The Last of Us: Coloring with Emotion

March 13, 2023 Mar. 13, 2023

You might expect Senior Colorist Stephen Nakamura to report that working on HBO’s record-breaking series The Last of Us was particularly challenging. The riveting dystopian series, which was based on the blockbuster game (from Naughty Dog and Sony Computer Entertainment) and developed by Neil Druckermann and Craig Mazin, presents a unique look representing the show’s zombie-infested world. But, he says, that when the material itself – the writing, the acting, the photography – is as powerful as it is on this show, that his job is actually simpler. “I can color each scene based on my emotional reaction to what’s happening,” he says.

While set in a world overwhelmed by zombies, the series deals with very human stories – a different situation each episode, with only the characters of Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) present throughout the entire season. “There are really an endless number of stories that could come from this premise because what it’s really about is not the zombies but the human beings who have to live in this world. How do they react to one another? How do they treat other people? And they did an incredible job telling these stories.”

Nakamura collaborated with cinematographer Ksenia Sereda helping to develop looks for the first episode and then worked with her and the season’s other cinematographers, Eben Bolter and Nadim Carlsen, on the individual episodes they shot.

Sereda, he says, “wanted to really lean into some heavy looks. When it’s warm, it’s really warm and the same when it’s cold. If a source is supposed to be sodium vapor, the picture goes heavily in that direction. She and the other cinematographers are very unafraid of taking this show to extremes you don’t see on a lot of other shows.”

Then, on a shot-to-shot level, Nakamura says he was able work primarily by responding to what was happening onscreen at the moment and be almost certain the results would please the filmmakers. “The whole team of people that put this together did amazing work,” the colorist notes. “If I’m working on something that doesn’t make me feel anything,” he explains, “then I have to try to figure out what the filmmakers are going for and I might need more direction. The Last of Us wasn’t like that. There is an episode I’ve watched 16 times and I had a deep emotional reaction to it every time. When a show is that powerful, I can do a lot of my work purely by feel.”

For more information about the show, click here.