Lasting impression

Lasting impression

By Michael Pickard
July 20, 2023

Job Description

VFX supervisor Stephen James discusses effects studio DNEG’s work on HBO drama The Last of Us, revealing how buildings were destroyed and vegetation grown to create the show’s post-apocalyptic setting.

While visual effects have become part and parcel of television production, from crowd and scene extensions to full-scale characters and environments, HBO’s The Last of Us provided a unique proposition. How do you turn Boston, and many other locations in the US, into a post-apocalyptic wasteland while ensuring a series based on a video game doesn’t end up looking like a video game?

It was a challenge picked up by effects studio DNEG and VFX supervisor Stephen James, who was approached early on in production to take the lead on creating the world of the series, which is set 20 years after modern civilisation has been destroyed by a devastating pandemic.

Pedro Pascal (The Mandalorian) stars as Joel, a hardened survivor who is hired to smuggle 14-year-old Ellie (Game of Thrones’ Bella Ramsey) out of an oppressive quarantine zone. But what starts as a small job soon becomes a brutal and heartbreaking journey as they must both traverse the US and depend on each other for survival.

“Everyone’s a big fan of the game here, so it was a no-brainer for us, really,” James tells DQ. “The game itself is essentially a movie. It has a clear story narrative – you could take out the gameplay and it would still work as a functioning story by itself – so it’s really good for an adaptation, even though of course there are challenges with adaptations.

Stephen James

“Alex [Wang, HBO’s VFX production supervisor] and the showrunner, Craig Mazin, made some really brilliant decisions in terms of how they adapted it with the medium in mind, and how to bring this additional realism to it. It’s a realistic game, but a lot of considerations had to be made there. I just feel really lucky because they were making all these great decisions about how to adapt the game.”

While the game is experienced through the eyes of the central characters, shifting the story to TV gave the creative team the opportunity to pay more attention to the supporting characters Joel and Ellie meet during their journey. The new medium also allowed the story to include more flashbacks.

“It’s really the same story but it’s a little bit different [from the game] in how they reveal things to the audience,” James explains. “So they were able to add some real weight to certain moments. For example, in the first episode, when Joel is protecting Ellie, we’re able to see those flashbacks of him protecting his daughter. It’s little things like that that give additional emotional weight. You couldn’t really do that in the game, but it’s the same story really.”

Based on the game of the same name, which was developed by Naughty Dog for PlayStation and first released in 2013, The Last of Us is a coproduction between PlayStation Productions, Word Games, The Mighty Mint and Naughty Dog for HBO, which brought DNEG on board to help develop the dramatic environments that serve as a backdrop to much of the series. DNEG worked on seven of S1’s nine episodes, which included close to 600 individual shots that required CG enhancements.

“The bulk of our work was just drawing this environment and adding vegetation to this world, working off of the incredible set design they had done on set and making sure we were matching that. But then also, because we have this ability to take this wherever we want, once we passed into the CG world, we could take things a little beyond reality to really give it some impressive visuals.”

However, while other shows might reuse effects shots where scenes take place in the same location, the road-trip nature of the series – created by Mazin alongside Neil Druckmann, the co-creator of the game – meant James and his team would build an environment for one episode and never use it again.

Before (top) and after VFX were added to this scene of the quarantine zone

To get started, James read the scripts and saw the concept art that had been commissioned by HBO. Together with Wang, he also looked at a lot of the game’s artwork, its cinematic sequences and its environments to better understand the style and tone the series would need to reflect its source material.

“We began to develop things quite early on because we needed pretty strong workflows to do this work,” he says. “It’s a lot of building up buildings with 3D models, then destroying those and being able to control that destruction and being clever about either blowing up one side of the building and having it collapse or trying another position, because everything had to work with some composition [of the scene] in mind.

“Then we had to do a lot of really advanced vegetation to match the iconic look of the game in the show, which is this overgrown world that nature has retaken. There was a lot of layered complexity to that work, so we had to start pretty early on to build it up over time. By the end of the show, you’re able to iterate that stuff a lot quicker. So if they’re asking us to knock over a building and grow vegetation over it, we could get a quicker turnaround. But there’s this really long development process to get to that point.”

James says the open dialogue between key collaborators – the showrunner, directors and department heads – made it easy to discuss what may or may not be achievable, even with HBO’s “healthy” budget in mind.

One example comes at the beginning of episode two, when Ellie sees the destruction and overgrowth in Boston for the first time after leaving the relative safety of the quarantine zone.

CG was used more extensively for the post-apocalypse Boston scenes

“It needed to be a really breathtaking moment,” James says. “It’s the first moment that Ellie sees the world outside of this quarantine zone, and it’s the first time the audience has seen it as well, so it had to be quite impactful. Through the project, we knew we needed to put a bit more into it, so we leaned into pretty heavy destruction to have these impactful moments. The performance is there; they’re acting as if their breath is taken away, so we had to make that line up [with the world around them].”

It was then extremely gratifying for James and his team to hear viewers’ reactions to the series and comments about how well they had recreated the world of the game on TV.

“That shows we really succeeded in capturing what the audience was feeling when they played the game,” he continues. “That was the main goal. But there are a lot of details that are different. There are sequences that are similar but, in terms of the level of fidelity, the background buildings and the type of environment, it can be quite different. It was always about capturing the feeling of the game in those moments, making sure that environments aligned and supported what the characters were going through in that moment.”

If they were ever in doubt, the VFX team would always refer back to concept designs, and even the game, to make sure they didn’t stray from their goal of creating a series that would resonate with gamers as well as those coming to the story for the first time. In a lot of cases, James says Naughty Dog had already done much of the work when they first developed the game, considering questions about why plants would grow in particular places or why – and how – a building had toppled, as well as issues of composition and lighting.

The biggest demands on the VFX team proved to be creating the initial quarantine zone, where Joel and Ellie first meet and from where they begin their journey together, and those aforementioned scenes of downtown Boston in episode two where the pair survey the destruction around them.

James’s team looked at how real buildings might collapse

James and his team travelled to Boston to photograph downtown and the city’s historic North End district from every conceivable angle in order to recreate them digitally for the series, and even used drones to capture views from angles they couldn’t reach in person.

“Episode two was our biggest episode, just environment after environment of heavy destruction and overgrowth,” James says of those Boston scenes. “If you look at when they’re travelling through downtown Boston, looking at all this destruction and when they’re looking at the statehouse from the rooftops, all of that was really heavy CG work but based on what we captured in Boston.”

Finding references of heavily damaged or overgrown buildings was one of the biggest challenges facing James, who wanted to root the design work on the show in reality as much as possible.

That aim meant he was able to ensure The Last of Us never became an imitation of the video game it is based on. And the fact filming also took place in real locations, rather than against blue-screen backgrounds, meant there were always lighting and scale references to look at, while production design also added a lot of ivy, weathering and rust that could be extended in post-production.

“Everywhere I walk down the street now, I see these references of plants and nature because I can’t help it. Our team became a bit obsessed with anything that was around us in our environments,” he says. “A lot of thought had to be put into what would happen if a building did fall over and was left for 20 years.”

James previously worked on Prime Video series The Boys and is now part of the team working on big-screen sequel Dune: Part 2, which is due to be released later this year. He believes the boom in streaming services has changed the entire VFX industry, with DNEG and other studios inundated with new work.

It has also led to higher expectations of VFX on TV, with cinematic work sought for small-screen releases.

“TV used to be a bit of a separate tier, with a much lower budget. But for these HBO shows we’re working on, the expectation is it needs to be as good as film,” James notes. “That’s the new challenge. There are lots of episodes to work on, lots of shots, and things need to look as good as anything else in the theatre. Hopefully we’ve achieved that here.”

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