The Last of Us, HBO's big-budget series shot in Alberta, premieres Sunday

A scene of a post-apocalyptic version of downtown Calgary as production of HBO's The Last of Us descended on the province last year. Albertans will finally be able to see the fruits of that labour on Sunday when the first episode premieres. (Tom Ross/CBC - image credit)
A scene of a post-apocalyptic version of downtown Calgary as production of HBO's The Last of Us descended on the province last year. Albertans will finally be able to see the fruits of that labour on Sunday when the first episode premieres. (Tom Ross/CBC - image credit)

About one minute into the trailer for HBO's big-budget adaptation of the The Last of Us released last month, the characters Joel and Ellie cautiously cross a bridge covered in snow. Joel brandishes a rifle, while Ellie checks for danger around them.

The bridge they're crossing appears to be the Canmore Engine Bridge, built in the 1890s by the Canadian Pacific Railway. It's just one of many Alberta sights eagle-eyed viewers will see when the series premieres Jan. 15 on HBO and Crave.

The series began shooting in summer 2021, wrapping production around a year later. In that time, it filmed at several Calgary locations, including Mount Royal University and SAIT. Scenes were also shot in Okotoks, High River, Fort Macleod and in Edmonton, where the Alberta Legislature was covered in vines.

Submitted by David Frid, Alberta Counsel, Mark Innes
Submitted by David Frid, Alberta Counsel, Mark Innes

Though the Calgary and Edmonton skylines won't be immediately identifiable — the cities play as stand-ins for the post-apocalyptic United States — familiar sights from those cities will.

Episode 1 features shots of the Fourth Avenue flyover, which was shut down for filming in October 2021, while the Alberta Legislature is visible in Episode 2 and Calgary's Globe Cinema will be seen in Episode 4. The distinctive Rocky Mountains are seen on multiple occasions.

Paul Healy, who worked as a set decorator on the series, highlighted the Fourth Avenue shot as being "epic," in an interview on the Calgary Eyeopener.

"I know Calgarians were pretty upset about us shutting that down, but I think when they recognize it in the show, they'll be pretty happy and realize the economic impact that this show had on our city was probably worth the inconvenience," he said.

HBO hasn't officially disclosed the budget for the series, though the New Yorker reported in late 2022 that it exceeded the amount for each of the first five seasons of the fantasy series Game of Thrones. Those seasons reportedly ranged between $6 to $8 million per episode before increasing to $10 million per episode at the start of the sixth season.

Luke Azevedo, Calgary Economic Development's film commissioner, said Sunday's premiere will highlight the quality of production that is now capable in Alberta.

"We can talk jobs, we can talk financial, but I think longer term for us it's how people see our world here. Talking about Calgary, talking about Canmore, talking about the area and talking about the people that work on this, on this project — behind and in front of the camera," he said.

"All of these things, and the accolades they bring, really does solidify that Calgary and Alberta is an 'A'-level market for film and television."

Damian Petti is president of Local 212 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which represents more than 1,500 film workers. He said the production employed a huge number of people in the industry for a significant period of time, adding its completion could help draw future similar productions.

"It becomes part of the popular culture, and people are aware that we're a production jurisdiction that can really meet the needs of any production. So this is huge," he said.

Chris Pizzello/The Associated Press
Chris Pizzello/The Associated Press

The series stars Pedro Pascal of The Mandalorian and Bella Ramsey of Game of Thrones, and if early reviews are any indication, fans of the video game series should walk away satisfied. As of Friday, the series sat at 97 per cent fresh on the review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes.

Adapted from a popular video game franchise, the series' looming premiere is exciting for some Calgary gamers, even if there have been a number of large-scale video game adaptations in the past that have flopped.

"I think that just having people that have never seen the game before or played the game or experienced it is going to be awesome. And I think they're going to have the exact same experience I'm going to have," said Calgary fan Ethan Holloway.

"They might throw in some Easter eggs for gamers, some secret things for people who are really in love with that world, but I think for the most part the experience I'm going to get is going to be the same for everyone else."

Entertainment critic Nick Schlager recent spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury after watching the series, calling it "both the best video game adaptation ever, but it's also, in part, the most faithful game adaptation ever."

"I think the people who have played the games are going to be thrilled by how accurate this adaptation is. But I think that newbies are going to come into it and really not realize that for long stretches that this was never a video game because it really is a character-focused piece more than it is a straight-forward action extravaganza or horror title," Schlager said.

"I definitely think you should check it out when it premieres this weekend. I think it's going to be HBO's next big hit. And definitely, if you're a fan of games, this is one you can't miss."