I knew that we had to start the season with a scene like this.
To start the story properly, we needed to very quickly remind players just how relentless the apocalypse can be and how much of a toll it can take on a person, especially roaming scavengers like Clem and AJ. That way, when the opportunity to settle down and find a home presented itself later in the episode, players would want that as much as the protagonists themselves. It’s hard to remember which element of the scene came first — the location (the car) or the camera approach — but we arrived at both very early on in the process.
Co-director Vahram Antonian and I decided on the car as a set piece because it was a confined space we could use to trap Clem inside while still showcasing her quick thinking and resourcefulness. The tight quarters allowed us to capitalize on the idea that threats can come from any direction, and the design of the car also created obstructed sightlines and blind spots — qualities which allowed us to distill the dangers of the apocalypse down into one single setting and really help players understand Clem’s constant dilemma as a survivor.
We also knew from very early on that it would be necessary to shoot the sequence in one continuous take. It’s no secret that we were inspired by a similar sequence from Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film Children Of Men, but we really arrived at the decision because not cutting allowed us to do so much in terms of storytelling.
Like Clem, players are only able to focus on one thing at a time, all the while knowing that more threats are gaining momentum in the periphery. This helped build suspense and anxiety, feelings I want to make players experience several times this season. Shooting the scene this way also allowed us to feel like we were locked in that car with Clem and AJ, something that was very important early on in the story in order to unify Clem and the player’s perspectives. Cutting outside or to any other objective viewpoint would have subtracted from the experience, as we would have potentially gained information that Clem doesn’t have access to in the moment.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, experiencing the sequence in real time communicated just how physically demanding Clem’s lifestyle can be. By not cutting, we had to stay with Clem through every exhausting, painstaking moment of the experience. We’re reminded that, despite her bravery, smarts, perseverance, and other capabilities as a survivor, Clem’s only human. She’s not an action hero, nor a superpowered crimefighter — she’s just a regular person whose been surviving on her own for a long, long time.
So despite being a thrilling, visually-enticing, and entertaining homage to another iconic scene, the sequence was actually developed to be an economic storytelling device. In a matter three minutes, we see the worst dangers that Clem and AJ face in this world; we see them work as a team; we see them make mistakes; and we see them recover and persevere.
After Vahram and I traced out the beats and planned all of the camera moves, the scene went through an intense development cycle of laying in cameras, creating layout animations, tweaking timing for interactivity, and finally, polishing. The cycle was repeated several times over until everything felt just right. The sequence is one of the most ambitious things we’ve ever made as a studio, and it took a talented team of animators, programmers, and artists to really bring it to life (not to mention the fine tuning of cinematic artist Michael Gambino). I’m super proud of what the team was able to accomplish, and I really hope that everyone who plays it enjoys it as much as we enjoyed making it.
It wasn’t until all of this work was done that we realized Lee’s story started in a very similar way, once upon a time. What a fitting way to begin the final chapter of that story.