Written by Valerie Wu, Variety
Before the saga of Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsay) plowing their way through a post-apocalyptic world became appointment TV, “The Last of Us” only existed in a computer-generated reality. The creators of this HBO series had a huge task before them: make the unthinkable real. And not only did their adaptation have to look true-to-life, but it needed to feel so horrifyingly tangible that it would bring viewers to tears every single week.
Turns out, you really only need a couple pages of sheet music from Linda Ronstadt to accomplish the last task, and yet every week the fantastical became a terrifying reality thanks to the artisans of “The Last of Us.” Gathered together to explain how they brought the clickers, bloaters and every other freaky detail to life for a “Last Of Us” FYC Event, the minds behind the magic got into the nitty gritty on two separate panels focused around the pre-production and post-production work.
Participants in the panel on pre-production and production included Neil Druckmann, executive producer, co-creator and writer; Carolyn Strauss, executive producer, Bella Ramsay, who stars as “Ellie;” Cynthia Summers, costume designer; John Paino, production designer; and Ksenia Sereda, cinematographer for episodes one, two and seven.
Tangcay asked Strauss about the challenge of adapting a hugely successful video game into a TV series, to which Strauss responded, “I just worry about making a good show.”
“I don’t really worry about it,” Strauss clarified. “We could do both things at the same time. That was the beauty part.”
“We got to be authentic to the game,” added Druckmann. “And that means capturing the spirit of it … it was more important that the show has to work on its own, it has to be good, and that’s what we were concerned about day to day. If we were to do that, then we stay authentic. The fans will come.”
As for securing the part of Ellie? Ramsay said they went through a “traditional route” for the game character.
“I just did a self-tape and then I watched it back since and I have no idea why you cast me,” Ramsay joked.
“I don’t know what you thought of your self-tape, but we thought it was fantastic,” replied Strauss.
Despite the devastation and serious narrative, it was important for production to build a lush world.
“We wanted to make sure that there was color in this world. It wasn’t just a desaturated mud puddle,” Summers said in relationship to the character’s wardrobe. “We also wanted to pay homage to the game and make sure that we hit on real important pieces from the game outfits that Ellie wore and that Joel wore. So that really helped us sort of build this world.”
“To keep in the spirit of the game, it became evident pretty quickly that we had to build everything,” expressed Paino. “I think that tangibility comes across and it’s in everybody’s work.”
Of drawing inspiration from the titular game, Sereda said, “The game itself is so cinematic, so it was really a very big inspiration … in general I think the main similarity is that the show is so character-centered, so we are so connected to Joel and Ellie.”
Participants in the post-production panel included Craig Mazin, executive producer, co-creator and writer; Alex Wang, VFX supervisor; film editor Timothy Good, ACE; and Michael Benavente, sound supervisor.
Working on the post-apocalyptic setting was a much-appreciated experience for Benavente, who found the quiet and empty space meaningful.
“Because of the quiet moments — and there’s plenty of them because a lot of society has been decimated — it was a sound editor’s dream, because you get to hear a lot of stuff,” said Benavente.
The panelists also shared their thoughts about the father-daughter relationship at the heart of the show.
Showrunner Mazin dove in on the dynamic of main characters Joel and Ellie, “The relationship between Joel and Ellie is kind of a sickly, addictive relationship. They are not necessarily good for each other, but they need each other and are going to go on this ride together.”
Pivoting to the fan-favorite episode “Long, Long Time,” starring Murray Bartlett and Nick Offerman, editor Good explained his vision for this thoughtful little end of the world love story.
“I love studying faces and I love just decoding emotions and finding ways to just tell a psychology of a relationship,” Good explained. “And specifically in episode three, it was a relationship over time, so you had to show the stages of it.”
Pivoting to the epic plane crash from the pilot episode VFX supervisor Wang discussed bringing the terror into reality. “There’s a really fine balance with the planes as far as showcasing them where the audience can believe that they exist, but also respecting the lighting, which is this natural, grounded real world,” he said. “So it was a dance where everyone had to be in lockstep,” Wang finished.