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‘The Last of Us’ Cinematographer Became ‘Super Emotional’ Filming ‘Left Behind’ Ending: ‘A Heartbreaking Experience’

”It was very important from the visual standpoint to make it as powerful as it was created in the script and in the game,“ Ksenia Sereda told TheWrap

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Episode 7 of “The Last of Us”

Sunday’s episode of “The Last of Us” marked a departure from the main storyline of Naughty Dog’s 2013 action-adventure video game, as the latest chapter of HBO’s post-apocalyptic drama series focused on its “Left Behind” DLC released back in 2014.

“Left Behind” follows Ellie prior to meeting Joel, offering a glimpse of her time in FEDRA school and her relationship with and eventual loss of her best friend Riley.

“When we meet [Ellie], we know she’s a very complicated character in a way that you know there is something deep inside that she’s carrying with her but you never have the opportunity to know what that is,” the episode’s cinematographer Ksenia Sereda told TheWrap. “Watching the show, you’re so connected to Ellie and I think that’s a very impactful moment to go back and live it again where she loses the person she really loves.”

In the episode, Riley convinces Ellie to follow her to an abandoned shopping mall, where they enjoy several activities, including riding a carousel, playing arcade games and taking pictures in a photo booth.

“When Riley brings her to this environment, it has an incredible impact on her because she never was as happy,” she said. “For us, it was very important to build up this happiness where she can get almost dizzy from all these cool experiences Riley created.”

Similar to previous episodes, the cast and crew had the opportunity to be fully immersed in the world of “The Last of Us” by working on a practical set.

“It was such an amazing experience for the whole crew and actors because you’re in it,” she said. “For the lighting, gripping and cinematography, our goal was to support it with light in a way that you can have the experience of getting into the mall which was not functioning for years. There are recognizable things in color but, at the same time, everything is a bit aged like the strobing light here and there. Something is a bit misfunctioning but it’s still working.” 

When it came to planning out how to shoot “Left Behind,” Sereda said that the source material served as a helpful guide for the production team.

“When [Naughty Dog was] creating the game, they were very thoughtful about so many things. Creating the game takes many more elements to build and they were so thoughtful about lighting, about angles and about everything,” she said. “So when you’re starting to shoot a scene, sometimes you’re using the same tools and that shows how cinematic the game is.”

She also touted Naughty Dog co-president Neil Druckmann’s “amazing script.”

“What is very beautiful about the script is that it never sort of tells you how to shoot, but it has such a big power that always emotionally navigates you,” she explained. “It doesn’t tell you [to] be close or be wide but somehow when you’re reading it, you know where you need to be.”

Bella Ramsey, Storm Reid and Ksenia Sereda on the set of “The Last of Us” (HBO/Liane Hentscher)

Additionally, she praised Bella Ramsey and Storm Reid’s performances and “very powerful” bond as Ellie and Riley, which gave the production team “a lot of beautiful possibilities.”

“When we were shooting the scene in the Halloween store at the end, I was operating one camera and I was really getting super emotional because how [Bella and Storm] were doing the scene was just incredible. It was so powerful and beautiful how they made it and so sad. It’s really a heartbreaking experience,” she said. “Everyone is so involved in creating this show and they have such a deep understanding of their characters.”

During the excursion at the mall, tensions rise as Riley reveals to Ellie that she has joined the Fireflies and is planning to leave Boston. Though the news upsets Ellie and causes her to initially run away, she eventually returns and decides to make the most of her final night with her best friend.

After dancing to Etta James’ “I Got You Babe” from Ellie’s walkman, she tells Riley “don’t go” and the two share a kiss. But the moment is cut short as an infected busts into the Halloween store and ends up biting both of them.

“What is very powerful in the sequence is you’re building the rhythm and you’re building the tension. And at the moment you think it’s a happy ending, everything suddenly becomes very still, because you have like this tremendous feeling of failure,” Sereda said. “When she decides to keep going with Joel, it’s so powerful because she knows what loss is…it was very important from the visual standpoint to make it as powerful as it was created in the script and in the game.” 

In addition to working on episode 7, Sereda previously worked on the show’s pilot, which is considerably different when it comes to pacing.

“I love everything because I’m a very script-driven person and I love to find the right balance, how to translate the [script] language into the visual language,” she said. “It’s all so character-driven…in the beginning, we need to create this crazily horrible, terrifying emotional impact on Sarah, like for example, when we’re escaping. And here we needed to give Ellie the moment to enjoy this…I think it’s a very important episode and I love it a lot.”

The Last of Us” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and is streaming on HBO Max.