HBO’s The Last of Us wrapped up its first season on March 12. The series dazzled fans of the game and new fans alike with the CGI and visual effects that created the post-apocalyptic world. Many agree the show was a visual masterpiece thanks to Wētā FX, who worked on the visual effects.  

However, the show wouldn’t have been complete with only CGI. It may shock you that some of this season’s most magical parts weren’t computer-generated. Much of the magic created in the show came from practical effects like makeup, prosthetics, unique set design and on-site shooting.

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The Mall

HBO shot a large portion of the show on-site, with select locations being enhanced/created with CGI. The episode where Ellie and Riley go to a mall was filmed in an abandoned mall, with a load of practical design changes to make it look more 2003, as revealed in episode seven of the show’s official podcast. The abandoned mall was scheduled for demolition, so the creatives had complete freedom with the location.

The creative team used that freedom to create most of the fantastic mall displayed on the show. However, some of their needs surpassed the mall’s physical capabilities. So, while shooting in the mall, they had to spruce it up using CGI and practical set designs to create rundown and vine-infested stores that would have been there in 2003.

A Bloater walks through the fire in HBO's The Last of Us.

THE LAST OF US. Photo courtesy of HBO.

The Bloater

When the bloater first came on screen in episode five, it amazed fans, and rightfully so. The recreation of the unique subtype of infected was only visible by the light provided by a massive fire. The light fell on the bizarre fungi folds in an uncomfortably ominous way.

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To the surprise of many, a stunt actor in an 88-pound suit played this monster. Barrie Gower, famous for making Vecna’s suit from Stranger Things, worked meticulously on the bloater. The one maneuvering in the heavy suit is stunt actor Adam Basil.

The Clicker

Stunt actors played the clickers while wearing prosthetics and complex makeup. To capture the creepy movements, some actors were contortionists, as reported by UNILAD. Similarly to the bloater, Barrie Gower and his team also worked on the clickers. IMDb credits him as the prosthetic designer for the first six episodes. To create the clickers, they needed prosthetic fungi to protrude from the actor’s body. Other elements included nearly full-body makeup.

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Though some elements, such as their moving tendrils, needed to be CGI, the bulk of what made clickers so creepy was created using traditional special effects and makeup/prosthetics. The makeup is so eerily good that it feels like the video game comes to life when you see the fuzz from the cordyceps on the infected or the discoloration of their skin.

Sam Hoeksema in full clicker makeup.

Sam Hoeksema in THE LAST OF US.

The Giraffe

When Ellie and Joel came across the wild animal, the beauty of the scene blew viewers away. Much of the scene was CGI, except for the most magical part. Polygon reported the Giraffe that Ellie and Joel interact with during the last episode of The Last of Us was an actual giraffe and not CGI. Players of the game will remember the scene with the giraffe as an incredibly rare, wholesome scene that shows light still exists in a world full of infected and chaos. The show’s creators wanted to use a real giraffe to capture that genuine magic.

What do you think?

The CGI used by HBO to create The Last of Us isn’t too different from other sci-fi dramas of its time. But the use of practical effects really created the show’s magic. Subtle makeup and unique shooting decisions set the show apart from the rest.

Did the use of practical effects in the show surprise you? Let us know!

This article was originally published on 3/13/23. 

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Elizabeth Curtis
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