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Was the giraffe CGI in The Last of Us? Yes and no...

Meet Nabo, a 13-year-old Masai giraffe that lives in the Calgary Zoo

Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey surrounded by The Last of Us crew members feeding a giraffe at the Alberta Zoo. The background is a blue screen. Image: HBO via HBO Max
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

You can visit The Last of Us’ breakout star at the Calgary Zoo, and no, it’s not Pedro Pascal or Bella Ramsey. As it turns out, the HBO series’ giraffe scene, adapted straight from the games, was created with a real giraffe and filmed inside the Calgary Zoo. The zoo has few a giraffes, but Nabo — a 13-year-old male Masai giraffe who is the tallest of the bunch at 17 feet — was chosen for the role.

The scene is question is one of the most important in the video game and show; it’s the culmination of hours worth of unrelenting violence, a moment of reprieve before Joel (Pascal) and Ellie (Ramsey) come up against more of The Last of Us’ patented brutality. HBO put the scene in the game’s ninth episode, its first season finale. Ellie is recovering from an especially traumatic encounter with a group of cannibals, removed from her usual wit and humor. She stumbles upon the giraffe at exactly the right moment — a reminder of the beauty and power of nature. It was important to HBO’s production team to get this moment right, which meant using a real giraffe.

Joel (Pedro Pascal) handing Ellie (Bella Ramsey) some leaves to feed a giraffe, on a balcony overlooking Seattle. Image: HBO via HBO Max

“What I quickly learned after doing the research on the game was just how critically important this one moment is to the whole story of the game,” location manager Matt Palmer says in HBO’s Making of The Last of Us documentary. “Yes, you can create a giraffe in visual effects, but it’s just not the same.”

Naturally, there were a number of people on social media who thought the giraffe was entirely fake, totally CGI, as so many on-screen animals are these days. Others went so far as to criticize the CGI, unaware that the giraffe is an animal actor, Nabo. Possibly tripping people up: There was a good deal of visual effects utilized to pull off the scene.

HBO took the production of The Last of Us to the Calgary Zoo to film the scene. Nabo’s enclosure was fitted out with blue paneling to make a blue screen. The setup took about a month, production designer John Paino tells Variety, so that the giraffe could get comfortable in the changed environment and with a whole bunch of new people, including Pascal and Ramsey, who feed the giraffe in the scene. And it does make an impact; even Ramsey said in the documentary that being so close to a huge animal was almost “spiritual.” So yes, the giraffe is real, but the environment is not — that’s a CGI background led by visual effects supervisor Alex Wang.

“That’s Hollywood magic of Alex isolating the giraffes and putting them on our set,” Paino said. “That was probably the most complicated piecing of VFX stage, scenery and location I’ve worked on.”

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