The ground beneath Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) is constantly cracked — and spoiler alert sometimes hiding a cavern full of Cordyceps-infected zombies like the one that erupts in Kansas City near the end of Episode 5, “Endure and Survive.” And it’s awesome in both the modern and old-fashioned sense of the word that “The Last of Us” crafted its Cordyceps cul-de-sac — 16 houses in various states of disrepair, a small fleet of wrecked cars that all get even further demolished by a plow, which itself explodes and falls into a sink-hole before a horde of zombies emerge — for Episode 5 alone.
“We had many, many meetings about how we were going to create 16 houses and the road and everything from scratch,” production designer John Paino told IndieWire of creating the deadly cul-de-sac. The process was not unlike that of the rest of the series. It began with the incredible level of detail showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann wrote into the script, while the location scouts zeroed in on empty parking lots and abandoned roadways, “because we’re certainly not going to find a neighborhood [where residents would] let us desiccate those houses to that degree.” From there, Paino and his team created concept art for each major section Joel and Ellie moved through, and modelers created to-scale versions of a post-apocalyptic Kansas City off of LIDAR scans of the area.
“We had an incredible model maker as part of our set design department, and he built a to-scale model of [cul-de-sac neighborhood in Episode 5],” Paino said. “And the laundromat [in Episode 4], the alleys, based on the script and the references we have of Kansas City, we [translated the designs] into practical sets. And there’s a serendipity that occurs when we embrace the physical spaces, like, ‘My God, look at this great building, let’s do something with it.'”
For the final action sequence in Kansas City, though, special care above and beyond the production team’s normal procedure needed to be taken, as the destruction of a repurposed snow plow triggers the eruption of a horde of infected – including a terrifying “bloater” that comes for Kathleen (Lynskey) and Perry (Jeffrey Price). “When the truck went into the pit, [first] we had to pull it out, dig the pit out a bit so that people could get inside it. There’s just so much happening in that scene.”
That scene was, in fact, one of the few on the series that was storyboarded “because of all the things that are happening, pyrotechnics effects, VFX, all of the danger involved and getting it right,” Paino said. “I think [director Jeremy Webb] spent a good four weeks shooting [that sequence]. But the great thing was we had it all built there. We actually built a three-story house that Joel is in, shooting down at them. We were able to build it all and plan it all.”
Paino and his team are constantly building, as episodes see Ellie and Joel encountering different kinds of blight and disrepair on their journey west from Boston. Paino felt it was important to stress the visual differences and different ways urban constructions can decay and rewild. “We’re the show of the cinder block rooms, right?” Paino said. “We’re in a lot of desiccated places and [we have to try] to make them look like they’re not all painted with the desiccation patina brush too much. We’re trying to add little bits here. This is a beauty parlor. This is a bar. Sometimes it’s in the script. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes we’re like, ‘Let’s cave the walls in differently.’ Like when Ellie finds the Cordyceps underneath the gas station in Episode 3. Let’s have those walls undulate, because 20 years without electricity, and flooding, [that’s what] nature would do to things.”
The small main street Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett) call home in Episode 3 was in a different part of Canada, although it also was completely built from scratch. “They’re separate entities. [The Episode 3] cul-de-sac was actually built in a parking lot that was adjacent to one of our sound stages, but it wasn’t even asphalt. It was filled with gravel. So we had to lay asphalt. It’s all built, the lawns, everything,” Paino said. “I would say this is the most set building I’ve ever done, because of the nature of the show. We’re going from A to Z.”
There was an A to Z process to get the set builds appropriately aged and distressed, too. Once the production team had the green light to block an overpass in Calgary with a bunch of busted cars and a jackknifed semi for Episode 4, the cars, “would go to our scene shop and they’d get distressed and rusted, and then when they’re in place, our army of greens people would then come in where the army of set dressers [had just been] and put all the vines and everything in. Then our construction department would add the blisters that show there’s buckling in the road. Then greens would work soil and debris into the cracks. [There was] a whole process,” Paino said.
But some of Paino’s favorite work on “The Last of Us” doesn’t involve an immense, ominous scale. Kathleen’s childhood bedroom stands out as a moment where the production design team could add character nuance through visual storytelling. “I love the way that room [is colored],” Paino said. “It’s so easy to have everything look like a medieval painting where everything is kind of dipped in mud. We always tried as much as we could, where it made sense, to have the chroma of those colors and some of those things come through, showing that this is the color of the Before Time. Those colors just don’t exist anymore [in present-day Kansas City].”
Color was key to how Paino approached period details for the early-aughts sequences at the outbreak of the infection. “In the first town they go to, we tried to put in as much neon as possible because we’re not going to have those colors [in the story’s present day],” Paino said. “I really loved the way that set came out. We don’t always get to have that sense of sadness [of what’s lost].”
Viewers who’ve already played through the first “The Last of Us” game can guess some of the places where color may crop up again as the show goes on, harkening back to a sense of childhood that Joel’s daughter Sara (Nico) got to have and that Ellie certainly missed out on. Paino relished those moments of respite from aging roadways, creating blight, and crumbling cinder blocks.
“One of the things that appeals to me about ‘The Last of Us,’ and it’s obvious in Episode 3, is that the show’s not about killing. [It asks] how does humanity carve out an existence in a world that no longer exists? [What are] the Edens and the dystopias that people make, like in the tunnels, and on Bill and Frank’s street? Kathleen’s childhood bedroom is in the Kansas City QZ,” Paino said, pointing out that there was space for some innocence even under FEDRA’s authoritarian rule. It is therefore all the more heartrending to show that space peeling and aging and robbed of the magic that made it safe. The relentless march of greenery, soil, debris, and age Paino and his team deploys on every set show that, on “The Last of Us,” nowhere is safe.
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