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Grounding the Apocalyptic Visuals in ‘The Last of Us’

VFX supervisor Alex Wang talks the Infected, Bloaters, massive Bloaters, a giraffe, and a crashing airliner as he breaks down the production of 3,000 visual effects shots created 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 on HBO’s critically acclaimed and wildly popular series.

While prepping for the second season of The Last of Us for HBO, Visual Effects Supervisor Alex Wang took the time to reflect upon lessons he learned from Season 1, which adapted Part 1 of the acclaimed Naughty Dog video game.  “There was always this question [during Season 1] of whether we should be in this bluescreen set for a lot of the outdoor shots or be on location, and now looking back, I feel like being on a real location for as much of our exterior environment work as we could was the right thing to do,” states Wang.  “It makes the world feel a lot more visceral and gives the actors an environment to interact with and feel along with the practical set dressing.”  While Season 1 was shot in and around Calgary, the production has shifted to Vancouver for Season 2. “The reason why we’re in Vancouver from a creative standpoint is because the second game of The Last of Us is based in Seattle,” Wang says. “Just from a geography perspective, the type of landscapes that we would see Vancouver leant itself a lot closer to Seattle than Calgary.” 

For Season 1’s 10 episodes, approximately 3,000 visual effects shots were created 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.  “16 vendors were a lot,” admits Wang.  “But it was quite seamless because they set their own bars and wanted the show to look great.”  The show is currently streaming on Max.

Season 1 saw huge production battles with the weather. According to Wang, “Numerous times we shot on locations where we were hopeful for snow, and it was very cold, but there was none. It was definitely a group effort working hand in hand with Joel Whist and his special effects team to understand when it would be most advantageous for them to ship in practical snow from the Rockies and when does visual effects takeover. Many times, it was a 50/50 division between special effects and visual effects to take care of snow issues.   I am a supervisor who will never say that I don’t need something practical to make the visual effects look great, even if we’re going to augment or replace it.” 

The show centers on the fall of humanity as a parasitical fungus known as Cordyceps infiltrates the food supply, turning human hosts into vegetative zombies, a pandemic of apocalyptic proportions. “Whether it’s the Infected or environments or the fire in the steakhouse, we wanted to do the research and be authentic with our approach,” Wang notes. “It was important not to give the tendrils [of the Infected] any personality because they exist for survival, so their movements are intentional.  The challenging thing with the Kissing Man is we were limited to the timing of a real actor going toward Tess [Anna Torv] and Craig Mazin [Co-Creator and Executive Producer] wanted the tendrils to stretch out. I kid you not. There are micromovements that automatically tells your brain that the tendril wants to go there or is scared or has feelings.  In the end it was about restraint and pulling back movements.”

In one sequence, a truck crashes into a house, causing a huge explosion, followed by a Bloater and swarm of Infected emerging from underground to wreak havoc. “What is scary about the cul-de-sac scene is when you start to see not 10 or 20 Infected, but hundreds that pour out of the hole,” observes Wang.  “We did have a lot of practical Infected and militia acting as well.  It was the job of visual effects to add to the numbers, not just when they’re pouring out of the hole but also when they’re on the ground fighting and chasing after each other.  We had to mimic the actions of what the stunt actors were doing so that nobody could ever say, ‘That’s CG because the Infected are doing something that is not possible or not something the stunt team is doing.’  The tone of the visual effects and practical performances had to be seamless.”

In the middle of the chaos is the massive Bloater. “We tried to have the Bloater be practical,” Wang shares. “But at the end of the day, when a person is wearing a suit that [prosthetic designer] Barrie Gower described as a person wearing a sofa, they’re going to have limitations with their movements and you’re going to feel those limitations.  It was important to Craig and Neil Druckmann [Co-Creator and Executive Producer] for when we see the Bloater you could believe that this creature was 6’7” and the Cordyceps had made him larger. At no time did we want it to feel like the stunt actor wearing a suit.”

Another dramatic moment is when an airliner crashes and one of its severed engines collides with and flips over a vehicle containing an escaping Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna), and daughter Sarah (Nico Parker).  “We all know what a plane looks like, so the CG version had to feel grounded and photoreal even when its crashing,” Wang notes. “I worked with the DP [Ksenia Sereda] to make sure that we had practical lights for that explosion to brighten up the exposure. The shot was almost an oner as there is only a single cut in the whole thing.  When you’re on set, the plane doesn’t exist. So, it was a lot of planning, starting with previs, to get everyone buying in on when the plane was going to fly overhead, and when they’re going to see the plane at the back of the truck, making sure that the timing worked so that six or seven months down the line, when I’m adding the plane in, that everything works.  Special effects and the stunt team put a wedge underneath the truck, so it wasn’t a full flip but a bump.  In post, I added to that with camera shake to create the impression that the truck is tumbling. We did do some retiming to speed up the whip pan when the engine starts to whip over right before it hits the truck.  Craig wanted an eerie feeling when you see the plane almost turn on its belly before crashing.” 

Post-apocalyptic Boston was a major environment build. “Even from a games’ standpoint, the world-building in The Last of Us is what separates it from other games,” states Wang.  “We wanted to respect and understand that about this show when it comes to visual effects. Basically, Boston is a world that we haven’t seen before. When we’re in the QZ [Quarantine Zone] there are a lot of practical sets, and those are traditional set extensions.  Once we went into what is called Boston Open City, it needed to have the flavor of destruction and the vegetation starting to reclaim this world.  What was trickiest was to never cross that line into fantasy. When simulating the destruction in Houdini, we made sure to respect the forces of gravity because everything adds up.” 

An iconic image from the show features Ellie Williams [Bella Ramsey] walking on a wooden plank that serves as a rooftop bridge. “In the game, it was nighttime while the show is daytime,” Wang explains. “We did go to Boston and capture LiDAR, street level, and drone photography, so when we’re creating that world it felt like Boston.  Then we went through many iterations of concept art to develop the look and feel that Craig was after for when Ellie was crossing that plank.  DNEG built every building in there down to the destruction and vegetation.  If you look closely, there’s wind movement and different species of vegetation. It’s detail after detail.”

Another show highlight is a giraffe gracing the screen both in real and digital form.  “My work was to make sure when prepping and shooting the real giraffe that we had the data needed to create the best-looking asset that would appear seamless when we cut between a practical and CG giraffe,” Wang reveals. “We actually brought in a cyber scanning machine into the Calgary Zoo so that Nabo, our hero giraffe, could walk in there safely and we could essentially take images and do a scan.  Wētā FX created an amazing looking asset that had around eight million hairs.  You can literally look at the giraffes side-by-side and not tell what is real or CG.  That was our goal because its an emotional scene for Joel and Ellie, so we didn’t want anyone to bump on the giraffe. As for the frog on the piano, that was achieved practically. I was so happy when the frog did its thing because there are times when our efforts are better spent somewhere else. All the power to that frog!”  

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.