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

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

HBO’s The Last of Us is one of the biggest hits of the year. That's no doubt due in part to a story that’s equal parts gripping and heartbreaking, and a world that’s both compelling and original. And in the right light, that dystopian world is also beautiful.
The Oscar-winning and Emmy-nominated VFX studio Digital Domain helped create the look of that future world, giving audiences glimpses at how civilization died – and what was born in its place. We spoke with Mitch Drain, VFX Supervisor at Digital Domain to find out more about how they brought The Last of Us to life. 

PH: Can you tell me a little about Digital Domain?
Mitch Drain: Sure! Digital Domain is an Academy Award-winning studio and has been a pioneer in visual effects since its inception in 1993, collaborating closely with the world's top television and film studios. The studio is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year!
In addition to visual effects, our Digital Human Group has also been at the forefront of research, development, and innovation, creating the most advanced autonomous digital human, Zoey, and several proprietary tools, such as Masquerade and Charlatan, that the studio relies on to bring VFX to the screen. Digital Domain also has one of North America's largest motion capture stages, where we've captured several projects such as Supermassive Games The Quarry; Marvel Studios She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania; Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One, Disney's Jungle Book, and more.
Our studio houses some of the industry's most artistic, forward thinking and deeply committed supervisors, artists, technicians, and craftspeople. We also have the best clients. I really enjoy "going" to work everyday and working with everyone to create stunning, award-winning vfx!

PH: What projects has Digital Domain had a hand in bringing to life?
Mitch Drain: Digital Domain has brought exceptional artistry to blockbusters such as “Titanic,” “The Fifth Element,” “What Dreams May Come,” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” We’ve also contributed to several Marvel Cinematic Universe titles such as the Avengers franchise (Infinity War and Endgame), “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” “She-Hulk,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and Homecoming, making a splash with “Stranger Things: Season IV, “Carnival Row” SN 2, “Citadel” and more.
In addition, Digital Domain has paved the way, developing proprietary artificial intelligence technologies to bring several digital humans to life. Some projects to note include:
  • Tupac hologram, which stunned Coachella audiences
  • Avengers: Infinity War - was the most expressive CG character yet, Thanos
  • Supermassive Games’ The Quarry - allowed us to put photoreal Hollywood stars into a
    game, editable in real-time
  • She-Hulk - we delivered a feature-quality real-time CG character on an episodic
  • Zoey – Digital Domain’s autonomous virtual human
PH: How did you become involved with The Last of Us?
Mitch Drain: VFX Supervisor Alex Wang and Digital Domain had worked together on previous projects, and was already engaged with us for previs work on “The Last of Us.” DD was in production on other projects and unable to take on all of the work. As production progressed on the show there were important sequences that had not been awarded. Alex and VFX Producer Sean Nowlan reached out and we were able to assemble a small but strong team to meet the challenge of complex work on a tight schedule.

PH: What went into pre-production for this project? How important was it to nail down what the post-apocalyptic world was going to look like (since it's such a focal point of the entire series)?
Mitch Drain: We had meetings with Alex and Sean to discuss shot specifics. Key to the work was to achieve a look of 20 years of neglect, i.e., the earth reclaiming itself with overgrowth while the man-made elements decayed. The showrunners wanted a certain beauty to the environments. Once the aesthetic was established, we began gathering the right elements to assemble for each shot: cars, boats, military vehicles and appropriate set pieces along with natural elements of vegetation, flowers and plant life. DD has an extensive library and anything we couldn’t source we created.
PH: Can you dive into your use of visuals and how they helped drive the narrative in subtle, but powerful ways?
Mitch Drain: The montage of shots showing the outside world begins with shots that show more subtle signs of neglect. A rusting roller coaster, some overgrowth etc. The shots progress to reveal more and more decay: broken signage, abandoned military vehicles and finally a sweeping shot of a rusted bridge over capsized large and small boats and abandoned structures. The dichotomy of decay and the natural beauty of nature was most important.
Most of our work takes place after Joel and Ellie leave the city. Ellie had never seen life outside of the city, so every element is a new discovery. We hoped to instill the sense of wonder that Ellie felt in the viewer. The practical photography helped with that by providing grand vistas and compositions that could bring focus on the environments and served as great raw materials for the visuals.
PH: How did you build upon live-action footage to make this world that is obviously in ruin, also be quite beautiful?
Mitch Drain: We used 3D and 2.5D matte painting techniques. Lidar was provided by production which allowed us to create geometry that we could add and subtract from as well as project our matte paintings onto. From an artistic perspective, the game provided great references as well as the use of colorful flowers and saturated tones in the overgrown areas. Every element of decay was counterbalanced with green leaves, flowers and vines.

PH: Let's talk about that montage of Joel and Elle driving across the long-abandoned bridge. Can you talk about how this entire scene came together? How did you start?
Mitch Drain: Production supplied a drone plate from the location along with concept art. DD also had on set data support that assured we had camera information and Lidar of the area. From there, Krista McLean, our Environments Supervisor, and I researched different types of boats that would work to illustrate the abandoned and capsized ships. As we showed proof of concept and iterations of the shot in progress, the levels of deterioration and overgrowth evolved.
Additionally, geometry was created from the Lidar for the artists to project matte paintings representing the dilapidated bridge and surrounding buildings as well as adding cg overgrowth, cracks in the road etc. A CG water sim was also used to create the subtle interactions of the river flow with the boats which were all added in post.
PH: How did you capture the remains of Kansas City while shooting in Calgary, Alberta? Were there any challenges? What equipment/software did you trust to bring all of this to life? (and why?)
Mitch Drain: We used Photoshop for Matte paintings along with Maya for modeling and texturing the 3D elements. Effects simulations for warmer, blowing leaves and dust were created in Houdini and Speedtree was used to create overgrowth and trees. Nuke was used for compositing the elements together and putting final touches on the shots. These are the best tools in the industry, along with additional proprietary tools that have been a part of the DD pipeline for many years. (Fun fact in regard to the studios’ history: Nuke was actually developed here at DD!)
PH: How did you feel about the end result?
Mitch Drain: I am extremely proud of what the team was able to accomplish. We worked quickly, as dictated by the schedule, but kept the quality very high to meet our standards. The environments team really deserves the credit for the success of the work. It is also important to recognize the crucial work done by the compositing team led by Randy Ruan. In addition to the environment work, they also handled multiple driving sequences with complex 2D composites.
PH: Can you talk about what other projects you have in the works?
Mitch Drain: The studio just finished work on Amazon’s Citadel, and you can see our working soon in Netflix’s Extraction 2 and Black Mirror Season 6, and Marvel Studio’s Secret Invasion. Extraction 2, Black Mirror and Secret Invasion all are set to release in June.
PH: Where can readers go to learn more about Digital Domain?
Mitch Drain: Readers can visit to learn more about Digital Domain.
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