DNEG was responsible for 535 shots across HBO’s hit series, The Last of Us. Here DNEG’s VFX Super Stephen James and DFX Supervisor Nick Marshall talk Televisual through the creation of their work on the dystopian thriller.
At what stage did you get involved with the project?
SJ: Alex Wang, overall HBO VFX Supervisor, reached out about getting DNEG involved on the show quite early on. My experience in compositing and Nick’s in environments made us the right fit for supervising the type of work that Alex was looking to place at DNEG.
NM: After Stephen and I confirmed our involvement with the show, we immediately got together over a coffee to discuss the assumed requirements of the project and how we wanted to approach this unique challenge. We knew from the outset that expectations would be high, so the early discussions were filled with excitement and anticipation about what was in store!
Did you advise on the look before shooting began?
SJ: DNEG joined the project just after production began. There was quite an extensive production schedule and we were able to begin development of some assets and our destruction and overgrowth workflows while production was ongoing. As the production went on, we were able to continue to refine our work in response to the overall direction of the show, the set dressing, and environments that they travelled to.
NM: As a result of this overlap with production, we were able to contribute some early previsualisation work for some of the more VFX heavy shots and sequences, which can be a good aid for everyone before heading out on set. As soon as we started to receive shots that required heavy augmentation, we set about doing concept art that would help find the look in our shots and much of that work was continuing in parallel with shooting.
How did the production brief you on the look they wanted?
SJ: The goal was to match the iconic aesthetic of The Last of Us with a level of realism needed in this new medium. It was also important that our work served the story and evoked feelings that supported what the characters were going through. The environments on the show can be everything from haunting to awe inspiring and beautiful, and we always needed to find a balance depending on the scene.
NM: There were a few different components at play in finding that look – the games obviously served as an important grounding for the general visual style that we wanted to honour. Then we had to adapt this to suit what had been captured in camera, creating nice compositions that worked with the practical locations and lighting, and then finally making sure that all of this was convincingly photoreal and also served the narrative.
What influences were there to the look. Where did the inspiration come from?
NM: We took scheduled photography trips to Boston, while the artist teams carried out additional field trips closer to home to acquire more references. Extensive references of real world locations were collected to inform our decision making on everything and no detail was too small to ignore. We studied abandoned structures, collapsed buildings, vehicles exposed to the elements, as well as analysing how degradation occurs under different conditions. By the end of the show our phones were full of ivy photos!
SJ: You may not notice it but you can find inspiration and references for weathering and overgrowth all around you. Now it’s embedded in my mind, I can’t sit on my back patio without staring at how the ivy grows. Each environment tells many stories, setting the tone for the characters. We always started with questions like: What happened there on outbreak day? Who has passed through since then? Depending on the sequence, we would dial between finding inspiration from the games, real life locations, and the on-set production design.
What shots / effects did you create?
NM: DNEG was brought on primarily to work on the different environments required for the show, but we also contributed some FX work for the Statehouse explosion, and lots of rain and lightning, digi-doubles and, of course, a Clicker! We created many areas of destroyed Boston and Salt Lake City, including fully collapsed buildings, cratered streets, and the iconic leaning skyscrapers. We were also responsible for the Boston QZ, as well as the Kansas City QZ and Jackson QZ. Managing such a vast scope and large volume meant putting together a really strong team that could meet the task, and we were very lucky to have some of the best in every respective department.
How did you achieve them?
NM: Our work centred on three main components – build of full CG destroyed city buildings, build of non-destroyed buildings used to simulate various destruction states, and extensive use of matte painting with camera projection mapping. To create the most immersive and true to life world, we needed to mix these components together. As you would expect, we put in a lot of attention to detail and a significant amount of time was spent ensuring that everything had a reason for existing. We created vegetation growth that was heavier in areas where moisture and where light would be prevalent, every exposed surface was treated carefully according to how the materials would naturally age and decay, interior details were designed according to the period and purpose of the building. The CG buildings that we created to populate the world were all based on real locations in the cities we were replicating, and we put considerable time into recreating all of the intricate details to make them look as convincing as possible. It’s difficult to recreate even a single city from scratch with no frame of reference, and we had several to create, so we took as many cues from real life photography as we could find!
How did you advise during the shoot?
NM: While on set we worked closely with Alex Wang, mostly looking after the splinter VFX unit while Alex was tied up with the main unit shoot. The VFX teams included LiDAR capture teams and drone photogrammetry that we combined later to help us flesh out all of our CG environments. Alex also used this as an opportunity to get us really familiar with the sets and pass on early briefs so that we knew what to expect once in post.
What was the most challenging sequence or part of the job?
SJ: It can be very challenging to create realistic building destruction, weathering, and overgrowth/vegetation. We often had to combine all of these together to create a haunting
world overtaken by nature. That meant developing new tools and workflows to handle the level of detail required. Buildings had to be realistically destroyed, and dressed with realistic interiors and debris. Weathering and overgrowth had to be layered and varied, and we put considerable thought into making sure that there was motivation behind the look and placement – where did sun and water get in? What damage happened over time?
The sequence at the beginning of Episode 2, which we called the ‘hair salon’ scene, pushed all of these techniques together and is one we are particularly proud of. The sequence grew increasingly complex as the need for a truly awe inspiring moment was particularly important; Ellie walks out into the open city in daylight and we are seeing it for the first time with her.
NM: I would say the sweeping establisher of the leaning tower could be seen as our most challenging single shot. We were forced to think outside the box for this shot as it required a little bit of everything, every single building was meticulously detailed and damaged, as well as some complex plate integration. This shot is a standout example of some of the very challenging compositing work on the show, executed masterfully by our comp team, supervised by Francesco Dell’Anna.
It was also a challenge to match the tricky lighting in some of the plates. We had to really study each shot and location in that sequence to replicate the lighting in CG. Our lighting lead, Natalia Valbuena, did a great job of setting up caustic lights to match the building lighting in the plate, and our lighting supervisor, Casey Gorton, made sure that all of our work across the show retained the correct aesthetic and was technically manageable.
Images Courtesy of DNEG © 2023 Home Box Office, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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