You might say that Simon Jung and Dennis Yoo are experts at creating real-life monsters… on their computers. And that’s exactly why The Last of Us showrunner Craig Mazin entrusted the Weta FX visual-effects artists with a very specific task: turning the armies of freaky zombie creatures that kill players over and over again in the blockbuster PlayStation franchise into more realistic beings for the HBO adaptation.
“That was one of the main points for Craig with the series,” says Jung, a visual effects supervisor at the renowned New Zealand effects house, which shared a series of exclusive images depicting the evolution of the show’s scariest creature, the Bloater, with Yahoo Entertainment. “He wanted to keep everything firmly grounded in reality, and didn’t want anything gratuitously supernatural.”
Fortunately, that’s the way Jung and Yoo prefer to work as well. “If it needs to look real and grounded and is based in actual physics and weight, it’s ideal for us,” Jung notes. “We specialize in that,” adds Yoo, a Weta FX animation supervisor.
That specialty has now brought the Weta duo their first Emmy nomination. Jung and Yoo are among the nine Last of Us VFX artists nominated for Outstanding Special Visual Effects — one of 24 nods the series received overall, including Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Lead Actor and Lead Actress for its respective stars, Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey. (While the Emmy Awards have been delayed until Jan. 15, 2024 due to the ongoing WGA/SAG-AFTRA strike, final-round voting continues until Aug. 28.)
But both artists feel that the best reactions have come from fans of The Last of Us video games — a group they’re also a part of. “We’re fans as well,” Yoo enthuses. “When I heard The Last of Us was being made into a TV series and that Weta might have a hand in it, I was jumping up and raising my hand.”
Yoo and Jung were particularly excited to take the lead on bringing the Bloater to horrifying life onscreen. In the dystopian world of The Last of Us, the outbreak of a Cordyceps brain infection has decimated the global population, transforming the infected into lethal killers. The longer the parasitic fungus lives in their bodies, the more mutated they become. Bloaters have a particularly long and advanced case of CBI, to the point where their bodies have become essentially bulletproof thanks to a serious case fungal bloat.
The Bloaters make their first onscreen appearance in The Last of Us in the show’s fifth episode, with one emerging from a Kansas City sinkhole preceded by a wave of infected and making its way towards Joel and Ellie. While the sequence was initially filmed with a stuntman wearing a prosthetic Bloater suit, it was ultimately decided that a largely CGI monster would be the way to go.
“Initially, the stuntman was only supposed to be replaced for a couple of shots,” Jung remembers. “The plan was to make a digital copy of what was on set and then replace him. But during the editing process it became clear that the Bloater didn’t quite have the weight and manner of movement that they were after.”
Watch a before and after VFX clip of the Bloater climbing out of the sinkhole
“They wanted the monster to exude this gravitas of strength,” notes Yoo, adding that their original design was less than menacing. “That version had one leg that was bloated like a tree stump, while the other leg was normal. But when we started to act out how he would move, he had this asymmetrical motion that made him look weak.”
Tinkering with the Bloater’s waist size, as well as stretching out his limbs and exposing more muscles gave the character the feeling of powerful menace he needed. That also allowed more of his long-forgotten humanity to poke though — in keeping with Mazin’s goal of keeping the show’s monsters more realistic and less creature feature-ish. “You can see the human component a bit more, without losing the impact of his 20-years long infection,” notes Jung.
The PlayStation version of the Bloater is a frequent final boss at various stages throughout the game, and Jung says they paid homage to that exalted status by modeling the CGI monster’s head after a crown. “The prosthetic suit had a kind of helmet for the head,” he recalls. “The advantage of going CG is that we weren’t constrained by that. We could have his head and facial features grow out in a really fungal kind of way. It does end up looking quite a bit like a crown — he’s got something very regal about him.”
In addition to using footage of the stunt performer in the prosthetic Bloater suit for reference, Yoo says that the Weta team also frequently looked back at the video game version created by Last of Us mastermind Neil Druckmann and his Naughty Dog design team. “We put our animation alongside the game animation,” he says. “Then we’d montage those clips together to see if Craig and Neil would buy into what we were planning. They’d have their insights and sometimes we’d have to backtrack and go over the frames again. It was a slow cook — but we all know that slow cook ends up being really good at the end.”
Based on its critical and commercial reception, it’s no surprise that The Last of Us will be back for a second season — and likely many more. But with all production on pause due to the strike, it’s unlikely we’ll see the continuing adventures of Joel and Ellie anytime soon. Jung and Yoo confirm that they hadn’t started working on any Season 2 creature work prior the WGA and SAG-AFTRA taking to the picket lines.
But they are excited to potentially bring their special eye for realistic versions of supernatural creatures to one of the freakiest monsters in The Last of Us universe — the Rat King, a major baddie in the second game. “That is an incredible creature isn’t it,” says Jung with a knowing grin. “One of the freakiest things that’s ever been in a video game!”
Watch before and after VFX shots of the infected attack in Episode 5
The Last of Us is currently streaming on Max.