From Jakarta to That Infamous Kiss: How The Last of Us Episode “Infected” Came Together

Maybe it was fate that he would become the rare nonhuman nominee for the MTV Movie Award for best kiss—his nickname on set, after all, was “the Kissing Man.”

The squirm-inducing “kiss” between Anna Torv’s Tess and an infected played by Philip Prajoux is the emotional climax of the second episode of The Last of Us, “Infected,” which ends with Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Joel (Pedro Pascal) escaping Boston for their season-long road trip. But the entire episode is a visual spectacle, introducing Ellie for the first time to the devastated world outside of the Boston quarantine zone. “It’s like a fucked-up moon,” Ellie says, beholding the crumbling buildings and bomb craters that dominate the abandoned city landscape.

And it was up to production designer John Paino and visual effects supervisor Alex Wang, among many others, to determine exactly how fucked-up that moon ought to look. Starting with images from the original Last of Us game, and working closely with showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann (who also directed “Infected”), Paino and Wang built a world both tactile and digital. With essential contributions from the prosthetics team led by Barrie Gower, the episode also provides the unforgettable introduction of the Kissing Man and his infected brethren. “It’s all design,” Paino says of the episode, which was submitted for the show’s Emmy nominations in production design and prosthetic makeup, as well as for guest actress Torv. “It’s a really important episode for the audience to understand what the world of The Last of Us is,” says Wang. “It has the largest scope.”

Concept art courtesy of John Paino

“Do you have the right person?”

Just as the first episode does, “Infected” opens with a scene from before the world ended, shifting the action to Jakarta, Indonesia, and introducing Ibu Ratna (Christine Hakim), a professor of mycology enlisted by the military to examine a suspicious dead body. The sequence is chilling not just for Ratna’s dawning realization of what’s about to happen, but the sudden jolt back to a bustling, lively world. “Those all come from [the idea] that the world that’s alive is vibrant,” says Paino, noting that in the first episode, the pre-outbreak Austin is filled with bright neon lights. The yellow tones of the lab are a way to “introduce other colors to show that there was a world that was alive.”

The sequence also introduces the cordyceps tendrils that will come back with a vengeance with the Kissing Man at the end of the episode. They were “probably one of the most abstract elements that visual effects had to create on the show,” says Wang, the result of extensive study of the natural world. Not only did they have to avoid making the tendrils too alien or sci-fi, Wang says, but the human tendency to anthropomorphize made it easy to assign them motivation, or even character traits. “We just constantly fought this idea that the tendrils have personality,” he says. “There’s so many simulation takes of these, and some of them are like, those tendrils look way too happy. You have probably two dozen or maybe even more tendrils there. All it takes is one tendril to just steal the show.”

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