Cinematographer Eben Bolter BSC on “The Last of Us”

Shooting handheld with ALEXA Mini cameras and Cooke S4 lenses on HBO’s post-apocalyptic series, based on the popular video game.

Jun. 2, 2023

“The Last of Us” imagines a terrifying world in which a 20-year pandemic has decimated human civilization and transformed infected humans into murderous, zombie-like creatures. Created by Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, the series was a big hit for HBO and has been commissioned for a second season. Cinematographer Eben Bolter BSC was hired early on and helped craft the look, shooting episode three with director Peter Hoar and episodes four and five with director Jeremy Webb. Based in Canada, the series shot with ALEXA Mini cameras and Cooke S4 lenses provided by ARRI Rental Calgary. Eben Bolter speaks here about his choices and challenges on the show.

What drew you to the project and what kind of a visual approach did you feel it needed?

I know the game really well and I loved so many of the choices that Neil Druckmann and his team at Naughty Dog made in the world of the game. You've got this reality where the world has fallen apart over a 20-year period. Nature is reclaiming things and electricity is scarce – the whole game has its own tone. In my interview with Craig and Neil and the producers, we talked about how to transfer that tone to TV. It felt like it should be handheld, with naturalistic and plausible lighting. You’ve got daylight, moonlight, fire, and old industrial lights powered by generators; that’s the world and with it comes a toolbox of motivations for light. Anytime we broke out of this toolbox and something was lit too perfectly, or with sources that didn’t feel diegetic to the world, then we slipped out of that world into something else, so would always role it back and simplify.

It was an approach I love, which is to create a cinematic environment. You light it in a way that gives you some interesting possibilities, but then let the scenes play out in those spaces, rather than bringing in the perfect eye light for every single shot. You let it live and you embrace the flaws because they ground things and help the audience suspend disbelief. There's a fine line between just turning the camera on and pressing go, and lighting the heck out of a scene to make it immaculate. We tried to live somewhere in the middle, and Craig was always on set to help us keep that balance.

How did that affect your lighting style, and the amount of light you needed?

If you’re in a field with real daylight and there's nothing to hide or add, you can just point the camera in the right direction and it's going to be real and probably work without interference. If it’s a moonlit walk through a huge space, you’re going to need extensive lighting to make that feel the same way. So, there was always this approach of not just throwing loads of light and work at a scene if it doesn't need it. But if it did need it, then we’d do everything required to make it feel as cinematic and naturalistic as possible.

It was a case of picking our moments to go big with the visuals. An example is the strawberry kiss scene, shooting at magic hour with the sun in the perfect spot to get that late summer feel. For other moments we just stayed out of the way. So, something like the piano scene, we wanted to let that unfold as though it was a play. I lit the room as well as I could for cross-shooting and we had three cameras – one on each character and a two-shot in the middle, and we just let it happen. We did a three or four-minute take; we let them play the song, and we let them kiss. If I had broken it up, I'd possibly have been able to improve the lighting, but the whole feel of the scene would have lost some of its magic.

What made ALEXA Mini cameras and Cooke S4 lenses right for this?

In the world of “The Last of Us,” technology basically stopped in 2003, so we did talk about an early-2000s, late-1990s feel, and the Cooke S4s seemed to fit with that. Then for cameras, we thought ALEXA would give us the best chance of a filmic look – high dynamic range, incredible reliability, really good color. That's why I shoot ARRI for everything and have done for a very long time now. I just know it and I trust it.

One interesting choice was to not shoot in large format, which is very popular at the moment. I love large format for the right project, but for this project we wanted to step backwards a bit. One of the main advantages of large format is shallow depth of field, but we actually wanted deeper depth of field because this incredible world behind our characters is part of storytelling. Often, I was shooting at T4 or T5.6 on the Super 35 sensor, which knocks the background out of focus enough to direct your eye to the character, but not so much that you can't see what's back there. That's why we went with the ALEXA Mini, plus there was loads of handheld work, so I’m sure our operators appreciated that choice.

How many cameras were you working with, and what guidance did you give the operators?

We had rock-solid A and B-cameras with the same teams across the whole shoot. C-camera would come and go; we'd bring them in for big stunt days and send them off to do splinter unit stuff. For episode three, C-camera was shooting all of those atmospheric location shots and cutaways in Bill and Frank’s town. The cul-de-sac in episode five was a three-week night shoot and we had four cameras the whole time because there was so much to get through, and so much action. We physically built the house that Joel goes into with the sniper rifle, so I had a D-camera up there on a 600 mm lens.

My note to the operators was just to be gentle and correct with their framing. Because it was all handheld, I wanted them to feel pushed, pulled, and hinged by the characters. My general rule was that the operators shouldn’t move their feet unless the characters moved their feet. I thought that was a fun way to make sure the dance between camera and actor was always together. Occasionally, two or three times per episode, we’d break out the dolly or the slider and have a genuine cinematic storytelling shot, like coming back in through the window at the end of episode three. A shaky feel would have been wrong for that shot, but 99% of the camerawork was handheld and it was all about hinging perspective to characters.

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Was that three-week night shoot your toughest challenge on the show?

Absolutely. It's something like an eight-minute sequence out of an hour-long episode, but about 75% of my prep on that episode was for those eight minutes. The director, Jeremy, and I had a model town from the art department, and we would just play action figures and cars, figuring stuff out. Craig would make sure it made sense for the script, and then we’d send it over to the stunt people, SFX, the art department. Everyone had their input because every decision affected everything else. On top of that, I had to create naturalistic moonlight on a really, really large scale, while maintaining the ability to cross-shoot with four cameras. It was the most challenging lighting job I've ever had, by a distance.

Watch Max's preview on episode three now...

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