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HomeAwardsEmmy WatchEmmy Nominee: The Last Of Us Production Designer John Paino On Why...

Emmy Nominee: The Last Of Us Production Designer John Paino On Why You Should Go To The Library


The Last of Us composer
Bella Ramse and Tess Anna Torv in The Last of Us (Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO)

The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic world you can reach out and touch. Not only is it a splendid combination of practical and digital effects, but there’s a history and emotion in these environments and sets. If something is in these sets, it’s there to tell a story in HBO and creator Craig Maizin‘s respectful adaptation of the hit video game series.

One of the artists responsible for making the tangible vision come to life is production designer John Paino. For the episode “Infected,” Paino is nominated for Outstanding Production Design For a Narrative Contemporary Program. The production designer, who also did extraordinary work previous HBO shows, Big Little Lies and The Leftovers, recently told us about his experience on The Last of Us and one of the many reasons to go to the library.

Below the Line: Before we jump into The Last of Us, which I really enjoyed, what was your initial ambition as a production designer? 

John Paino: [chuckles] My hope and goal always is to go from one interesting show to another that is a new challenge with new people. Even though I have worked with the same people over and over again on certain things, I’m always hoping that there’ll be a new challenge and I’ll learn something from working with new people because everyone has their own approaches. It’s always just fascinating how people start the reference process and all of that and what interests them, why they spent four or five years developing something.

BTL: What do you do to start your reference process?

Paino: Oh, I do go to fine art and paintings. I don’t look at other films that much. I look at photography, but that’s also part of what your collaborators are, how they start. Of course, I look at their reference when they were developing the project, but I prefer fine art and photography.

I look at some shows based on history, so then you do a deep dive into everything from newspaper clippings. I try not to use the internet as much as possible. I like to go to the public library websites and Library of Congress and stuff like that as opposed to just typing in, “old car.”

BTL: I just had a costume designer tell me that last week. “Go to the books. There’s a lot you can’t actually find on the internet.”

Paino: Yes. I’ve moved my studio to Los Angeles and people constantly ask me, “Why do you have all these books?” and I was like, “Before the internet, if you wanted to have a reference picture of old cars, you bought a book on old cars and looked at it.”

There was this thing in New York at the New York Public Library called The Picture Collection that was a great resource. All designers, costume designers, theater, everybody would go there because they had over a century, any books that fell apart, they took the pictures out of them and mounted them and you could check out pictures. You could go there and look up what a hospital looked like in the 1820s. There’d be a big fat file of hospital photos from books and from historical documents that you could take out.

BTL: That also sounds like a great community of crew workers coming together.

Paino: Absolutely. You would always run into friends and enemies there. People who were often putting together a presentation for the same job, so yes, but also you just run into people. Costume designers or people who worked in theater as opposed to film, so it was great.

It was a big room just filled with desks and just file cabinet upon file cabinet. There was so much information that oftentimes you had to write on a piece of paper what files you were looking for. Because a hospital, there might be a general hospital file, there might be a Russian hospital, so you had to actually go to the librarian and get their help to go through all the files, but it was amazing.

Bella Ramsey and Storm Reid in The Last of Us (Credit: HBO)

BTL: What books were you looking at for The Last of Us?

Paino: I was looking at the making of books that they have made and also just a lot of stuff about Chernobyl, what Chernobyl looked like after nature had taken over. The same with the nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan, how nature has taken over structures, that kind of thing.

Also, books of photography show how people all over the world have made vernacular buildings or how they use materials without having materials. One of my pages that I pitched images to Craig had photos. A book of photos by a gentleman who just went around and took photos behind restaurants in Shanghai. You know like outside the restaurant where the dishwasher has a chair and he smokes.

These were chairs that had been rebuilt. The backfill out of this crappy chair, so the guy takes a traffic cone and takes wire and makes a back out of that. He was really taken with those images and they’re incredible. He’s done a book of chairs. He’s done a book of just people taking coat hangers and making all kinds of furniture out of them. That kind of stuff because that’s our world, that’s the world of The Last of Us, resonated with him, and so that is what we looked at. That’s what I looked at.

BTL: Any fine art you were looking at for influence?

Paino: For this one, I think I was looking at Russian paintings, believe it or not. I don’t know, just because there’s something about the vistas and things that I know they looked at during Chernobyl and I was just trying to get into the head of Craig and just see where his thoughts were.

BTL: What were your initial conversations with Craig about the vision for the show?

Paino: Our initial conversations were honoring the game because the game creates an incredible world and atmosphere and what was to be augmented. Not so much discarded, but maybe augmented, embellished. The key things were to make it so that it is as real as possible given a TV schedule. It was about the minutia. It was like, “We want to see all the chairs.” They can’t have chairs that haven’t been reworked or rebuilt and everything has to have a patina of age.

The game is the Bible, but there was a wish to, I guess embellish is the best word because the game obviously isn’t adding layers and layers of grit onto things or disassembling them or when we’re in a house, we’re going to build everything straight, and then we’re going to make it crooked. Getting all that was the point of discussion really.

BTL: Like you said, be as realistic as possible, what were some of these sets where you called for more artistic flair for a lack of a better term?

Paino: I wouldn’t say flair, but I would say where we could do things anew, certainly the mall. The point there is to show the large ease of civilization that Ellie will never be able to experience. There, the arcade was probably my favorite set. I’d say the arcade. I would say growing up in the arcade at the mall in the ’70s, there we could relish the opulence and we could go into the colors of civilization. A lot of things are just desiccated. There in that set and in some of the stores, we were able to have fun. We were able to have a bit of flair in the Halloween shop.

We could play with all of that, all those sexy, juicy visuals of those things because the rest is about them. The rest is about making the terrible beauty of the world taken over by fungus and nature. There’s beauty there, but it is a different kind.

BTL: How was it striking the balance of, as you put it, the terrifying beauty? Could the horror or destruction ever go too far? 

Paino: That was another thing we talked about was avoiding disaster porn, which is really hard to do. You look at the still photographs of the abandoned rooms in Chernobyl and they’re almost designed with the layers of dust and the old drapes and they look like theater sets, and so we try to avoid that. Our camera was always moving, so there wasn’t a lot of dwelling on things. Just making sure that things weren’t that beautiful was also a big part of discussion too. Because you can fall into that because we all want to make these incredibly designed. You’re like, “Oh, look at that.” I think that’s for the bigger picture when we’re seeing the vistas and things. There it’s okay to do that.

BTL: As you said, the camera is usually moving. I imagine even that was a challenge, just consistency in terms of building.

Paino: Yes, it was a big challenge. The whole show is going from A to Z, so most of our interiors were built, so they always had to be built with the idea that we have to come from somewhere and go through it and they have to walk through it, and then they have to leave it. Even when we were tying into like exterior locations, that was always like our show is about people going from here to there. That was a big part of the designing the sets and the idea behind how things were arranged for the camera.

Murray Bartlett and Nick Offerman in The Last of Us (Credit: HBO)

BTL: You brought up a good example with the mall, just how that location helps tell such a story. Where were some of the other moments where you were just thinking, “What is Joel and Ellie feeling right now and how can I help tell what they’re feeling?” 

Paino: There it’s a pretty clear example of what she’s experiencing. It’s a date night, first of all. If there’s any moment where it’s magical and wonderful, it would be in some of those moments where she’s being shown this other world and she’s perplexed that people cared about what their underwear looked like and also just her eyes were big eyes. Then there were some moments like that in Bill’s Town, the world that the characters created there in the hamlet of Bill’s Town. There we’re talking, we’re showing the backstory of everybody. We’re showing what Bill was like and what, I think his partner was Frank, the name?

BTL: Yes, that’s right.

Paino: We’re introducing how Frank’s personality is with him wanting to plant flowers and make art because they’re stuck in this end stuff place. We’re telling the story there too. We tried to tell stories of people that weren’t there, obviously, and some of the rooms we’re in. There’s scenes where a woman who controls Kansas City goes back to her childhood room and we did things with the iconography in the wallpaper that she was referring to to tell us about. We’re always doing those little things everywhere.

BTL: What were some ways that you wanted to give that house personality and history to make it an extension of this guy?

Paino: I talked to Craig. I saw it as his mother’s house. Her family founded this town, this hamlet, so they had old money. She’s one of those people, like I grew up in New York, and I’ve been to many of these towns that are kept like a museum and all the houses have the Proctor house, 1725. It is truly a colonial village. She’s rich enough that her house was well done, built with antiques, but she still has a Viking Range in her kitchen, but she kept the old wood-burning stove that literally still has a hook to hang a pot and all that. It’s all been renovated and it’s not his world. His world is he just goes to his room and it’s the bunker that he’s made, so it’s not his world. He’s kind of like a mama’s boy.

It is, how do I say this? We wanted to keep it like a museum. Like it’s not touched. He eats in the kitchen, he has some TVs there, but he’s really living in the bunker and he goes upstairs to sleep occasionally. Like a lot of people, he left when he was 16, and then maybe came back because he couldn’t deal with things in the world. We wanted the house to be trapped in amber. He keeps it up, but it’s also like we made a point of making sure there was still something. It literally is like the glass menagerie. It’s just like I have to go here to cook.

BTL: Even through the passage of time, did it stay that way? 

Paino: No, when Frank comes in, you’ll notice we add flowers, we add paintings on the wall. When we first see the house and when they’re first having dinner, it’s all antiques. There’s a lot of real antiques in there and folk art and things like that. It definitely is someone who is going out of their way to make it somewhat like trapped in time museum-like and relevant to when the house was built, which would be in the early 1700s. Having said that, you’ll notice we introduced flowers, we introduced Frank’s paintings, other fabrics because in the script, there is a clothing store, and obviously, they could go outside because we see Bill doing that.

You can go to some stores that are still standing and not that much looted and you can get some more colorful fabrics and things like that. He’s a bit more sartorial and artistic and we slowly introduce that. You’ll see in the final scenes there’s a lot of plants lying around and art supplies and things like that.

BTL: It’s a beautiful episode.

Paino: Yes, it is. It’s beautiful in every way. The script, the acting, everything.

The Emmy-nominated The Last of Us is now available to stream on Max. 

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