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How The Last Of Us Cinematographer Avoided HBO’s Too-Dark Curse [Exclusive]

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Bolter spoke with me in a wide-ranging interview for /Film, and I asked him about how he side-stepped the lighting issues we’ve seen on so many otherwise-great series. The answer involves finding authentic motivations for light sources, and perhaps even more importantly: Planning, planning, planning. Bolter said that the night scenes involved “an awful lot of planning and an awful lot of subtleties,” and that the team was allowed to “be creative within those constraints” of the post-apocalyptic world of the show. “The obvious constraints for ‘The Last of Us’ are to do with light sources,” Bolter explained. “Because you’re dealing with — where they have electricity — it’s off of generators, and it’s precious, and electricity is a finite resource in this world.”

He continued:

“You’re going to be dealing with 20-year-old fixtures, and dodgy light bulbs, and not much electricity when you have it. The rest of the time you’re going to be dealing with natural light, so you’ve basically got the sun, you’ve got the moon, you’ve got flashes of lightning. You’ve maybe got a fire, but there’s not many motivations for light sources, you know?”

Bolter contrasted the series shoot to something set in an urban environment, like Hong Kong, where artificial light sources are plentiful. Different episodes required different conversations about the lighting; episode three, for example, includes a seasonal change, while episode five features some major moments shot in moonlight. Regardless of the individual sequence, however, the common denominator seems to be plenty of planning and “reference gathering.” According to Bolter, “it was a lot of conversations about, ‘How can we create a cinematic scenario? How can we use the elements that we have, use the minimal light sources, torches, lanterns, sun, moon, fire?'”

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