How Directing HBO's The Last Of Us For Television Is Different From Directing A Game, According To Neil Druckmann

"The Last of Us" creator Neil Druckmann will be making a rare career crossover when the series debuts on HBO this month. The man responsible for the beloved game series wrote and co-directed the original titles on which the highly anticipated show is based, but he doesn't exactly have a ton of experience directing a live-action series. While filmmakers sometimes dabble in making video games, the opposite doesn't always hold true.

But "The Last of Us" isn't like most games: the heartbreaking and gorgeous apocalyptic drama is already extremely cinematic, so it's no surprise that Druckmann would end up on the directorial slate when it came time to adapt the series. At a press event and interview roundtable attended by /Film's Ben Pearson, the game-maker-turned-filmmaker spoke about how it felt to step behind the camera and recapture Ellie and Joel's story. On a practical level, he says, there was actually a lot of crossover between the two types of directing.

'The surprising part was how similar it was'

"Someone in the past asked me what was the most surprising part of directing live-action versus for the video game," Druckmann says. "And actually, the surprising part was how similar it was." Druckmann adds that "maybe that just speaks to how far games have come, as far as capturing the cinematic moments." To be fair, few games are more innately movie-like than "The Last of Us," the finely-crafted and award-winning Naughty Dog production that captured players' hearts in 2013. The game has frequently been lauded for its dazzling visuals and for nuanced voice and motion capture performances from a cast led by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson.

"Giving out direction is giving out direction," Druckmann says, noting that the writing process is also quite similar between mediums. But there is still a noticeable change between the two productions: "The big difference is there's a certain luxury we have in video games that when we capture a performance, we have every camera angle under the sun," he notes. "We don't have to worry about coverage because we have all the coverage in the world." Druckmann says that if the game directors decide after the fact to switch a shot to a close-up, or change a character's outfit, it's easy to make the change after filming has wrapped. "We can change the weather, we can change the set. We could do all these things after the fact," he explains.

'You hold your breath and you hope all the pieces come together'

Obviously, when it comes to shooting a live action series, there's not quite as much freedom to switch things up in post. While Druckmann notes that there's "a little bit of wiggle room with some VFX," he says that he was "very nervous" about ensuring editors had enough coverage from his shoot, especially when it came to one particular scene involving clickers in a museum. "There was so much planning and talking," Druckmann says, describing miniature models and other pre-vis tools used to plot out the episode's scenes before shooting began. The filmmaker says he wanted to be as prepared as he possibly could, adding, "Everything has to come together for this moment where you say 'action,' and you hold your breath and you hope all the pieces come together."

Based on the footage from "The Last of Us" that's available so far, it looks like Druckmann and co-creator and fellow writer-director Craig Mazin will be delivering some stunning visuals that match up well against the game's own stellar design, like shots of the desolate Boston skyline and those pesky clickers. Apparently, after the nerves subsided and the preparation ended, Druckmann could feel some of that triumph on set. "When it does work, it's this high," he shares. "It's this thrill of, it feels like a high-wire circus act. So I get the addiction people might get to this process." Addiction, huh? Hopefully that means we'll see Druckmann back in the director's seat in the future.

"The Last of Us" debuts on HBO on January 15, 2023.