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The ambitious fourth season of Netflix’s Stranger Things involved developing the look and sound of its threatening, vine-laden antagonist Vecna. Creator-showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer drew early inspiration for the character from Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series and Pinhead from the Hellraiser franchise, says Michael Maher Jr., one of three VFX supervisors from the Emmy-nominated effects team. In all, their work involved a staggering 4,400 VFX shots created by nearly 30 effects vendors including DNEG, Digital Domain, Rodeo FX, Lola and Important Looking Pirates, plus Scanline, which Netflix acquired in November.
“We worked with a number of different [Vecna] designs until we whittled it to something that had a bit of the Upside Down and a bit of Dungeons & Dragons,” Maher, also a concept artist, says of the design, which had to bridge the character with the look of Henry Creel (Jamie Campbell Bower), who at one point is revealed to be Vecna.
This started with a detailed prosthetic suit designed by special makeup effects department head Barrie Gower (who with his team is Emmy nominated for the series’ prosthetic makeup). Digital visual effects augmented the look with elements of the face and the slithering vine movement around the character.
The latter involved a sort of texture animation to give the vines some motion. “It required a lot of body-match moving and painstaking effort to get all of that correctly matched to his on-set performance,” Maher says, adding, “[The Duffers] didn’t want him to ever feel like he’s just literally levitating, so we’d always give a little bit of motion to the vines to feel like they’re actually holding him up. That was one thing that they were very particular about; they didn’t want him to feel like he’s floating.
“But we were very careful of keeping the actor’s performance,” he continues. “And whenever we were augmenting the face, the nose [which was removed] especially, we were just very careful not to take away from the performance.”
While many of the finished shots combine the actor in the suit with VFX, the effects team also built a fully CG Vecna to meet script requirements. “Whenever we get into the moments when he’s burning, [those were] complete CG takeovers,” Maher cites as an example from the final episode.
Making Vecna all the more menacing was the work of the Emmy-nominated sound editing and mixing teams. “We wanted to make sure that as soon as you heard any sound from Vecna, it was clear that he was not human. That was his voice, but it was also his feet and his movements and his body. We had to make sure that everything about him sounded otherworldly and monstrous,” explains Will Files, who with Craig Henighan served as supervising sound editor and rerecording mixer. (Key sound credits also include rerecording mixer Mark Paterson and production sound mixer Michael P. Clark.)
For Vecna’s voice, Henighan says they took Campbell Bower’s performance and manipulated his voice so that “the clarity, the strength and the power was there. … [Jamie’s] performance was so good, I wanted it to be a special-sounding bad guy, but I couldn’t process it in a way that would make it feel too monster-y or too low sounding, because you need to understand every single nuance in Jamie’s voice.”
Meanwhile, sound effects — for instance, Vecna’s footsteps — were meant to sound heavy and wet. “The Duffers right away clued into this idea that we need to make him sound wet. They always wanted him to sound like he was gooey and always moving and undulating,” Files explains, noting that when Vecna walked, they added layers of “wet, slimy sounds, and then I processed them to give them a sort of larger-than-life sound.
“I tried to approach it like Led Zeppelin drums,” he adds with a laugh. “Like, ‘How can I make this sound big and bad and cool?’ A lot of ways to do that is to use a lot of the same techniques that they would use in the ’60s and ’70s — overdriving, analog-style distortion, saturation.” The team also gave a slithering sound to the vines placed around Vecna’s body.
When characters including Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Max (Sadie Sink) face Vecna during the season, they are bound with his vines. This involved a variety of tricky techniques, in some cases starting with the actors’ performances and in other cases using digital doubles.
With scenes such as when Sink’s Max meets and runs from Vecna in episode four, it also became clear that Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” would play a key role in the narrative.
The sound was tailored to work in concert with the music. “It was such a music-driven moment, but it needed to have these big sounds in it, too,” says Files of the scene. “We cheated the sync on [the sound effects for the] big rock events so that they synced up more with the music rhythm than with the visual rhythm. That actually made it all feel cohesive. It also helped the sound effects not distract from the music. It sounds like it’s almost part of the song.”
He adds that they used the song as a thread throughout the season “so that the audience subtly, subconsciously or not, stays latched on to it. By the time you get to the last episode and we’re using it as the climax of the whole season, it feels even more epic because we’ve been weaving it into the entire narrative.”
In addition to Vecna, season four also featured the return of the CG Demogorgon. This includes a scene during which Hopper (David Harbour) and other inmates in a Russian prison are sent to face the creature. “The Duffers wanted it feel animalistic,” says VFX supervisor Marion Spates. “One of the challenging aspects when a big creature like that stands 9 foot tall, you also want him to have some weight. But typically when he is more animalistic, he’s a little bit faster moving.
“One of my favorite things about him is this really high frequency flutter that happens in his pedals. [That was] another way to make him look angry and feel vicious.”
More subtle, though also critical to get right, were roughly 50 shots of an 8-year-old Eleven in flashbacks, which were made using various face-replacement techniques, depending on the requirements of the shot. The work started with filming age-appropriate actress Martie Blair for the body performance and capturing Brown’s facial performance with multiple cameras. “Sometimes it’s doing a 2D remap of Millie’s face onto Martie. Sometimes it’s a full CG face,” explains VFX supervisor Jabbar Raisani of the de-aging work.
The team also referred to references of Brown’s head shape from season one (the actress, now 18, was cast in the role in 2016). “Once we were able to articulate her head from season one, then everything started to get a lot easier. Then a lot of the profile shots just started to work,” says Raisani.
As talk quickens about the potential of deepfake technology for such purposes, he comments, “It certainly was considered early on [to create the 8-year-old Eleven], but at the time when we were researching exactly how to pull this off, the real reality of [factors such as] render time at 4K posed so many challenges. … They’re only getting better and faster from what I’ve seen. It’s only a matter of time.”
Across Stranger Things‘ four seasons, a variety of creatures have faced off against the teens of Hawkins, Indiana, all of which originated from the alternate dimension known as the Upside Down. While the first three seasons saw the Demogorgon and Mind Flayer enter the human world, the season-four villain Vecna is a departure from the Stranger Things playbook, a psychological antagonist with human origins.
Creators Matt and Ross Duffer tell THR that they envisioned Vecna as something akin to the horror movie villains of their youth. “We talked about those cultural touchstones … like, why did that scare me so much?” says Ross. But the antagonist also represents the Duffers’ continued effort to keep the show fresh and leave its fans surprised, yet satisfied.
“The fan response has gotten so much noisier every year,” says Matt. “Even if the goal was to please everyone, it’d be impossible — we’d drive ourselves mad even attempting that.”
Vecna’s origin story — detailed in the seventh episode, “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab” — fits in with the Duffers’ experimentation with story-telling and form. “We needed time to do that properly,” Ross explains. The episode, running at 98 minutes, was not included in the original season outline. “We went to Netflix and asked for an additional episode,” adds Ross. “I don’t think at the time we said, ‘It’ll be movie length,’ but that’s what it ended up being.”
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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