“The Last of Us” is a real neighborhood in Kansas City
Production designer John Paino talks about building the rubble and ruins of Kansas City for the HBO series.
The ground kept cracking under Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) – and spoiler alert sometimes it hides a cave full of Cordyceps-infected zombies, like the one that erupts in Kansas City at the end of episode 5, “Endure and Survive”. It’s both modern and old-fashioned awesome that “The Last of Us” created the Cordyceps cul-de-sac – 16 different dilapidated houses, a small fleet of wrecked cars, all moving on. broken down with a plough, which itself it explodes and falls into a sinkhole before the hordes 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 about creating the deadly cul-de-sac. The process was no different from the rest of the series. It started with showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann writing the script in incredible detail, with location scouts zeroing in on empty parking lots and abandoned roads, “because we’re definitely not going to find a neighborhood (where residents would do that). dry up those houses to such an extent.” From there, Paino and his team created concept art for each major section that Joel and Ellie traversed, and modelers used LIDAR scans of the area to create scaled versions of post-apocalyptic Kansas City.
“We had an incredible model maker as part of our set design department, and he built a scale model (of the cul-de-sac area in Episode 5),” Paino said. “And the laundromat (in episode 4), the alleys, we made it a practical set based on the script and references to Kansas City (we translated the designs). And there’s a calamity that happens when we embrace physical spaces, like, “Gosh, look at this great building, let’s do something with it.”
However, the final action sequence in Kansas City required extra caution beyond the production team’s usual procedures, as the destruction of a recycled snowplow unleashes a horde of infected – including a terrifying “Bumper,” along with 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 little bit so people could get in. There’s so much going on in that scene.”
In fact, this scene was one of the few in the series that was storyboarded “because of everything that happens, the pyrotechnics, the VFX, the dangers involved, and how to get it right,” Paino said. “I think (director Jeremy Webb) spent a good four weeks shooting (this sequence). But the great thing was that we built everything there. We actually built a three story house with Joel in it and shot them. We were able to build and design all of this.”
Paino and his team continue to build as the episodes show Ellie and Joel encountering various ailments and devastation as they travel west of Boston. Paino considered it important to emphasize visual differences and the ways in which urban structures are destroyed and revived. “We’re showing you the cinder block rooms, right?” Paino said. “We’re in a lot of dry areas and (we have to) try to make them look like they haven’t been painted over with the drying patina brush. We try to add little things to it. This is a beauty salon. It’s a bar. Sometimes it’s in the script. Sometimes not. Sometimes we say, “Let’s cut the walls differently.” Like when Ellie finds the Cordyceps under the gas station in episode 3. Let the walls be wavy, because 20 years without electricity and floods, nature (that’s what) would do things.”
The small high street home of Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett) in episode 3 was in another part of Canada, although it was also completely built from scratch. “They are separate entities. (The Episode 3) cul-de-sac was actually built in a parking lot that was adjacent to one of our soundstages, but it wasn’t even asphalt. It was filled with gravel. So asphalt had to be laid. Everything is built in, the lawn, everything,” Paino said. “Due to the nature of the show, I’d say it’s the most fashionable building I’ve ever done. We go from A to Z.”
There was an A to Z process to properly age and distress stock builds. After the production team got the go-ahead to block an overpass in Calgary with a bunch of wrecked cars and a pulled semi for Episode 4, the cars “went to our location shop and got distressed and rusted, and then when they were in place, an army of greens would come in, where he has an army of dressers (that just happened) and puts in all the grapes and everything. Then our construction department adds the blisters that show the road bends. . The greens then work soil and debris into the cracks. (It was) a whole process,” Paino said.
But some of Paino’s favorite work in “The Last of Us” doesn’t involve a grand, sinister scale. Kathleen’s childhood bedroom stands out as a moment where the production design team can add nuances of character through visual storytelling. “I love the way that room is (colored),” Paino said. “It’s so easy to make everything look like a medieval painting where everything is covered in mud. We always tried as much as possible, where it made sense, to have the color of these colors and some things come through, showing that this is the color of Before. These colors no longer exist (in present-day Kansas City).
Color was key to Paino’s approach to period detail in the early stages of the outbreak. “The first city they go to, we tried to bring in as much neon as possible because we’re not going to have those colors (in the present day of the story),” Paino said. “I really liked how this set came out. We don’t always feel sadness (for things lost).
Viewers who have already played through the first “The Last of Us” game can guess the places where the colors can reappear as the show progresses, recalling the childhood feeling that Joel’s daughter Sara (Nico) had. and which Ellie must have missed. Paino enjoyed moments of respite from the aging roads, decay, and crumbling cinder blocks.
“One of the things that appeals to me about ‘The Last of Us,’ and it’s evident in Episode 3, is that the show is not about killing. (He asks) how can humanity exist in a world that no longer exists? (What are) the dystopias made by Eden and humans, like in the tunnels or on Bill and Frank’s street? Kathleen’s childhood bedroom is in the Kansas City QZ,” Paino said, pointing out that even under FEDRA’s authoritarian rule, there was room for some innocence. That makes it all the more heartbreaking to show the space peeling and aging, stripped of the magic that made it safe. The relentless march of green, soil, debris and age that Paino and his team present on every set shows that nowhere in “The Last of Us” is safe.
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