SAIT people and places featured in "The Last of Us"

Characters Joel and Ellie from the HBO show The Last of Us ride a horse through SAIT’s campus, with the red-brick Stan Grad Centre building in the background.
Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us roam a deserted University of Eastern Colorado campus — also known as SAIT.
HBO/Crave

How the school and our grads brought Joel and Ellie’s story to life

If your experience watching The Last of Us mostly consists of finger-pointing and shouting “Hey, I know that place!” — perhaps between gentle sobs or white-knuckling the remote — you’re not alone.

Albertans have been buzzing with pride ever since the series based off the PlayStation games premiered on HBO in January. Familiar Calgary landmarks, neighbouring Albertan locations and the Rocky Mountains serve as beautiful yet foreboding backdrops for the story of Joel and Ellie, fighting to survive in a deadly fungus-ridden world.

Between the heart-wrenching plot and the post-apocalyptic visual effects, The Last of Us had us at “Cordyceps.”

Like the underground network of mushroom strands we learn about in episode two, SAIT’s connections to the show are far-reaching and run deep. Here are just some of the people and places that have helped The Last of Us rack up impressive viewership numbers. 

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🔎 I spy SAIT

Episode two, “Infected”

You might remember the cold open from episode two because of how Professor Ibu Ratna, portrayed by Indonesian actress Christine Hakim, proposes Jakarta respond to the outbreak of the Cordyceps fungus in humans: “Bomb.”

This chilling scene was filmed in a staff lounge on the fourth floor of the Senator Burns building on campus. The show’s art department built an entire office — walls and all — inside the lounge to achieve the look they were going for. 

A character from the show The Last of Us sits in a couch in a dimly lit room. Sunlight is coming through the window’s closed curtains, and the room décor is mostly yellow-greens. The pers looks uncomfortable and has hands clenched in lap, wearing a dark jacket and skirt.
HBO/Crave
A shot of a staff lounge from a building on SAIT’s campus. Tables and chairs sit beneath a window, the wall is green.

It’s not the only time Senator Burns makes an appearance in the cold open:

People walk the halls of a busy Jakarta hospital. A hospital desk with a receptionist behind it is in the centre of the shot featured in The Last of Us.
HBO/Crave
A shot of a student seating area in a building on SAIT’s campus with blue couches and students sitting on the furniture.

The seating area in front of The Odyssey Café and The Station Market is made to look like a hospital front desk in Jakarta.

Characters from The Last of Us walk down a Jakarta hospital hallway.

HBO/Crave

A shot of an empty hallway on SAIT’s campus with white walls and blue accents.

Indonesian writing on signage, whiteboards and sticky notes helped transform this fourth-floor hallway.

Two guards stand in front of a door at the end of a blue hallway in this shot featured in The Last of Us.

HBO/Crave

A shot of a blue hallway in a building on SAIT’s campus.

Students, employees and alumni recognized this blue tiling right away — it can be found in the Senator Burns basement (which funnily enough is home to SAIT’s Film and Video Production studios). The show’s production team built a door frame and false wall (with blue tiling to match!) to complete the look.

Episode five, “Endure and Survive”

Here’s a quick SAIT sighting you may have missed: At the end of their long journey through Kansas City’s maintenance tunnels — and just before an adrenaline-pumping thrill ride of a shootout in the suburbs — we see Joel, Ellie, Henry and Sam walk carefully through a door into a dark parkade.

This was filmed on the third level of SAIT’s parking garage.

A distance shot of Joel, Ellie, Sam and Henry holding flashlights and looking around in a very dark parkade. Cement pillars can just be made out in the dark space.
HBO/Crave
A close shot of Joel, Ellie, Sam and Henry holding flashlights and looking around in a very dark parkade.
HBO/Crave

Episode six, “Kin”

At long last, Joel and Ellie triumphantly arrive on horseback at their destination: the University of Eastern Colorado, said to be the home of a group of Fireflies who can extract a cure from Ellie. But wait, those buildings look familiar. (And where are these so-called Fireflies?!)

Check out a few shots of the “deserted” campus.

A view from behind Joel and Ellie as they ride a horse up to a university campus (featured in The Last of Us). The campus is actually SAIT.

 A view from behind Joel and Ellie as they ride a horse through a university campus (featured in The Last of Us). The campus is actually SAIT and SAIT’s iconic brick building, Heritage Hall, is featured front and centre. HBO/Crave

SAIT’s iconic 101-year-old Heritage Hall building can now add “being featured on a record-breaking zombie show” to its rich and storied history. (That grey structure in the first image is our parking garage, which sits beneath the Cohos Commons soccer field.)

Rusted newspaper boxes sit tipped over in front of SAIT’s Heritage Hall.
Old vines twist around a railing on SAIT’s campus. Calgary’s downtown skyline is seen in the distance.

The production crew spent six days decorating campus before filming began. Leaf piles, twisted old vines, and rusted bikes and newspaper boxes could be found across campus.

Characters Joel and Ellie from the HBO show The Last of Us ride a horse through SAIT’s campus, with the red-brick Stan Grad Centre building in the background.

A view from behind Joel and Ellie as they ride a horse through SAIT’s campus. Trees and a red-bricked building are on either side of them.
HBO/Crave
An overhead shot of Joel and Ellie as they ride a horse through SAIT’s campus. Trees and a red-bricked building are on either side of them.

The red brick façade of Stan Grad Centre is easily recognizable as Joel and Ellie trot through campus.

👀 Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey sightings were a fun and unexpected perk for some students!

 

🎬 Grads who worked behind the scenes

The Last of Us had its share of SAIT graduates working throughout its year-long production.

Hear what it was like being on set from:

Headshot of Bella Ramsey’s stand-in and SAIT grad, Christina Riches, wearing all black with arms folded.
Headshot of Sound Assistant Val Siu, also a SAIT grad. Sue is wearing a red top, black necklace and has hands folded in front.
Headshot of Assistant Script Supervisor and SAIT grad Ben Saracini. Ben is wearing a black hoodie and beige ballcap.

It was easy for 2019 Film and Video Production grad Jessica Rovansek to say yes to working on The Last of Us. Afterall, she was a big fan of the games.

“I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I mean, it’s The Last of Us, it’s HBO,” she says. “You play the game, you understand the story, but to see it come to life on a screen, with real people is kind of amazing.”

Dailies Editor and SAIT grad Jessica Rovansek holds a film clapperboard in front of a movie camera.

Learn about her role editing dailies and other SAIT grads making their mark on Alberta’s film scene.

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🍄 Medicine, batteries and ants: Fun(gi) facts

We wanted to learn more about the fungus that inspired The Last of Us, and fungi in general. Trained to understand how the earth supports life in areas of biological, physical and earth sciences, Pablo Pina seemed like our fun-guy. (We hope Ellie would approve of that pun.)

Pina is Academic Chair of Sustainability within SAIT’s MacPhail School of Energy. Pina has a bioscience undergraduate degree, a master’s in environmental biology and a doctorate in water and land resources. He’s also worked as a research associate at the University of Calgary and consulted with clients across the non-profit sector, industry and government.

With his help, we pulled these cool (and sometimes disturbing) facts:

  • 🍯 The largest living organism is a honey mushroom in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. While it may sound sweet, this fungus — covering almost 10 square kilometres and estimated to be anywhere from 2,400 to 8,650 years old — feeds off nutrients in the trees, literally sucking the life out of them.

  • 💊 Fungi gave us the world’s first antibiotic and researchers continue to look for new medical uses from this natural resource. In 1928, Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming found the Penicillium fungi to have antibacterial properties and after experimenting with the fungal extract it successfully treated an eye infection. Large scale production of penicillin began in the 1940s.

  • 🌲 Alberta’s pine forests are facing a double threat. The mountain pine beetle is a parasite that burrows into tree trunks and introduces a blue-stain fungi which clogs conductive tissue destroying the tree. Between the fungi and mountain pine beetle larval, an infested pine tree can be destroyed within a month.

  • 📱 Scientists have used portobello mushroom to create a rechargeable battery in their search for an alternative option for smartphone batteries. A study published in Nature Scientific Reports suggests the pores which give mushrooms a spongy texture are capable of storing and transferring energy, and have the potential to improve with usage as opposed to conventional batteries which worsen over time.

The Last of Us fan-favourite fungi fact:

  • 🐜 Fungi found deep in the Amazon rainforest are turning carpenter ants into zombies by consuming the bug from the inside, eventually taking over its brain. This forces the ant to seek out a new environment fit for fungus growth with a capsule of spores sprouting from its head ready to infect other innocent prey.

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🍄 What’s next

The Last of Us has been renewed for a second season. Will the show return to Calgary? We sure hope so. The more pressing question we’re asking ourselves though, now that season one has wrapped, is...

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🎥 Lights, camera, action

Alberta’s the new Hollywood, and SAIT is on set. Check out SAIT’s Film and Video Production program.

Film and Video Production