The Last Of Us: The Malaysian connection


April 28, 2023

By: Ann Marie Chandy, The Star 

Did you know that a Malaysian was involved in the making of The Last Of Us? — Photos: Sony Interactive Entertainment

A mass fungal infection causes a pandemic that leads to an apocalypse – the idea is not just frightening but a little too close for comfort, right?

A mass fungal infection causes a pandemic that leads to an apocalypse – the idea is not just frightening but a little too close for comfort, right?

It is little wonder that when HBO’s post-apocalyptic drama television series The Last Of Us (TLOU) hit the screens earlier this year, it pushed all the right buttons, receiving acclaim from critics, who praised the performances, writing, production design, and score.

It was gripping and emotional, and it had zombies, a great game-like feel and featured a stellar cast, including Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsay. Wow.

None of this was new to gamers, however, because they had long been acquainted with the concept of the rogue fungus taking over its hosts, and creating mass pandemonium.

And that’s because TLOU is based on the decade-old video game developed by California-based video game developer Naughty Dog for the PlayStation 3.

The action-adventure video game, played from a third-person perspective, features a player wandering through post-apocalyptic spaces such as towns, buildings, bunkers and sewers using improvised weapons, guns, hand-to-hand combat and stealth to defend against zombie-like humans infected by the mutated Cordyceps fungus.

The action-adventure video game, played from a third-person perspective, features a player wandering through a post-apocalyptic world.

The action-adventure video game, played from a third-person perspective, features a player wandering through a post-apocalyptic world.

Interestingly enough, a Malaysian creative studio, Lemon Sky, was involved in producing the game art for TLOU Part I and II.

“We worked on the concept art, environment, including the buildings, flora and fauna scenes, 3D modelling for weapons, the clothes and props,” said Kevin Lai, head of production for the Games Division at Lemon Sky Studios, which has worked with some big names in the gaming business including EA, Activision Blizzard, Capcom, Disney and Nickelodeon on iconic IPs such as Uncharted: The Lost LegacyFinal Fantasy VII: The First SoldierHi-Fi RushRatchet & Clank: Rift ApartDiablo II: ResurrectedDiablo IIIStarCraft: RemasteredCommand & Conquer Remastered and Marvel’s Spider-Man.

Established in 2006, Lemon Sky is one of the premier CGI art studios in South-East Asia, providing custom art outsourcing solutions for video games and animation.

Lai, who has over 15 years of industry experience in art and CGI production for games, TV, and film, told LevelUp: “As I would with most of our productions, I sat down with our leads to put together an overall plan for the production.

“What stood out most to me was the creative vision that Naughty Dog had for the game. The company had this amazing storyline that it wanted to implement in this zombie-fighting game and the detail that it infused throughout our working relationship was impeccable. “It was important to them that we thought about the story behind each artwork and how the time lapse would contribute to each piece we created.

Lai and his team deep in creative discussion. — Lemon Sky Studios

Lai and his team deep in creative discussion. — Lemon Sky Studios

“The brainstorming sessions for TLOU were definitely a treat as I listened to the depth of thought from our artists as they brought life to each of our creations. There was a lot of imagination and passion involved!”

In a separate interview, Lai spoke about how it had been interesting that the game was able to provide an in-depth visual reference for the TV series.

“The process of looking at something essentially computer-generated and creating that in a live-action setting is fascinating. The philosophy of ‘Art Imitating Life’ vs ‘Life Imitating Art’ was definitely challenged in this light,” he told US video game and entertainment media website IGN. “While we had no part to play in the TV series itself, it gives us great pride to see how it has enhanced the gaming experience in so many ways.”

Lai started his career as a CGI generalist in 2005, then leveraged his experience working on TV commercials and video games to further pursue his career in the industry. This paved the way for him to become a lead artist before moving on to senior lead artist and eventually project lead.

Gamers have long been acquainted with the concept of the rogue fungus taking over its hosts, and creating mass pandemonium.

Gamers have long been acquainted with the concept of the rogue fungus taking over its hosts, and creating mass pandemonium.

“As a kid,” he said, “I was fascinated by the idea of exploring the cosmos and dreamed of one day becoming an astronaut. Though I may not have made it to outer space, I’m proud to have found my own way of exploring and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible as the head of production at Lemon Sky!”

Lai has worked with some pretty amazing clients on a number of legendary titles, including Ratchet & Clank: Rift ApartDiablo II: ResurrectedThe SandboxHi-Fi RushMarvel’s Spider-Man: Miles MoralesGears 5Warcraft: Reforged, and Command & Conquer.

He said: “Each was a unique experience – with its own unique style, look and feel as well as production pipelines – teaching me different lessons along the way. While I rarely work hands-on on the artwork, it is still a dream come true for an artist to be able to experience such varied forms of art, and the opportunities I have been given at Lemon Sky are more than what I can ask for.”

One of the great things about being a project lead, Lai said, is that each day is never like the last one: “Each production, each artist, each client is different, and that’s what makes my job such a thrill!”

Kevin Lai early in his career. — Lemon Sky Studios

Kevin Lai early in his career. — Lemon Sky Studios

In his day-to-day role at the studio, he works closely with over 400 artists who form numerous teams that work simultaneously on multiple-A game projects.

“I organise each project with the lead artists and their teams. My responsibility is to formulate a creative vision and strategic approach that are suited for the demands of each game.

“Before starting on a new project, we carefully estimate the number of artists needed based on the varied skillset each artist has and then set up a timeline and assemble the project team. The project is then led by an art director and a group of key lead artists who work closely with the client to develop a strategy and direction.”

After production commences, the project manager and production coordinators stay in close contact with the clients to ensure that the team is on track to deliver the best possible results.

“It’s an exciting challenge to work with teams that push the boundaries of what’s possible in the gaming industry. I take pride in my role as a leader.”

Lai’s first job after graduation from The One Academy was as a “generalist” at Fly Studios, where he worked on CGI for local TV commercials.

“The founders, Ken and Fei (Ken Foong and Cheng-Fei Wong), wanted to venture into game art and started Igloo Digital Art and they took me with them on this journey, where I took on the role of lead 3D artist. After they managed to establish themselves, they restructured and started Lemon Sky Studios, where I continued to grow, moving from project coordinator to production manager. I continued to work my way up and managed to land the position of head of production for games.”

Starting out as a generalist, he said, gave him real hands-on experience in each part of the production pipeline and an overall understanding of how the entire production process runs.

“This was something that built my foundation and allowed me to put both my art and technical skills to the test,” said the Kuala Lumpur-born artist, who, when asked his age, said with sage-like wisdom, “I have traversed this wondrous planet for four decades!”

In his day-to-day role at the studio, Lai works closely with over 400 artists who form numerous teams that work simultaneously on multiple-A game projects. — Lemon Sky Studios

In his day-to-day role at the studio, Lai works closely with over 400 artists who form numerous teams that work simultaneously on multiple-A game projects. — Lemon Sky Studios

“While all the different roles I have played have taught me a lot in my journey in the arts, the initiation and training as a generalist have been a prized asset that I have carried with me throughout my career.

“Being a young artist in Malaysia at that time (late 2000s) also made the role extra special for me.”

LevelUp with Lai: What skills does one need to succeed in this industry?

Basic knowledge of handling software that is relevant to the industry would be a great start. The right balance between having a good artistic sense and the technical skills to match would be ideal.

At Lemon Sky, we have a diverse team of artists from various backgrounds. Our team also consists of a group of successful senior artists who started with minimal experience in the industry but were committed to learning and improving their skills.

Lemon Sky’s motto is “Make Good Art”, and we seek passionate and dedicated artists who share this mindset.

Describe your own personal gaming habits.

When it comes to my gaming habits, I have a particular love for strategy games.

I’m always on the lookout for the latest and greatest titles in this genre, eager to dive into new worlds and challenge myself to think strategically.

There’s just something about the combination of planning, resource management and tactical decision-making that I find incredibly satisfying.

Whether I’m playing a classic like Age Of Empires or a later title like Starcraft II, I love the feeling of slowly building up my forces and outmanoeuvring my opponents.

Of course, I’m not always in the mood for a cerebral challenge – sometimes, I just want to blow off some steam with a mindless shooter or a fun platformer.

But no matter what kind of game I’m playing, I always find myself coming back to the world of strategy, where every decision I make can mean the difference between victory and defeat.

What gaming equipment do you have at home?

I began with my trusty Sega 64bit and GameBoy, which kept me company through secondary school.

I took a short break after that and kept away from the console world, only to make a comeback a decade later with a PlayStation 4.

While that felt like an upgrade, I decided to sell my PlayStation 4 for the handheld Nintendo Switch instead.

Despite my attachment to these consoles, my true daily companion is my trusty PC, which offers endless possibilities for adventure and entertainment and serves as my gateway to a world of immersive and interactive experiences.

Our heartfelt thanks to The Star for the article! The original article can be found here.

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