‘The Last of Us’ Used Real, Trained Giraffes and an Abandoned Hospital in Season Finale

SPOILER ALERT: This contains spoilers from the Season 1 finale of “The Last of Us,” now streaming on HBO Max.

Sunday’s season finale of “The Last of Us” tackled two of the video games most famous scenes: the giraffe moment and the final hospital shootout. Joel (Pedro Pascal) shoots his way through the Salt Lake City hospital as he upholds his commitment to saving Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and chooses her life over the future of humanity.

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In the final minutes of the episode, Joel decides to take Ellie away from the hospital, where her immunity to the deadly cordyceps fungus could’ve provided a cure, but in performing the operation, she would’ve died. Amid a hail of bullets from Firefly soldiers, Joel makes his choice to take Ellie back to Jackson, Wyo., and massacres nearly everyone in the hospital.

When it came to tackling the hospital design, production designer John Paino thought he would have to build the set from scratch to accommodate the hallways and hail of gunfire that would play out as Joel takes Ellie.

“It’s not an Easter egg, per se; showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann wanted to follow the game closely with Joel going through the places and passages. Our task was to do that, but we ended up finding a disused hospital outside the city of Calgary,” Paino says.

He and his team went into the empty hospital, repainted it and aged it. “We wanted to make sure the murals in the game when Joel gets to the pediatric wing were the same,” he says. That tiny detail stayed true to the game, and the team replicated as much as they could.

Lighting was another factor Paino took into consideration, and he looked at where the electricity source would be coming from in the hospital. His idea was that portable generators were supplying power. “I thought it would be interesting to have a lot of work lights, the kind you’d find at a construction site, and strings of light. That setup would give a dark and moody vibe,” he says.

Paino also brought in plastic barriers and placed them in the hallway. He says, “It was a nod to when the infected were inundating society when people who had been bitten or were sick were being brought it and isolated. We had incorporated them in a bunch of places, but you only see it once in the final cut.”

The giraffe scene that preceded the hospital sequence was also derived from the game, and it was crucial to show the beloved moment.

Similar to when Ellie was in the mall seeing what life was like before the outbreak, the scene sees her and Joel having a beautiful bonding moment as she gets to feed a freed giraffe shortly after reaching Salt Lake City.

The scene itself was a combination of a VFX stage, scenery and location shoot with real giraffes from the Calagary Zoo being used. Paino explains, “I’m sure Alex Wang, visual effects supervisor, could have made a CGI giraffe if we had the time.”

But time was a factor.

The scene begins with Joel and Ellie walking through a worksite with orange tarp coverings. Ellie comes across an opening in the building where there are beautiful vines and a giraffe eating. “We needed to see if we could acclimate the giraffe to strangers feeding it, with a very small film crew there,” Paino says. “There was the indoor enclosure with a balcony and an outdoor one where the keepers would take care of it.” The balcony was ideal because it drew parallels to the game.

Over a month and a half, Paino’s team set up green screen panels around the enclosure, with the keepers and trainers ensuring the giraffes were comfortable. “The trainers worked to get them to eat out of a stranger’s hand. So, when Ellie and Joel walk up at the enclosure, that’s the giraffe eating those branches of food,” Paino says. “That’s Hollywood magic of Alex isolating the giraffes and putting them on our set. That was probably the most complicated piecing of VFX stage, scenery and location I’ve worked on.”

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