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DP Ksenia Sereda on shooting The Last of Us

Ksenia Sereda

Twenty years after a deadly fungal epidemic devastates humanity, survivor Joel is tasked with escorting 14-year-old Ellie across post-apocalyptic America. Based on the Naughty Dog 2013 video game, The Last of Us is available to stream on HBO and Sky Atlantic.

Episodes one, two and eight were captured by cinematographer Ksenia Sereda.

Where did you train as a cinematographer?

I started at the Russian State University of Cinematography in Moscow. My first feature happened when I was 18 years old. After that I started to get different shorts and documentaries, some other features and meeting people and different directors through my work. I didn’t have a lot of assistant experience, or much experience working on other sets with other DPs, so it sort of was figuring out on my own. I read interviews with other cinematographers in American Cinematographer, which I found really helpful. I tried to focus not only on cinematography and filmmaking, but I also tried to dig into the arts, modern arts and theatre because I really wanted to understand how to support the storytelling with visual language. It is very important to me.

How did you first get involved with The Last of Us?

I was introduced to the game a long time ago by my friends who were playing the game. Even though at that time, I was not very involved with playing video games, but I’d heard lots of great things about the game and how cinematic it is. I didn’t have the opportunity to play The Last of Us until four years ago and that was my first time to really connect with the material in person. It happened pretty randomly. I was going to an exhibition very far away from home and my operator gave me his PlayStation because he didn’t play at the time. He had only two games and one was a football game; the other was The Last of Us. That was the first time I played the game.

I was not obviously an experienced gamer, but even for people who aren’t very experienced playing video games, you can’t deny that absolute cinematic experience you are gaining while you are going through the game. It’s absolutely stunning, even the thoughtful details such as the light and camera movement. How scenes are made the way you are following the characters, it was hard to believe I was playing a video game. It was an incredible visual experience connected to very interactive game stuff. I never experienced anything like that. So, when I got a call for the interview to shoot The Last of Us, I couldn’t believe it. I was super lucky to work with Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann who were putting so much love and passion into the series. I wanted to support their vision and help them create this very special visual language for this very special project.

What were your initial conversations with Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin about the look of the series?

While talking about the project, of course we were mentioning that we needed to preserve the iconic scenes and elements from the game, but at the same time we really wanted to extend the visual universe of the game, while transferring that to the series. Of course, a lot of references were coming from the game because the game is already a visual masterpiece. When you are doing a video game adaptation it is important to keep in mind that while people are playing the game, they are having very exclusive interactive experience with the material. While shooting movies, or TV series, we don’t have those opportunities to interact with the viewer, but we have other very powerful cinematic tools. A good example of that would be the car sequence escape in episode one. We were grabbing the main idea of looking 360 from Sarah’s backseat and experiencing the outbreak happening around the car. We are grabbing that idea and the concept of the scene and experiencing with her every single moment of the outbreak.

As I already mentioned, in the game and the series, it is also very important to follow the characters and stay connected to the characters as a viewer. The museum clicker scene was based on this idea too, for example. Even though it’s an action sequence, it was played with longer shots, so you can stay closer to every character’s perspective, experiencing the fear and experiencing the feeling of the sound, which is very important when you meet the clicker. We were also working with handheld camera which gives the opportunity to stay very close to the characters, but also it builds very big trust because it gives a type of documentary feeling.

The museum sequence was very important because it was introducing the clicker to the viewers. People who played the game were waiting to see how the clickers were done and I think the reveal was very cool. We needed to build the suspense before revealing the clicker and that needs to be very shocking for us and very tight on the screen. We needed to create this low-light atmosphere, where the flashlight is very selective. We are featuring the directions the characters are looking at with the flashlights. These lighting solutions set the look for the scene.

The Last of Us. Photo: courtesy of Warner Bros. and Naughty Dog

What was your general approach to lighting for storytelling purposes?

With lighting in general we tried to stay as close as we could to the realistic feeling of light. We tried to work mostly through the windows and to have minimum light on the floor. We were using lots of flashlights as our characters often happen to be in unlit places. When we enter the part of the story when there is no electricity everything relies on natural light sources and flashlights. The sets were built in a way that we always had access to light with beautiful holes or partly ruined walls, where we could get a beautiful light push through. This was very gracefully supported by production designer John Paino who is an incredibly talented artist.

The Last of Us. Photo: courtesy of Warner Bros. and Naughty Dog

Did you encounter any challenges with the locations?

The shooting took place in Alberta, Canada mostly. It was a big pleasure to work there. The only challenge was the cold and the wind in winter, that was pretty challenging. I enjoyed working in Canada with the beautiful nature and it was my first time working in North America. I also had an amazing crew.

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