Building the Jaw-Dropping World of The Last of Us: How the Video Game Came to Life on HBO

Bringing The Last of Us to HBO was kind of a big deal: Series production designer John Paino talked to E! News about everything that went into building a new world for the smash-hit series.

By Natalie Finn Mar 13, 2023 12:00 PMTags
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How many times were you rendered speechless by what the The Last of Us looked like?

Because our jaws positively dropped when Ellie crossed between two dilapidated structures—the ruins of Boston all around her and Massachusetts Bay in the distance—in a scene the ambitious HBO series borrowed from the award-winning 2013 video game.

Only, that was Bella Ramsey really on a plank, traversing a set built from the ground up to bring the haunting story about survival in a world destroyed by a zombifying fungus (and human tyranny) to life.

"She walked across that 2-by-6," production designer John Paino told E! News in an exclusive interview ahead of the show's March 12 season finale. "That was built in a parking lot. They're coming out of the museum, that roof is built, they're crossing that, and the other [wall] is built—obviously only six or eight feet off the ground."

The scenery beyond Ramsey is green screen, the three-time Emmy nominee noted, but everything the actors were walking on, riding through, climbing over, exploring, etc., throughout the show was the real deal, down to the last immersive detail.

You "could go up to a wall," Paino said, "and if you touched it, you might have slime all over you."

Video Game Movie Adaptations Ranked by Their Success

That authenticity was paramount as the crew set out to fulfill the vision of series creators Neil Druckmann (who also created the game) and Emmy winner Craig Mazin (a huge fan of the game, as were countless people who worked on the show).


"Knowing where Craig comes from with Chernobyl," Paino said, "he would have probably preferred to walk through and shoot actually in Chernobyl." So, they were always striving for "realism, making it look like 20 years of rain and neglect, plants growing through things. The game has a beautiful representation of it, but we also have to make it real, and also make it shootable."

Speaking to E! News on Zoom from his office, Paino detailed how they pulled it off:

Starting at the Source

"The game is the vision," production designer John Paino told E! News, referring to the 2013 PlayStation title that HBO's The Last of Us is adapted from. "The concept art for the game always looked cinematic. It had a sense of place and lighting and realism to it."

But, as movie-like as it looked, it was still a game. The job of Paino, set decorator Paul Healy and hundreds of other craftspeople was to build tangible versions of the game's dueling worlds: The not-so-distant-but-subtly-retro 2003, and the frozen-in-time version of that same year, two decades after life as people knew it imploded.

"The biggest challenge was just working in a real-life situation," Paino explained. "We're doing a period piece on top of a desiccated apocalyptic piece, that is also a drama about the people. So there were these multi-layers."

Production kicked off in Calgary in July 2021, and the Canadian city "worked for certain things," he said, but "I don't think there was ever a location that didn't get some love from the art department or rebuilding. Also, everything has been neglected for 20 years," so even if an area had the right look for filming, they'd have to change anything too recognizably modern, such as computerized parking meters.

Looking for the Light

When Paino first met with producers, he showed them collages that "for me, encapsulated the game," he said. One set of images resonated in particular: Broken restaurant chairs in a Hong Kong alley that people had made usable again with makeshift fixes, propping them up with traffic cones or rigging a piece of wood in place of a missing leg.

After 20 years of not having anything, the question was, "How do people survive?" Paino thought. "How do people make do? I would show that picture to give them the idea of the desiccation and the ingenuity—that sense of hopelessness that's also balanced with hopefulness."

Series co-creator Craig Mazin thought those images were "the cat's pajamas," Paino said, and they were off to the races.

Where Carpentry Meets Computers

Paino credited the visual effects team, including supervisor Alex Wang, for those stunningly realistic-looking cityscapes that ram home the extent of the devastation. But everything the actors encountered up close actually existed. 

"Where they're coming out of the QZ, everything around them is built, that's all sculpted," he said. "They're walking through that and then we pan out, and that is created in the computer. But basically our rule of thumb was to go 20 feet up in the air with our dressing and then dress everything around them. They're not just walking through stages of green screen, ever."

Life Finds a Way

For a show mainly set in a world that was bombed to hell to try to contain the spread of an incurable cordyceps plague that turns the infected into clickers—monsters with heads that look like blooming onions—the color palette of The Last of Us is remarkably not dour.

The Boston quarantine zone is awash in red brick and splashes of blue and yellow, while outside the QZ, Mother Nature has been busy reclaiming what's hers, leaving the buildings overgrown with vines (all hand-sculpted) and other bright-green foliage.

"I never wanted it to feel like a Dutch painting, where everything was brown," Paino quipped.

And for Ellie, who's never been out of the QZ until she sets off with Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Tess (Anna Torv), everything's a little brighter for her since she's seeing the world with fresh eyes, he explained. Then you have the creepily organic clickers adding pops of color, and even "benign fungus" has become part of the scenery, turning some walls "leathery and plant-like." 

Model Management

Painstakingly detailed white card models were also "super-helpful," the production designer noted. (That's right, this whole world exists in miniature, too.)

"We had an incredible model maker," Paino shared. "My favorite was the giant model for the cul-de-sac [in episode five, "Endure and Survive"] where the clickers come out of the ground. That whole sequence, so much stunt coordination."

Movement choreographer Terry Notary held a bootcamp to get the extras ready to realistically portray a hoard of infected.

Animal Farm

The town of Canmore stood in for Jackson, Wyo., where Joel finds his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) living a domesticated, well-appointed life (Electricity! Movie night!) in a walled-off communal village.

"We put in the wall and rebuilt a lot of the facades," Paino noted—though his pride and joy from that episode was the paddock they built in the middle of a parking lot.

"That was just so much fun to have a paddock!" he said. "We had a few cows and some sheep, we had horses. The set decorating department was fabulous."

Nostalgia on Steroids

Paino's favorite set was the mall where Ellie and her best friend Riley (Storm Reid) have what starts off as a stellar night in episode seven, "Left Behind," before the reminder that nowhere is safe rears its literal ugly head.

The Northland Village Mall in Calgary "was destined to be," the designer said. "It was stripped of everything, it was going to be torn down, so we lucked out in finding it. All the facades in it were rebuilt. All the signage, the dreck, the vines, the merry-go-round was brought in."

The set decorators tracked down lingerie that would have been in a Victoria's Secret window in 2003, costumes for the Halloween store, the decidedly smaller selection of American Girl dolls available at the name-brand boutique in those days, etc.

Paino noted that all the brand names—from the mall storefronts to an abandoned Arby's in Kansas City (where Matchstick Men and Underworld are forever on the theater marquee) to a "we take Mastercard" sign on the door of a restaurant where the wine glasses on the still-set tables are full of moss—were specific to the show, as the video game didn't include any trademarked products.

Going for a Spin

The production leased the rodeo-themed carousel that Ellie and Riley take a turn on from the Spruce Meadows entertainment complex in Calgary, shipping it in pieces and reassembling it at Northland Village.  

They added reflective panels to the center of the ride to add to the surreality of the experience.

Games Within the Game

As for Raja's Arcade (which comes from the game), Paino said, "being a child of the '70s, I spent a lot of time in a mall arcade, so that was easy."

"It was so much fun to put up all the neon," he continued, and "we were able to get a carpet that was right from the '70s, that great Zippy satellite pattern." They also brought in all the games, including classic titles like Tetris, Frogger and Mortal Combat.

"You can rent some of those, but we built a lot of them," he said, and they actually worked. But the cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors that games from 20 years ago had came out blurry on camera, so they replaced them with flat LED screens in order to capture the action clearly. 

"That was a lot of fun," he reflected. "I loved that set."

A World Built for Two

A close second-favorite set for Paino was the town where Bill (Nick Offerman) is satisfactorily living alone until Frank (Murray Bartlett) shows up in 2007 and changes everything. With Frank just referenced in the game, their powerful love story written for the show served up a different kind of devastation as the plot takes a detour from Joel and Ellie's journey.

They had "such a short window" to set the scene, from bringing in the greenery to sculpting the Civil War monument, Paino said. "I think we were working up until late at night the day before it shot."

Art Reflects Life

"Bill's house was more his mom's, someone who was rich and keeping it almost like a museum," Paino explained the vision behind the old-lady decor when the gruff survivalist is first introduced.

Frank got there and basically said to himself, "'Okay, well, what do I do?'" Paino mused. "'I go to Target and get paints.'"

While the picturesque hamlet may have been cleared of people pretty quickly, there's still a Home Depot. "Go to Michael's, paint, hang the pictures, add some life and flowers,'" Paino continued. "That was a nice bit of world-building."

By the end, after 16 years together, Frank's art is all over the walls of what has become their house, and we are a weeping mess.

Inner Worlds

A few of Sam's drawings in episode 5 were courtesy of actor Keivonn Montreal Woodard, who plays the ill-fated youngster, but overall the art department cranked them out using the game as their guide.

Though the tragic ending remains the same, the touching scene where big brother Henry (Lamar Johnson) applies a little paint to Sam's face, superhero-style, to cheer him up was new to their story.

Frozen in Time

Mazin may have referred to episode 8 ("When We Are in Need") as "our cold episode," but there were more than a few cold episodes for the crew shooting at Waterton Lakes National Park. With few residents at the resort area during the winter, "there's nothing there," said Paino, "and there's, like, nine feet of snow."

When they were scouting in Waterton, where Ellie's run-in with David's (Scott Shepherd) cannibal cult is set, "we went up to a hill and we all got blown off," recalled Paino, who was on location for 16 months. "No effects required to send us on our butts, flying. But it's an unbelievable place."

Enjoying the View

Just like the sheep and horses in the paddock, the giraffes that appear to be grazing in an old playing field in the season finale, "Look for the Light," were real—but in their case, the production had to go to them.

"That set piece was beautifully executed," Paino said. Joel and Ellie are "walking through a construction site, which was a location in downtown Calgary that we did some work to. They're going up the staircase—that was a set built on a stage. The giraffes' enclosure [at the zoo] had a balcony where the keepers would feed them. Over a period of a month and a half, maybe a bit longer, we slowly introduced pieces of scenery and green screen in there, so it would match that very iconic scene of them making their way up to the top of the desiccated building and seeing [Colorado] laid out."

"That was, I don't know, four minutes of the episode," Paino said wryly. "But it was really beautiful."

Just the Right Touch

Grand scale aside, the show was "also fairly intimately shot," Paino noted. "It is a story about the people. We don't do a lot of big 'there's the world!'"

Ultimately, he explained, "we didn't want to do disaster porn." And yet they wanted it to resonate, such as when Ellie is rifling through a drawer in an abandoned home and finds needle and thread, that "this was someone's house, this was someone's bar."

"Sometimes it was scripted, and sometimes it wasn't," Paino said of the little details that make the world of The Last of Us so haunting. "We always tried to play with that sad irony."

And they did manage to sneak in a mold-splotched "Back in 5 minutes" sign that someone innocently hung up 20 years ago. 

"If I ever have a screensaver," Paino said, "I think it'll be that."

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