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Danny McBride and Stephen Dorff stand on opposite sides of a lectern, where Walton Goggins runs a game show as Baby Billy in The Righteous Gemstones. Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO

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Thousands of real bugs and Family Feud combined for Righteous Gemstones’ chaotic finale

How the HBO show pulled off its (Bible) bonkers conclusion

Pete Volk (he/they) is Polygon’s curation editor for movies and TV, with a particular love for action and martial arts movies.

If you’re looking to end your season of TV with a bang, you might as well go biblical with it.

For The Righteous Gemstones’ riotous third season finale, “Wonders That Cannot Be Fathomed, Miracles That Cannot Be Counted,” that meant a full production of the Family Feud-inspired Bible game show Baby Billy’s Bible Bonkers… and a literal plague of locusts. Those presented significant challenges for production designer Richard Wright.

First up was the Bible Bonkers set, which was heavily inspired by both the Richard Dawson and Steve Harvey versions of Family Feud. Wright says they wanted to give it a “little bit of a Gemstones twist,” like the giant sign of Baby Billy’s head that lived on the back wall of the Bible Bonkers set, right beside the show’s name.

That sign would end up being crucial to the finale’s action, which saw the set completely and utterly destroyed. Wright says his team got the direction that the sign would fall down and explode, and worked with director of photography Paul Daley and director Jody Hill on scenarios to accomplish that challenge and make it look good. First, the lightbulbs around the sign would explode, through a series of small explosions rigged by the team. Then, one sign would collide into another, causing Billy Baby’s giant face to fall on the ground, collide with one of Baby Billy’s “Bible Bonkers” who worked on the show, and roll away.

But two days before the shoot, with everything built and the team going through full-speed rehearsals for the set and its apocalyptic destruction, Hill threw in another wrinkle: The falling sign was deadly.

Walton Goggins (holding a baby) and Valyn Hall stand next to a fallen sign of Walton Goggins’ face in Righteous Gemstones. Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO

“We’re showing Jody how the sign is going to work and how it’s going to start rolling,” Wright says. “And he’s like, Well, that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be very gory. I mean, it’s not like I think it’s gonna kill the Bible Bonker. The room was silent. Everyone was like, Wait, the Bible Bonker dies? Jody’s like, Yeah, yeah, yeah, it kills him. And I mean, for, like, six months, I don’t think any of us ever had envisioned anybody dying there. But there you go.”

The homicidal Baby Billy sign was just one challenge for the explosive finale. Gemstones caps the season off with a literal swarm of locusts. It feels appropriately biblical, filling up the studio in totality and causing mass panic as people try to avoid the buzzing insects. To accomplish the effect of the locust swarm, the Gemstones team used a combination of VFX and real bugs. That was a priority for VFX supervisor Bruce Branit, who Wright says always prefers to do as much in-camera as possible.

“If we can do it real, [Branit] can sweeten it rather than have to create it,” Wright says. “And so that’s always what we’re pushing for. And that’s what we did here as much as we could.”

But that meant finding a way to make realistic fake bugs — Wright estimates 95% of the bugs you see in the episode were VFX (“any bug that’s moving is definitely VFX, because we had no living bugs”), but they wanted something that looked and felt like real bugs laying around on the ground and on props.

Steve Zahn, J Larose, Robert Oberst, and Kristen Johnston cower together in the Baby Billy’s Bible Bonkers studio in The Righteous Gemstones as a locust swarm attacks. Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO
Danny McBride and John Goodman look out from a dumpster filled with trash bags in The Righteous Gemstones. Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO

The first option the team looked at was dyeing Styrofoam (a familiar option that they used for the Gemstones’ thrones), but that didn’t look right. They tried to 3D print fake bugs, but that didn’t do the trick either. Then they tried to buy a bunch of rubber bugs, but all the choices either didn’t look good or were prohibitively expensive for the amount they wanted to buy.

So where do you go when you need a truckload of bugs and you have nowhere to turn? Science class.

That’s right: The Gemstones team bought real bugs from a company that sells mostly to science classes. “Normally, a science class would order a bucket that has 100,” Wright says. “But we ordered pallets of buckets.”

The bugs in question were grasshoppers, which were coated in something that “smelled terrible,” Wright said. The Gemstones team dried them, painted them, and laid them out on the big set. There were “thousands of them,” Wright estimates, along with pallets full of black confetti and black clothes hangers painted with speckles to fill in the gaps. And after every take, the four- or five-person “bug team” had to clean it all up so they could try again.

That’s life working on a show as zany and unpredictable as The Righteous Gemstones: new challenges, unexpected wrinkles, and a whole lot of bugs.

“I’ve learned how things can be done, just by heading straight towards it with these guys,” Wright says. “It was the messiest chaos.”

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