The Secret Ingredients That Helped ‘The Last of Us’ Break Out

(Image credit: HBO)

Craig Mazin, co-creator/executive producer/writer/director on “The Last of Us,” played up the teamwork aspect on the hit HBO drama on the Main Stage last week at the 2023 NAB Show in Las Vegas. The panel “American Cinema Editors Presents HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ ” saw Mazin speak about seeing film credits where the director gets essentially the lone credit for making the feature.

Mazin said, “There’s no way for a film to be by one person. There’s hundreds of people … in our case, thousands of people,” adding that he thought of “The Last of Us” producers, cast and crew as “a big family.”

Carolyn Giardina, tech editor at “The Hollywood Reporter,” moderated the panel during the SRO session. 

L to R: Carolyn Giardina, panel moderator; Craig Mazin, co-creator/executive producer/writer/director; Kesenia Sareda, cinematographer; Timothy Good, editor; Emily Mendez, editor; Alex Wang, VFX supervisor; and Michael J. Benavente, sound supervisor, on an NAB Show panel on HBO’s "The Last of Us." (Image credit: NAB)

Mazin spoke of the “luck” involved in gathering the right producers to work on the show and how listening to them in interviews and chats tells him a lot more than their credits do. “I like talking to people,” he said, “and hearing their passion for things.”

Season one was shot in Alberta, Canada. The producers discussed the challenges of adapting the popular video game to series.  

Alex Wang, VFX supervisor, described the game’s look as “so beautiful and so immersive. How do we use that as inspiration?”

Cinematographer Ksenia Sereda said the producers aimed for a balance between borrowing from the game and giving viewers something fresh. “We wanted to preserve the most iconic parts,” Sereda said, “but at the same time, we did not want to exactly copy the look.”

She spoke of the “massive” variety of choices for cameras and lenses, and said the ARRI ALEXA Mini gave the shots a realistic feel and helped the viewers get closer to the characters. 

Mazin quipped: “I don’t understand any of that. I’m glad you do.”

“The Last of Us” is set in a post-apocalyptic America, 20 years after a fungal infection has turned much of the population into zombies. Neil Druckmann created the show alongside Mazin. It premiered on HBO in January. 

Editor Timothy Good said he’d never played the video game before. Editor Emily Mendez, on the other hand, was a big fan. The two brought together their different perspectives to give the show a distinctive feel. 

The editors spoke of the key moments in season one. Pedro Pascal’s Joel lost his teenage daughter in the pilot, and is reluctant to open himself up to another teen girl as he gets to know Bella Ramsey’s Ellie. Ellie’s book of puns makes him smile for the first time in eons. “You can see the transformation between the two characters and how they sort of come together,” Good said. 

Mendez mentioned Ellie stitching up Joel’s stomach later in the season, and the effort the producers went through to give the scene extra impact. “You’re with her in that moment,” she said. 

Michael J. Benavente, sound supervisor, spoke of “a quiet world” in the show with no freeways, no kids on playgrounds, no airplanes. The viewer hears snowfall in one episode. “It really helps the story of the people,” Benavente said of the hushed vibe. “When you hear what they’re hearing, when you feel what they’re feeling.”

Mazin said sound is a vital “helper” in terms of delivering emotions and plot. He mentioned frequently writing sounds into his scripts. “I don’t understand what spherical lenses do,” Mazin said. “But I definitely understand sound.”

Season two will shoot in British Columbia.

“This is what I do — I do ‘The Last of Us,’ ” said Mazin with a smile. “I couldn’t be happier.” 

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