Building the ‘Last of Us’ Mall: Production Designer Explains How They Made That Arcade, Carousel and More (EXCLUSIVE)

SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers from Episode 7 of “The Last of Us,” now streaming on HBO Max.

“The Last of Us” production designer John Paino’s biggest challenges is bringing the much-beloved world of the video game to life and populating the HBO show with easter eggs. This week, Paino delivers one of his most significant nods yet in a “blink-and-you-miss-it moment.”

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Named after the game’s downloadable expansion pack, Episode 7, titled “Left Behind,” explores Ellie’s (Bella Ramsey) backstory before she meets Joel (Pedro Pascal) and reveals what happened the night she discovered she was immune to cordyceps infection. In the present, Ellie is desperately trying to save Joel’s life after he was stabbed last episode. In doing so, she remembers one of the happiest, and saddest, days of her life. The episode flashes back to when Ellie’s friend and crush Riley (Storm Reid) snuck her through an abandoned mall. Tragically, the two are attacked and bitten by clickers after a night of fun. It was that night that Ellie discovered she was immune, but Riley was sadly not as lucky.

Paino says the concept behind the mall was a date night and an eye-opening moment for Ellie to see the world before the rise of the infected. He built between 20-25 storefronts, with remnants of real-life locations such as Foot Locker, Victoria’s Secret and Panda Express covered in dirt and vines. “We got to pick and create these stores. It was great to use their logos, and we could play with what they are, the luxury stores and the codes behind them. Creating the creepy American Girl store was fun to make,” Paino says.

His creative brief was that mall would be a two-edged sword for Ellie. “She’s fascinated with lingerie and can’t believe that people had the time for that, but it’s sad because she’s denied what is typical for us, such as understanding the bigger world outside of trying to stay alive,” he says.

Paino was hoping to find an American-style mall in Calgary, Canada, where “The Last of Us” shot: “I’m a child of the ’70s, and the mall was a temple. The size of 10 football fields. I’d spend a lot of time there and in the video arcade. So, we were hoping to find something like that. We found an abandoned mall that was completely stripped and didn’t have a second floor. We built the rooftops and the stores, but what they look from the balcony, it’s all CGI because our mall didn’t have a second floor.”

As for Raja’s Arcade, Paino says it’s the biggest easter egg. While its interiors were based on other arcades, Paino says, “We copied the name, which is in the game, and we copied the front. We gave it a bit of retro-ness through games like ‘Frogger,’ ‘Tetris’ and ‘Mortal Kombat.'”

Paino says all the games in the arcade set actually worked because creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann wanted everything as real as possible. However, those retro game screens were made from cathode-ray tube (CRT), which meant when the cameras were rolling, the images were not clear. “We rebuilt them on LED screens,” Paino explains.

The mall’s merry-go-round was leased from Spruce Meadows after they acquired it from Chinook Mall in 2018. The scenes featuring the carousel were shot at a now-defunct Northland Village Mall, “We made a deal to rent it,” says Paino.

A team took the carousel apart and shipped to the set. The center panel had images relating to the Calgary Stampede, a rodeo festival. “We put reflective panels around the center that were horrible and uneven to add to the hallucinatory feel because the whole thing is like a fever dream,” Paino says.

In the first “Last of Us” game, a poster for the fictional movie “Dawn of the Wolf” can be seen in the bedroom of Joel’s daughter, Sarah. A poster for the film’s sequel can be seen later when Ellie and Joel are traveling through Boston. In “The Last of Us: Part II,” Ellie spies an old poster for “Dawn of the Wolf II” when she’s in Seattle.

“It’s this nod to ‘Twilight,'” Paino says. “It was such a mall thing to have and fun to get that in.” Eagle-eyed viewers might have spotted that this is the second time “Dawn of the Wolf” has been featured in the show. “We had a movie theater that you didn’t see much of in the first episode, and people are pouring out of that, but it was playing there.”

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