<I>The Last of Us</I>: A look at Digital Domain, Dneg & Weta's VFX work
May 22, 2023

The Last of Us: A look at Digital Domain, Dneg & Weta's VFX work

HBO’s The Last of Us takes place after a global pandemic destroys civilization. The series was inspired by the action-adventure game of the same name, developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony Computer Entertainment. Pedro Pascal stars as a hardened survivor named Joel, who partners with 14-year old Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey, in an effort to save humanity. The show follows the cast as they move from a quarantine zone in Boston westward, passing through Pennsylvania and beyond. Visual effects play a key role in establishing the decaying countryside that viewers witness as Joel and Ellie embark on their journey.

Digital Domain and Dneg both had a hand in creating the series’ wastelands. Here, we hear from visual effects talent from both studios. We beginning Digital Domain’s VFX supervisor Mitch Drain, whoy shares his insight into the studio’s contributions.


Mitch, can you give an overview of Digital Domain’s work on The Last of Us?

“Digital Domain was tasked with creating multiple environments that would show the journey of Joel and Ellie from a dilapidated city to the overgrowth of suburban and rural America. Production provided plate photography that the DD environments team added digital matte paintings and CG elements to show the beauty and decay of the landscapes. Digital Domain also completed multiple driving sequences of Ellie and Joel as they got to know each other in their travels. These sequences were complex in that the compositors needed to exactly match practically shot driving footage.”

What tools did the studio rely on?

“The DD team used Photoshop for matte painting; Maya for the creation of CG elements; Houdini for dust, smoke and environmental effects; and Nuke for compositing. In-house tools were also used for camera tracking and [integration].”

What’s most interesting about the VFX you and your team created?

“It was important to the filmmakers that we show the beauty of the Earth reclaiming itself through the use of plants, overgrowth and color. While man-made architecture and structures are decaying with time, flowers and beautiful vines are overtaking the landscapes. This dichotomy provided our artists with a unique challenge to create a reality that we haven’t seen before.”


Nick Marshall is a DFX supervisor at Dneg, and, here, shares his insight on the studio’s work. 

Hi Nick, what were Dneg’s responsibilities for the show?

“The focus for Dneg’s VFX work on the show was primarily centered around the vast amount of CG environments that were required. The work began while shooting was still in progress. We visited the various sets in Calgary and Edmonton to capture extensive photography of these locations to assist us in building virtual sets later. Production VFX supervisor Alex Wang engaged a LiDAR crew and drone photogrammetry team to work alongside us, which meant that we had all the possible data required to be able to successfully recreate the locations in CG.

Image courtesy of Dneg © 2023 Home Box Office, Inc., All rights reserved.

“We did a significant amount of work to reconcile the real Boston locations with the sets to remove as much guesswork as possible and start from a legitimate city layout. Then we adjusted from there based on composition and aesthetics, and some specific narrative requirements.”

How many shots did Dneg contribute?

“In total, we contributed 535 shots, spread across seven of the nine episodes. Alex carefully curated the vendor splits to try to ensure that each vendor had staggered deliveries that would ease the overall pressure. Dneg split the work between our Vancouver and India facilities, with London based DFX supervisor Nihal Friedel responsible for the creative delivery of the work coming from the artists in India. Vancouver producers Jess Brown and Lauren Weidel were integral to the planning and delivery of such a large amount of complex work.”

Image courtesy of Dneg © 2023 Home Box Office, Inc., All rights reserved.

Can you talk about some of the tools that were used for the VFX work?

“We used SideFX Houdini for a significant amount of the building destruction and procedural vegetation work, while all of our final scene assembly and rendering took place in Isotropix’s Clarisse. Hundreds of unique assets were built to match Boston locations using Autodesk Maya and The Foundry’s Mari for hero texturing, and these were supplemented with additional assets and materials from Quixel Megascans. IDV’s Speedtree was used to create specific trees and plants with spines for simulation. We had to contend with both wind in the plates and explosions that we were adding in post that all needed to interact with our CG vegetation, so simulation was something that we accounted for in our approach from the outset.

Image courtesy of Dneg © 2023 Home Box Office, Inc., All rights reserved.

“Foundry’s Nuke was our sole compositing tool. We utilized the 3D system in Nuke for a significant amount of work where we were doing our repeat treatment on top of plate buildings — adding grime, weathering, broken windows and mossy growth. Where we needed more hero ivy growth, we generated this using a procedural system created by Dneg environments supervisor Adrien Lambert, and rendered separate shadow passes using proxy buildings generated by our build team that were based on the LiDAR data. Our compositing team, under Francesco Dell’Anna, then recombined all of these passes into the final effect that you see on screen.”

Image courtesy of Dneg © 2023 Home Box Office, Inc., All rights reserved.

Is there a sequence that was particularly challenging or interesting?

“It’s hard to pinpoint a single sequence that presented more of a challenge than the next! The plank walk on the rooftop of the Bostonian Museum was tricky because it was our only full blue-screen set, while other sequences, like the big reveal of the leaning towers outside the hair salon, required extensive amounts of roto and comp integration. We did have some almost entirely full CG shots, like the escape from the Boston QZ at the very end of the first episode, and those are always very difficult to get right because there’s very little to inform on depth and optical effects in the plate. Full CG environments have become more commonplace in VFX in recent years, but it’s still a considerable challenge to make them 100 percent photoreal.

“In the end, a lot of our effort was artistic, not just technical. We don’t get long to spend in any one location, the show is constantly travelling as it follows our characters on their journey. We needed to make sure that we clearly showed off all the important elements that drive the story forward — a fallen building blocking a street and forcing a change of direction; a shot of the Boston QZ that we only get to establish a single time; a crater in the road that reminds Ellie of pictures of the moon, but still looks like a believable bomb site. We put considerable effort into composition, lighting and dressing to create a very clear and impactful set of environments that we never return to again during the show.”


Wētā FX’s work on The Last of Us focused primarily on the creatures, namely the infected victims of a fungal brain infection – the Clickers and Bloater. Based on designs from the game, the studio adapted the Clicker creatures and built several variations, including a new Clicker child character for the series’ Episode 5.

“We replaced the live action Clickers in Episode 2, matching the live action performance of a contortionist and adding realism to the cordyceps by adding light transmission and sub-surface scattering,” explain VFX supervisor Simon Jung and animation supervisor Dennis Yoo.

“We digitally recreated the incredible prosthetics of the live-action Bloater to add weight and menace to the creature, moving it away from being too human.”
Some of the series’ Clicker shots were practical, with partial CG head replacements. Wētā FX also created CG animals, including a giraffe based on plate photography of Nabo from the Calgary Zoo, as well as a group of monkeys and a deer.

“We transformed and extended environments and sets, including The Bostonian Museum and nearby Faneuil Hall, which became overgrown with plant life and cordyceps, and an urban baseball field in Salt Lake City, where the encounter with a herd of giraffes takes place,” note the creatives. “We also aged buildings throughout Colorado University.”

Core to Wētā FX’s work was the major battle scene in Episode 5, which takes place in a cul-de-sac outside of Kansas City, complete with fire effects, destruction, a sink hole, CG Clicker crowds, the Bloater and Child Clicker. In total, Wētā FX contributed 456 shots across Episodes 2, 3, 5, 6, 8 and 9.