How “The Last of Us” Created a Post-Apocalyptic Set from the 2000s

published Mar 16, 2023
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
Credit: HBO Max

HBO Max’s television adaptation of the 2013 video game “The Last of Us” follows the journey of Joel Miller (played by Pedro Pascal) and Ellie Williams (played by Bella Ramsey) throughout a dystopic, zombie-infested America. Although the bond between the unlikely duo has won over the hearts and attention of many, the show’s detailed set design has also received praise for honoring the game’s legacy.

Between the arcade’s twinkling lights and the perfect placement of the mall’s carousel, the set of episode seven was fitting for Ellie and Riley’s short-lived first date. For the show’s less marvelous moments — like episode five’s horde of infected creatures — the result of natural disasters and war had to be recreated to visually demonstrate the damages caused by fungus and harsh climates.

Credit: HBO Max

With collaborative efforts between the visual effects team and the sculpting department, minor details led to its “monumental production,” according to production designer John Paino. With a portfolio including “The Morning Show” and “Big Little Lies,” Paino and his team developed their own concept art for the adaptation and combined it with the source materials from game developer Naughty Dog.

As discussion flooded the internet each Sunday evening, fans were in awe of the set’s portrayal of eco-brutalism and abundance of greenery. But the love for the show’s design continued throughout the entire series, especially Bill’s colonial yet apocalypse-ready home in episode three. 

In an interview with Apartment Therapy, Paino shared more about the minor details throughout Bill’s home, recreating downtown Boston, and the show’s 180 filming locations.

Credit: HBO Max

Apartment Therapy: In an interview with Vanity Fair, it was revealed that you built the set from scratch. Besides the video game, what were your other references for creating the set?

John Paino: If it’s something specific, we would do a lot of research, like for Bill’s home. [His home] was based on people who had colonial homes, and that was his mom’s house. And as far as the furniture, it was antique and colonial. But for the mall, we went back and made sure all of the stores were as they would look 20 years ago, but it’s okay to pick and choose from a bit and it’s all getting desiccated. As long as we don’t have anything that’s anachronistic, like an iPad, because we try to do our jobs.

AT: Recreating a lived-in home like Bill and Frank’s paired well with the heartwarming yet heartbreaking episode. What were some of the touches that added to this episode about their love story amid an apocalypse?

JP: Our set decorator Paul Healy did a great job. We spent some time figuring out [Bill’s backstory] since it’s his mom’s house. Because of his character being closeted and this dichotomy between being a manly man and being true to himself, it was interesting to find his place and the decor. So between his bunker and his bedroom, we had some artifacts from the Boston area in his room, like baseball banners and things like that.

Another set like that was the Bostonian museum. It was great to get a lot of period guns, and we made all the memorabilia besides some of the rented costumes on mannequins and wooden ships on display.

Credit: HBO Max

AT: Speaking of Boston, people joked about the city looking better in the show than it does IRL in 2023. Tell me more about creating the environment for downtown Boston.

JP: The QZ (short for quarantine zone) was built from scratch. And the pretty narrow streets of red brick — we actually made replicas of ones in Boston. And going through in the suburbs, I guess it looks a little better, because everything’s green. We actually did a lot of that in Edmonton, and we dressed the same streets with cars. The sculpting department made a lot of these styrofoam blisters to make the roads look as if they had water damage. And what’s great about the show that they couldn’t do in the game was that we could actually use real signage like all the stores in the malls and Boston signs thanks to HBO Max’s Fair Use policy.

AT: I’d love to talk about the abandoned mall, its recognizable stores, and the arcade with Mortal Kombat II. How did you recreate that entire set to be the seemingly perfect first date between Ellie and Riley?

JP: I grew up in the ‘70s and spent a lot of time in malls. And we just patterned [the set] on a mall from the 2000s, and all the games are authentic to the time. We actually had to rebuild a lot of them, because they’re old, outdated, and from the 80s. The crew and I spent a lot of time in the mall, and we based it on things that were probably a little closer to the ‘80s because it just looked cooler.

AT: Similar to the moment in the photo booth, the argument between Joel and Ellie in a bedroom was pretty spot-on in comparison to the game. How was working with Neil Druckmann and the team at Naughty Dog to mimic moments from the game?

JP: There’s a lot of reference for those moments, and for those sets in particular, we just wanted to create as close as we could to what’s in the game. A lot of the things we’ve done have new material that isn’t alluded to in the game. But we wanted them to be exact, so we certainly would go to Naughty Dog and get their reference for it.

The Last of Us is available to stream on HBO Max.