Digital Domain's VFX work on The Last of Us in a scene where a two-tone truck travels down a road overgrown with weeds and a decayed bridge lies ahead

How Digital Domain Created Beauty from Decay in HBO’s “The Last of Us”

The Emmy and Oscar-Nominated Studio Contributed Significant Work for the Fourth Episode and the Season Finale

Throughout its thirty-year history, Academy Award-winning VFX studio Digital Domain has created some of the most memorable and impressive photorealistic digital environments ever seen in films, episodics and more. But for HBO’s hit new series The Last of Us, the production asked them to go even further. Along with building a digital world highlighting 20 years of decay, Digital Domain collaborated with the production to help tell the story of the last days of civilization. The VFX studio was happy to oblige.

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“The team behind The Last of Us had a clear and impressive vision of the world, and they wanted to use the visuals to help drive the narrative in subtle and powerful ways,” said Digital Domain VFX Supervisor Mitch Drain. “Working with the production, we wanted to show that in the ruin of the world, there was a certain beauty to it all, which really let us stretch our artistic sensibilities.”

Based on the critically acclaimed video game of the same name developed by Naughty Dog for the PlayStation® platforms, The Last of Us takes place 20 years after modern civilization has been destroyed. Joel (Pedro Pascal), a hardened survivor, is hired to smuggle Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a 14-year-old girl, out of an oppressive quarantine zone. What starts as a small job soon becomes a brutal and heartbreaking journey as they both must traverse the U.S. and depend on each other for survival.

Digital Domain was tasked with giving Ellie – and the audience – a first look at a world overrun by nature. Working closely with the production, the VFX artists were given the freedom to design glimpses into the post-apocalyptic world, which were later connected through a montage of Joel and Ellie driving across the country in the fourth episode, “Please Hold to My Hand.” Building on live-action footage, Digital Domain’s artists created several snapshots of how things would look without people, and how some of those final moments before the end of civilization may have played out.

Digital Domain began with a shot of Ellie and Joel driving across a long-abandoned bridge. To create this shot, the artists started with data and photography of the actual bridge, including LiDAR of the metallic structure straddling a flowing river. The team questioned how 20 years of neglect, unchecked growth and weather would impact this type of structure, before employing Photoshop and SpeedTree to create the overgrowth and decay, along with Maya for all 3D work. Additional digital assets were added, including abandoned cars, debris and trawlers in the water, while Houdini was used to create flowing water breaking around digital elements in the river. All shots were rendered in V-Ray, and everything was then matchmoved to the live-action footage.

After Joel and Ellie cross the bridge, they catch several glimpses of the last days of the world. The VFX team received footage of a fleet of FedEx trucks left in place to show how rapid the fall of civilization was. Artists digitally aged the trucks before adding decay and the sprawling Cordyceps fungus. Next, the duo see a collection of military vehicles ranging from tanks to troop carriers – created using both real plates and digital assets – all digitally augmented to suggest at a glance that the soldiers haphazardly abandoned the equipment.

To cap off the montage, Joel and Ellie pass a ruined train hanging precariously over a collapsed set of elevated tracks. The VFX team added double-decker train cars to establish that it was a passenger vehicle, adding another layer to the tragedy. The train and tracks were then added to existing plates, and lighting effects were introduced to highlight the silver coloring of the cars. Additional Houdini effects were also introduced, including tumbling leaves and digital grass blowing in the wind.

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Digital Domain capped it off with the first look at the decaying remains of Kansas City. The production filmed several shots in Calgary, Alberta to create the midwestern American urban environment. Working from those plates, Digital Domain added military vehicles and removed elements that didn’t fit the look of a post-apocalyptic city. Finally, artists added the finishing touches, including overgrowth, decay and fungus, while ensuring the area retained a certain visual appeal.

The VFX team wrapped up its work on the series by contributing to the season finale, “Look for the Light.” As Joel and Ellie drive toward their final destination against a backdrop of CG environments, they pass a digitally created sign that reads “Welcome to Wyoming,” signifying the end of their journey.

The Last of Us season one is available now exclusively on HBO Max.

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