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Cinematographer Ksenia Sereda shot 'The Last of Us', the new HBO series based on the video game of the same name developed by Naughty Dog for the PlayStation platforms.

The story of 'The Last of Us' takes place 20 years after modern civilisation has been destroyed. Joel, a hardened survivor, is hired to smuggle Ellie, a 14-year-old girl, out of an oppressive quarantine zone. What starts as a small job soon becomes a brutal, heartbreaking journey, as they both must traverse the US and depend on each other for survival.

“I played the game for the first time almost four years ago, when I was fascinated by its cinematic look. I wasn’t ready for how beautiful it was – the lighting was gorgeous. What surprised me the most was how deeply I connected to the characters in the game,” said Ksenia Sereda. “That put us under some pressure to translate the video game language into the TV series, Everyone, including nearly all of the crew, loved the game.”

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Visual Story

Although three other cinematographers – Eben Bolter, Nadim Carlsen and Christine A. Maier – joined the production to work on several episodes, at the start of production Ksenia worked with Neil Druckmann, the writer of the original game and co-creator and writer/director for television, and Craig Mazin, co-creator and writer/director for television, to capture the visual language of the series. Starting from the cinematic reference in the game itself, one of the most important tasks was to recreate the atmosphere of this dystopian world.
Ksenia said, “Some may say that The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic ‘fight for survival’ story, but for me, the real story is about people building new lives in new circumstances. It's about friendship, love and above all, the characters’ journeys. Part of the joy of the game is the interaction with the characters, seeing the action from their perspective. Likewise, for the TV show we wanted to stay as close to them as possible, a decision that informed our choice of camera and lenses.”
Following a short period of tests, Ksenia chose to match Cooke S4/i spherical lenses with the ARRI ALEXA Mini camera. “I am obsessed with spherical lenses,” she said. “I wanted to keep close ups on the normal side and not resort to long or wide lenses because, working from the characters’ perspective on the story, we needed to be able to stay close but at the same time preserve the depth of the background. I also wanted to work within the range of 25mm-50mm lenses.”

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The challenge was – which lens won’t distort faces at 25mm, and where can I use a wide lens on the close-ups without making it pop too much? She found the Cooke S4/i lenses were an excellent choice for the project. With their circular elements, they accurately capture reality. When light passes through them and onto the sensor, the result is an uncompressed, undistorted image.

“They are gorgeous, and are one of my favourite lens series. You have a very distinctive focus plane, but after that, the falloff between the focus plan and the defocused area is very smooth. I also love to work without filters, and on the close ups I was constantly impressed with the portraits we could create with the light. The interaction of light, lens and camera gave a very specific, warm, textured and image.”

Keeping It Cool

In a post-apocalyptic world, low lighting and flares were a challenge that the Cooke lenses coped with well. “Some of the scenes went into areas where people were without electricity, so the scenes were literally built only with flashlights. With the Cooke S4/i’s, you know that when you're working with flaring, it’s sympathetic – it’s never too overwhelming or over-tinted,” said Ksenis.

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“Shooting low light with the S4/I and ARRI ALEXA Mini produces beautiful work with very high intensity areas and low exposed areas. In general, I really love to work on the bottom of the exposure curve, I really love to pack the image from 60% and down, having the whites always in very low range to give us the opportunity for more shades and textures in the blacks.”
The organic, gentle Cooke Look was important as well, but not to the point of downgrading cooler images. “I did want to stay on the warmer side – we didn’t want to anticipate sad scenes with bluer tones and happy scenes with warm colours. I've heard a lot about Cookes being warm, but I never had problems getting a cooler image. I feel they really support the neutral look of light, and what I love about that is that it helps me to keep all the colours where I want them to be.”

Practical VFX

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The show features numerous visual effects shots, many of which were achieved practically. “Alex Wang, the VFX Supervisor, was wonderful to work with. John Paino, the production designer, created some fantastic sets and Barrie Gower did incredible work with prosthetics, which gave us a chance to work with real elements on set,” said Ksenia. “On the other hand, we used blue screen for very specific scenes like night scenes or more controlled environments. The critical factor was that, although we used contrasting VFX techniques over the show, the lenses and the camera gave complete flexibility in creating every type of effect.”
The Last Of Us is currently available to view on Sky Atlantic in the UK and HBO Max in the US.