Electronic Earth releases The Last of Us today for audience viewership. Based off of a scene from the hit 2013 video game developed by Naughty Dog and Sony Computer Entertainment, the short film follows an emotional interaction between Ellie (Jenna Anderson) and Joel (Duncan Sage) 20 years after the outbreak.
We caught up with director Phil Piasecki; cinematographer, Artem Mykhailetskyi; and producer/post-production supervisor, Sean Young for some discussion to coincide with its release:
Electronic Earth (E2):
Alright , so diving right into the conversation – what inspired you, or what made you want, to make a fan film over another type of film?
Phil Piasecki (Phil):
The story. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about writing anything original because I wasn’t too sure if filmmaking was what i really wanted to pursue and with the writing already done for The Last of Us (TLoU) adapting the story from within the game appealed to me because I loved the characters and their journey.
The scene we shot stood out to me because it really drove home the stakes of that world and the emotions of Joel and Ellie.
With TLoU being an adaptation of a video game, we’re curious if you’re regular gamers, and if so, what draws you to games like TLoU?
I would say I’m more of an occasional gamer – I used to play more when I was younger. That said, I’ve found myself binging games at times during the coronavirus pandemic.
I still play the occasional arcade-style shooters, but what draws me more into it are the quality of the stories. The stories with heart and relatable characters that make some morally-questionable decisions. Games in the variety of Uncharted, Heavy Rain and of course The Last of Us.
Artem Mykhailetskti (Artem):
I am a PC gamer but have not played The Last of Us. However, I watched the opening part of the game (and other scenes from the game) as well as watched friends play it on Playstation.
Just from that I was able to understand how awesome the game is and was a fan before I became involved with the film project. Once we started moving it forward I developed even more affection towards the game.
Sean Young (Sean):
I grew up gaming quite a lot, but much before the explosion of RPGs and story heavy worlds like what are found within TLoU. When Phil & Artem came to me with their film to supervise post-production through Electronic Earth I really had some homework to do in researching it and discovering what it was about and how we were going to polish up what they’d already done in production.
Can you explain what attracted you to TLoU’s story specifically? A film adaptation of a video game is a huge undertaking, there must have been something within that world that drove you to want to explore it further?
The relationship between Joel and Ellie is what engaged me the most when i played the game. Joel tragically lost his daughter, and his resentment/detachment from forming close bonds with people was intriguing to me. Once Ellie is introduced in his life, I wanted to see how he’d adapt. He wants to separate himself, but she wants to be close to someone. That was what I wanted to see how it could develop in a short on screen; the moment in TLoU when they both lay it out for one another and they have to make a difficult choice.
For me, with the limited insight I had on the game, I was attracted more by the enthusiasm that Phil had for the game. When someone is talking about something they’re doing and you see that sparkle in their eye and animation in their movement you know that it’s going to be a project that they care about.
That’s an interesting dynamic to have been introduced to. In deciding to explore that relationship on screen, what made you two (Phil & Artem) decide to work with each other?
I never really spoke to anyone else about the taking the cinematography role for this project. I’d worked with Artem on a set prior to TLoU, and I knew he had a well-versed knowledge for cinematography. I wanted to work together on a project at some point, so I floated the idea that was the adaptation for TLoU. I introduced him to the world that Joel and Ellie are in, and he was very eager to shoot the script.
(Laughs).. I didn’t know the part about me being the only candidate for the position of cinematographer, that means a lot to me, Phil.
Phil and I worked on two projects together before The Last Of Us and I remember attending the talent and crew premiere party one of them. This part is going to quite romantic; at one point, Phil and I were standing on a big balcony/patio as the sun was setting and he mentioned that he wanted to shoot a live action version of one of the scenes from The Last Of Us. The second he said it – I immediately said that I would love to do it without even knowing which scene it actually was as it was Phil who was in charge of the project. I knew he brought the understanding of, and passion for, the game that this project required.
What? With that set-up, there was no kiss?
What was the process like working together on TLoU or how easily did the project come together through the pre-production and production phases?
It came down rather quickly and smoothly. We used a cut scene from the game that served as our pre-vis to get an overall feel for tone and the existing concept art helped us narrow down the look. With the game setting and characters in mind, we began to organize the shots and camera movements that we wanted to explore. We agreed on different setups and angles, dolly movements etc. that were a bit different than in the game, but since it didn’t detract from the story and its pacing we moved forward.
Production was only over the course of a weekend and the majority of the crew were either fans of the game or had at least heard about it to some capacity so coupling that with having someone with a bit of camera experience like Artem and his team helped in successfully executing our shoot.
I remember Phil and I clicking right from the start. To be honest with you, I don’t remember anything bad happening on that set or during pre-production. I have only bright and happy memories from working with Phil and the rest of the team. Everyone was doing what they were supposed to do and everyone had a great time on set during production.
To elaborate more on our pre-production, Phil showed me how awesome the TLoU universe is and expanded my understanding of it even further – I felt like a kid in a playground discovering it.
Sounds like it all went pretty smoothly then. Mentioning characters and casting, what was the process like for you in selecting actors and ultimately choosing the actors you did?
We actually only looked at Jenna and Duncan.
Jenna was introduced to me by Chris Kelly. Jenna was about the right height that I need for Ellie, and I knew she could play a character that was younger than her. When I met with her, we talked about who Ellie was and what she wanted, and Jenna was immediately in love with her.
Finding Joel was a bit trickier. At the time, I personally didn’t know any actors within Joel age range and partial look. Duncan was brought to my attention by Jenna actually. He had the height (in contrast to Jenna), the right hair, and he was a fan of the game as well. It gave us a rather cool an interesting challenge to make Duncan resemble Joel’s appearance, so we went with it.
Basically, the casting just sort of fell into place, and it didn’t require much heavy lifting.
I thought the character of Ellie was cast really well. Jenna had the look that the role required as well as being able to portray her character with the emotional intensity she needed. I also worked with Duncan Sage (who was cast as Joel) before, so when I heard that he was cast – I thought “Good pick, Phil, good pick”.
Having those two pieces in place I knew that we were going to create something special.
It’s always great when casting can just happen organically like that. How much work went into preparing Jenna and Duncan for the roles of Ellie and Joel?
With each actor, we met separately only a couple times (to go other script notes, questions, minor ideas.) I met with both of them concurrently on multiple occasions. Once for a short camera/blocking test, once for makeup test, once to go and buy costume pieces, a two or three times for table reads and chemistry development. Each meeting varied between 1-2 hours, to up to 4 on some days.
They also did some own research from in-game examples that showed key emotional beats to the Joel and Ellie arc.
So you’re saying that the character research involved reviewing story elements from game play then that could demonstrate the characters more fully to the actors?
Yes, I wanted the actors to fully understand where Joel and Ellie came from, and where they’d eventually end up. A lot of character development happens in TLoU, and my hope was that we could use that knowledge as a resource that Jenna and Duncan could potentially use to perform their roles (as their own, without copying or mimicking verbatim, per se).
The other part of it was to have Joel look at this relationship as a father to daughter, yet Ellie look at it as lover to lover. With that, my idea would be to illustrate the impact of the “break-up” for Ellie a little bit more heartbreaking.
In adapting this part of TLoU to film were there outcomes you’d hoped to achieve professionally?
This project really helped me with working with actors and collaborating with the entire crew. Getting their insights and input helped shape the film to what it is. This was a really good first step to me in developing my skills as a director (and self-editor); skills that have and will forever apply for me in all my projects.
What my biggest take-away from TLoU may have been surprising ourselves with what we can create with a very minuscule budget. However, a lot of that was all thanks to project specific planning and eager participants wanting to make it a reality.
Once the project had its rough cut edited together, what brought about the decision to involve Sean Young in post-production?
I knew Sean from working on one of his previous productions. Artem brought the idea forward of working with him during a meeting to determine our next steps in post-production. Sean helped solidify the achievability of those needs as our post-production supervisor and provided a home for the film in presenting it through E2. From negotiations and agreements, to getting the project onto IMDb, to trailer development and providing a webpage, Sean and E2 gave TLoU a stronger foundation for it to be submitted to festival and a plan for eventual release.
As usual, I try to suggest Sean as a producer for almost all projects that I work on. We have had a working relationship since our school years and it only made sense to see if he would want to be a part of this project too. One other reason why Sean and E2 – we knew by working with Sean on his project Precipice that he would be able to help achieve the VFX look that we were after in addition to everything else Sean and E2 bring to a project.
I’m always flattered when a filmmaker brings a project to me, there’s something very complimentary about someone wanting to trust you with their creativity – there was no exception to that with Phil and Artem and since we’d all worked together previously it was really easy to just pick up on the flow of work.
Your fan film The Last of Us was recently selected to premiere within the LA based Azure Lorica Fan Film Awards 2020. What was that like for you as a first time director to have this project accepted to a festival and ultimately an international premiere?
It was an awesome bit of relief! Some nerves got me thinking “if it doesn’t get selected, then what?” But when it did get in, it was a happy little victory for our production to finally get to that point. TLoU was also my first acceptance ever and with it came the drive to create more short films.
I feel very grateful that Phil asked me to be a part of this project. It adds more accomplishment to see our work premiered and showcased at festival. I can’t help but think back to the moment when we were making the shot list, enjoying every moment of that creative process, when it was only a few pieces of paper in contrast with how far we have come sharing the final result with the rest of the world.
Ultimately, the decision was to only engage with the one festival. So it was great news when it was selected for its one time festival play internationally with a Los Angeles premiere. It’s always a gamble tossing all of your eggs into one basket – especially with the work that was put in. I was thrilled for both everyone involved in it’s production and for Phil in that he had that opportunity with his film.
Now, we get to share that with you.
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