to in a way to scare the giraffe.
And that blue screen definitely hurt the lighting as well. And that being said, that test we did, it was like a Pepsi challenge where we grabbed the real giraffe, and we put our giraffe on top, and then we’d start animating to all the facial shapes that we can, trying to match that Nabo. And in that way, like what Simon was saying, we start understanding how Nabo moves. And she does very distinct things. And so we needed to do that basically because we have shots of the CG giraffe and then the next shot is this close-up of the real giraffe. So, we had to make sure that our giraffe was moving the same way and looking the same way.
So, kudos to us, Simon, because people are having a hard time. They think it’s a real giraffe. So, I’m really happy about that. When we see it, we know which is our shot. So, we’re like, « Oh, is that good enough? » And then having people not being able to tell is really rewarding.
You guys did a great job with that moment because it’s such an emotionally important scene.
YOO: Yeah. So, the giraffe shots right in the beginning is our CG giraffe, right from the start all the way up to when Ellie feeds it the leaf. That’s a real giraffe, but all that stuff before that is ours.
JUNG: Yeah. And then for the environment, I guess that was your initial question as well. So, the environment was a combination of more traditional techniques. Basically, Alex and his team had sent somebody to Salt Lake City to take drone footage of different locations, and we used it to create the deep background where you see the skyscrapers and stuff like that. And then we projected those buildings onto geometry and aged them and weathered them and knocked some windows out and all of that. And then the entire foreground, the baseball park basically where you see the bleachers and the batting cage and the fences, all the dressing in there, all the trees, all the grass, the ground, that’s all completely CG. And we wanted to build that because we needed to be able to light that in any kind of way that we had to and have the flexibility to move assets around, so we can help the composition of the shots and all of that. So, yeah, that whole foreground or foreground mid-ground is all CG basically. And then a little bit further back, we relied on more matte painting techniques, basically.
YOO: There’s a fun little story with our background there. So, us being in New Zealand, baseball isn’t a thing, so seeing the baseball diamond… Because I grew up in Canada, so I grew up playing little league and then seeing the baseball diamond not look quite right. It was funny because we’re seeing it in different parks, and baseball diamonds, they look quite different in different fields, but they all have a certain shape and a certain length. So, yeah, it was quite interesting seeing the Kiwis try to make a baseball diamond when they don’t know what… They can make a cricket field, no problem!
That was actually part of one of the questions I had, was when you guys created these extended environments for the baseball field and the museum in Boston, with it being shot in Canada, but being set in America, how did you go about staying true to the locations that it’s supposed to be in with drone footage like you said, or other elements that you wanted to use to make sure these places were recognizable?
JUNG: That’s an excellent question. So, what we did for the Bostonian is, the Bostonian was actually I think a menswear store in Calgary somewhere. It was basically just a brick building that looked kind of similar to the actual Bostonian Museum in Boston. So, we looked at Google Maps, basically, of a 3D version of Google Maps, and looked at what buildings are surrounding the actual Bostonian. And based on that we made our own CG-building versions of that and the immediate surrounding of it. We had to tweak it a little bit because we had to create that big rubble pile that’s not climbable on either side.
So, they had to go through the museum, basically. They couldn’t have gone around it or anything. That’s why there was rubble on either side and why it was so destroyed. Because as they say in the stories and where Boston was bombed like the other cities where they tried to eradicate the virus. So, basically, we looked at the actual layout of where that building was to be sitting, built that, and then destroyed that. And that was the process too. And then obviously you always take a little bit of creative liberty with those things and fix the composition a little bit or move a building here over there or something, so it looks cooler. But yeah, that was our process for that, to just combine those two locations and make sure that at least they could believably have been set in Boston, that menswear store.
So, with a lot of the environment scenes, one of my favorite aspects of it was how the Earth had taken back a lot of these buildings and all the blending of those natural elements with those manmade elements. Can you speak to that at all?
JUNG: Yeah. So, that was quite a fun process. So, basically, we first laid it all out, made sure that our buildings sit in the right place, then have the right amount of destruction on it, then edit the rubble piles on either side. And then obviously it’s really iconic in the game that everything is overgrown because obviously, that is, exactly like you said, part of the story that over the course of time nature claims back some of those structures and in some cases really quickly. So, we started off with building vines and all of that was hand-placed. We have bespoke tools here at Wētā that can basically build or can grow vines along specific geometry or surfaces. So, we grew vines over everything and then from those vines decided what leaves should be sitting on there and in what areas did we want it a little bit denser and in what areas did we want it to be less dense.
And then the next step was to get motion on that, get ambient motion, so everything is slightly moving in the wind, everything has a little bit of a… Yeah, it’s just a slight element of motion to it. So, there was a whole bunch of practical elements, like real-life footage that was shot and placed in there by compass wells to help with some of those fine moving grasses and leaves and all of that. So, it was quite an involved process to get it to that level of density. And then also we had to be careful to still keep the rubble looking in a way that it still had to be unclimbable, so there still had to be rocks and stuff pointing out and shapes that would prohibit you just easily walking around. Because otherwise why would you go through a building that clearly looks Infected and has giant Cordyceps shapes on it if you could just walk around it? So, yeah, we had to be very specific where we placed the foliage and still maintain that threat of those rubble piles basically.
YOO: I’m always impressed with the motion you put onto the foliage and plants. I think people just forget. They just think of a plant, and they just think [it’s] inanimate. In plants outdoors, they all move. There’s always some sort of ambient motion to them. And then seeing Simon’s team of compers and even effects team just adding those slight motions just brings everything back to life rather than it looking like a still matte painting.
JUNG: Even with the giraffe park, every leaf on every tree, every individual grass bit, everything has a little bit of movement on it. You don’t necessarily perceive that, and you’re not supposed to, but I think you would perceive it if it wasn’t there. Your mind wouldn’t really believe it. It’s those little things-
YOO: You’d think it’s fake. Yeah. You’d say, « Something’s wrong. »
Exactly. It’s those little subconscious things that just make you not question it as much.
Absolutely. I think that in this case, the visual effects really immerse you in this world, and you guys did a really great job with that. Dennis, I know you said your favorite shot was that moment from Episode 5. Do you have any other big moments that you’re particularly proud of for this season?
YOO: There’s a lot, but one of the ones that I’m super proud of is in the Bostonian with the clicker and Joel hiding behind the cabinet loading his gun. That clicker is entirely CG there. We ended up scrapping all the motion capture. No one could move like that on our side, so we had to animate it all and just even trying to find the performances. So, it was very similar to what I was talking about with the bloater. We got a bunch of game footage of the clickers and we’re trying to compile that together.
But look, it was one of the bigger shots, so we knew we were going to get a lot of performance notes on it. And so it was just a constant show Craig, see what he has to say and then come back. And then we kept showing them. And then once in a while when Neil was free, they’d show Neil so we’d have a new perspective on the performance. But all the notes that we gave, even though they’re quite extensive, they were all good notes. They all had to do with the story and the character and the performances. So, look, we just wanted to make the best product that we could and in the end, it was just entirely keyframed by one animator. The shot in the bar, how long was that shot, Simon? It was 1200 frames or more.
JUNG: It was a very long shot, yeah. The whole shot is 2,700 frames long, I think. But the hall was only halfway there.
YOO: 1200 frames with keyframe animation. There’s a lot of work. So, the animator that did it, it’s funny because he’s an overseas animator. He lives in Korea and so also there was a bit of a language barrier. My Korean’s horrible. I grew up in Canada though, so I had a hard time speaking to him in Korean. So, I just ended up writing. Well, the great part about it, his comprehension in reading and writing is way better than his speaking, so we just end up chatting to each other and talking about the shot. So, he did such a great job, and so I’m just super proud of it in the end.
JUNG: I was just going to say that having been across it all makes it really difficult to pull something out and call it out as something specifically great. It’s almost like you look at the whole volume of it and that’s where all the pride comes from. It’s like being able to get through all of that in a compressed timeframe, and it’s still looking really great. And rather than an individual piece of it, I’m just proud of the thing as a whole of what it is. And within that, there are obviously little beats that are super cool and others that are more supplementary, that just help the story along a little bit, like an aged building or stuff like that that’s not that spectacular, but it’s still really crucial for the overall narrative of the episode, for example. So, it’s still important, and it still required a lot of detailed work and all of that. So, yeah, I’m really proud of the whole thing.
You absolutely should be.
YOO: One thing that I was really impressed with, especially when the final renders were coming out. So, Craig and Alex Wang, and even Neil, they would comment on certain performances that we did on our CG. And the best part about it is when they got it wrong. They were actually looking at the live practical stunty and they didn’t like something about it. « It looks too big. » I’m like, « Hey, that’s not us. That was you guys. It’s in the shot. That’s a real person. » So, that was fun. And they would just laugh because they knew they were having a hard time too, trying to figure out what was real and what was fake. So, it was good. It was really good.
That’s awesome. You guys sound like you’re pretty familiar with the games. Is there anything you want to do if you get to come back for Season 2 that you might be particularly excited to animate?
YOO: I’ve been trying to play the second game. I can’t play it at night because I want to go to bed. I think I’m just going to have to watch it on YouTube and watch other people play it in the end. But there’s a rat king, I think.
JUNG: Rat king, yeah!
YOO: I’m really excited about that.
JUNG: That’s a cool creature. The rat king is amazing. Because he’s got clickers embedded in him, and he throws them around. It’s a pretty horrible-looking thing.
YOO: Really so excited about the new creatures that we might potentially have. Even I know they would want different designs of the clickers in the second game. So, really looking forward to that.
Season 1 of The Last of Us is currently available to stream on HBO Max and you can get a physical copy this summer. Check out our recent chat with Pascal on when Season 2 might start filming down below.