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Art Directing The Last of Us Part II


Art Directing The Last of Us Part II

Naughty Dog's John Sweeney talks about the art development of the seminal game.

Arjan Terpstra

21 Oct 2020 ⋅ 10 min read

Few recent video games have hit the player like The Last of Us Part II did. The dramatic survival story of Ellie, her bonding with Abby or Joel’s cruel fate all hit emotional high notes – as if the ongoing fight with infested humans wasn’t enough to keep players’ nerves on edge.

One of the creatives responsible for TLOU Part II is John Sweeney, Art Director at Naughty Dog in Santa Monica, California. We had the opportunity to interview him about the artistic process behind making the game, the different roles and tasks that are entrusted to him, his career steps and much, much more.

Spoiler alerts for those who haven’t played the game yet!

Hello John, thank you very much for your time. Let us kick off with a very general question: how did you end up at Naughty Dog?

John Sweeney: "I heard that Naughty Dog was looking for an Environment Concept Artist from my friend, Eytan Zana. I had been working on my portfolio to try and transition from working on real-world projects to video games.

"I spent about a month working nonstop on a portfolio that I thought would resonate with both Naughty Dog and the video game community as a whole, hoping to get my foot in the door.

"I was actually visiting my friend in Arizona when I got the email with the Environment Concept test from Naughty Dog, and a leisure trip turned into a marathon of trying to create the best piece I possibly could.

"Naughty Dog allotted 4 weeks for the test, and I used the time to polish a piece I thought would speak to the quality and emotion that so many stories from previous Naughty Dog games evoked.”
Seattle Arrival
After you got hired, what steps did you take to become Art Director at such a large studio?

Sweeney: "I started as a Concept Artist on The Last of Us (2013), and Bruce Straley, the Game Director, started to mentor me into a lead role when he recognized how passionate I was about the project.

"It was my time under his leadership at the company that gave me my confidence at the studio, so, by the time The Last of Us Part II was gearing up for development, I was much more prepared to move into that role."

What does an Art Director do on a big video game production like this? What roles are on your team?

Sweeney: "There are a lot of different phases of production where the role kind of evolves to serve whatever the needs of the project might be at that time. Early on, your role is to facilitate blue sky work and work with a small skeleton crew who do research and development on tools and the look of the game.

"While this is happening, it was my job to start color scripting the game and help organize image systems for the narrative and gameplay.
"Once other departments start to kick into gear, it’s also on the Art Direction team to help guide the designers find solutions to things like composition and shape reads and help other departments dial in how everything fits together.

"Then, finally, as we near the end of production, the role focuses on reviewing the game as a whole, start to finish, from the lighting of a space to the props and set materials. Games like this have a lot of moving parts, so having a strong vision on all fronts is important.”

A lot of exposition and world building in games is indirect. By the state of vegetation overgrowth for instance players get a feeling for how long the world has been suffering from the infection. What are some of those other visual clues in a game like this?

Sweeney: "We iterated a lot on how destroyed and overgrown we wanted to go with the world, but I always tried to make sure that everything had some plausibility to it.
Decay & Overgrowth
"All of the destruction was influenced by real-world destruction, whether it be a street destroyed by a gas main explosion 20 years prior or sinkholes that formed as a result of underground flooding. The type of materials used in a building or space would indicate the type and severity of decay.

"We also try to imagine what would have happened in each space. Was there an incident that happened years ago, now frozen in time? Was this space previously untouched and since been looted? Is someone living barricaded inside?

"All of these scenarios can produce a very different set for the player to explore and we think about them meticulously. We made a concept for almost every space you encounter in the game, and that’s the amount of attention to detail we wanted to provide for the player."

What were some of the challenges or some of the things you wanted to convey through the visuals of the game?

Sweeney: "The indirect lighting we achieved in the game was the result of a lot of artists and programmers collaborating for the entirety of the project.
"We first had to identify what about our engine wasn’t achieving this look and then address those areas individually.

"Our characters, for example, needed better ambient occlusion overall, but we also needed to develop tech that would allow for dynamic ambient shadowing when characters get close to objects or enter a dark room from a bright exterior space.

"Our fog tech was also completely re-written by one of our Technical Artists, Artem Kovalovs, and, without that, the game wouldn’t have had the same atmosphere, something we knew was important in achieving not only a natural look but also a cinematic one."

If I'm correct, each chapter of the game has its own color coding/mood. Why is that? In the underground sections (car parks, sewers etc.) you use a lot of red lighting. What was the inspiration for that?

Sweeney: "Early on, Neil Druckmann, the Director, knew he wanted to use red as an image system, so I investigated how red was used in some of my favorite films, whether it was the set design of The Shining or the lighting in Natural Born Killers.
Red Lighting
"I ended up using red as a way of creating an almost surreal feeling in certain parts of the game as Ellie goes further down her path of vengeance.

"The fight in the theater basement was always meant to feel like this surreal event you’ve finally arrived at, and cutting from this to the farm allowed for not only a palette cleanse but also a way of showing the contrast between Ellie’s physical and mental states over the course of the game.

"Blue was an image system used to incite memories of the trauma Ellie undergoes in Jackson when she sees Joel murdered, so slowly building that blue into the palette over the course of the three days was a way to show the parallels of both characters’ choices and paths toward unspeakable violence.”

Obviously you want the player to feel a certain emotion, how does art support that or influence that?

Sweeney: "The visuals are just one aspect of how we achieve that, but making sure we had solid throughlines with our image systems and ensuring that consistency allowed them to work as intended.

"Whether you’re in the chalet watching Joel get murdered or on the beach at the end of Santa Barbara fighting Abby, I wanted the player to feel an overwhelming sense of dread and intimacy towards those moments."

What sets the tone the most, color and light or environment detail?

Sweeney: "I think both support each other, although color and lighting are probably the things I spent the most time on.

"This is because, as a viewer, you’re going to notice and be affected by the initial palette and mood set by the lighting first and then you’ll start to steep in all the details in the environment the closer you look.”
Sweeney @ Practical Effects Shoot
© John Sweeney
What were some of the most fun of things you did during the development of TLOU Part II?

Sweeney: "Hands down, I had the most fun with our VFX team during our practical effects’ shoots. We simulated all of the blood and gore for our player damage systems in real time to ensure authenticity.

"It was a great way for everyone to get a break from their monitors and simulate some of these things in real life. Photo reference shoots were a big part of the process over the years whether it was a character costume shoot or getting environment with plates for concepts and research." (Editor's Note: You can see more photos of this shoot over on John's Instagram page )

How long is the concept art phase during a lengthy production like this? And is concepting done during the entire development of a game or is there a cutoff point somewhere?

Sweeney: "Concepts are generated throughout the entire production, but the type of concepts that are made changes.

"Early on, we focus on the “blue sky” phase where we’re exploring things like how much we want to push the overgrowth, scale, and destruction types for the environments of the game along with any narrative pieces that flesh out the story pitch for the executives at Sony and the in-house team.

"Next the Concept team moves into more of a support role where they interface with the environment and design teams to work out everything from the big picture to the tiny details throughout the entire game.

"Towards the end of production, our concept team is still supporting the team with paint overs that suggest anything that will improve the game, but they also start to support some of the other departments like VFX to help polish all areas of the game."
Guitar Store
© Naughty Dog
As a player I'm aware that sometimes I just blast through certain sections that an artist has worked very hard on. What are the feelings of artists on this?

Sweeney: "I think that’s only natural, and the truth is we don’t want the player to stop and look at every single thing.

"The hope is that we’ve created a consistent world both in tone and quality that serve as a vehicle to suspend the players’ beliefs. So much of what we spend time on is iterating and polishing areas to feel believable, so the player never stops and thinks, “Oh right, I’m playing a video game”."

What are you most proud of in this production?

Sweeney: "The team, hands down. I’ve been privileged to work with so many amazing and talented people on the team and learn so much more about a medium I’ve loved since my childhood."

"They’ve always inspired me with their work ethic and dedication to the craft, and I feel really fortunate to have had the experience making this game with them."

The Last of Us Part II print and notebook collection

I don't want to lose you