SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers from Episode 5 of “The Last of Us,” now streaming on HBO Max.
If you thought the clickers from “The Last of Us” were scary, think again.
The massive, lumbering bloater is one of the most fearsome enemies in the original “The Last of Us” video game. Nearly impenetrable fungi have sprouted from every inch of its gargantuan frame after years of Cordyceps infection, and the creature has gained enough strength to rip the head clean off an unsuspecting apocalypse survivor. In Episode 5 of HBO’s “The Last Us” series, the bloater makes a grand, deadly entrance, erupting from a collapsed underground tunnel with a horde of clickers in its wake.
Barrie Gower, prosthetics designer on “The Last of Us,” birthed the bloater for its live-action debut. The four-time Emmy winner is a master at creating grotesque special effects and monsters; he’s the architect behind Vecna on “Stranger Things,” the Night King on “Game of the Thrones” and many more creatures. The bloater, made of a bulky, practical suit and some CGI, is his latest creation.
Adam Basil, a 6’6” U.K. stuntman who worked on “Game of Thrones” with Gower, had the perfect “build, girth and fitness” for the bloater. Gower recommended him for the job to “The Last of Us” showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, then made a complete cast of Basil’s body to shape the monster.
“We had a whole copy of his body that we modeled the bloater prosthetics over in modeling clay,” Gower says. “We cast it out of a foam rubber and foam latex, which is very lightweight. It’s almost like an upholstery foam, a very spongy sort of material. That was all molded and cast in separate sections: top half, head, arms, legs. We had a team who fabricated all these parts together. We had a zipper up the back and around the waist that we could zip them together. He had all these pendulous folds of fungus which hid zippers and poppers.”
To make the fungus pieces stand out during the nighttime scene where the bloater massacres a team of soldiers, Basil’s suit was covered in a slimy lubricant.
“The suit would be very soft, but very slimy and wet,” Gower says. “We covered him in this gel-like solution, which gave him a gloss to all the fungus. We had lots of little spines and spiky hairs punched into his body, like little growths burrowing out. To get the shapes to read, we had to cover them in a gloss. It was like a texture that we were building up, so we were constantly going in and slathering them in this gloss, just so the shapes would pick up in the silhouettes. We were repeatedly going in and gelling him up more, covering him in this lube so he was nice and shiny.”
Gower estimates the entire bloater suit weighed 40 kilograms or more, roughly 88 pounds, which was a heavier build than Vecna from “Stranger Things.” On top of the bloater, there were 10-15 stunt performers dressed in clicker costumes and 40-60 infected extras who wreaked havoc on the Kansas City cul-de-sac in “The Last of Us.” It took a team of 65 prosthetic artists five hours to finish all the makeup. Since the clicker attack takes place at night, the makeup process would start around 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. to begin shooting at 9:00 p.m.
“For clickers, we had stunt performers who were in pullover masks with these eye socket areas, which were like little plugs that we could put in for any close-ups but remove for any mid to wide shots,” Gower says. “We had two hero clicker actors, Samuel and Olivia, who both played clickers in Episode 2 when we’re first introduced to them in the Bostonian Museum. As soon as they got their makeup on and started moving around, the pair of them could do the clicking sound. It was so authentic.”
The two main clickers were “completely engulfed in prosthetics” so they were unrecognizable from their previous scenes and had two different costumes each in Episode 5. The other standout clicker, who crawls after Ellie (Bella Ramsey) in the car and later kills Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), was played by a nine-year-old gymnast and contortionist.
Clickers may only hunger for flesh, but how do the actors eat and drink with their faces full of fungi? A balaclava-like mask made it easy to remove the clicker head and eat, but the hero actors required a long process to remove their prosthetics for a break.
“Samuel and Olivia both had bespoke makeups, a balaclava appliance and a crown as well,” Gower says. “The facial appliance came up around the mouth, under the eyes, then the crown came down and they both had bespoke dentures that clipped onto their own tops and bottoms of teeth. They had a row of teeth, upper and lower, which sat in front of their own lips. We could cheat the whole palate forward and incorporate it into that split cranial palette on the head. For them, it was a lot more extensive if they needed to eat and pop those out. We had a turnaround of about 5-10 minutes where we take the teeth out, they’d be able to eat and drink, then pop them back in and glue them shut again.”