“When you read the scripts, it’s pretty clear that this season is going to be more challenging and bigger than the others,” describes “Stranger Things” visual effects supervisor Michael Maher. Season 4 of the hit Netflix series expanded the scope of the storytelling and forced the effects team to lean into a darker, more mature tone. Maher and his colleagues Marion Spates and Jabbar Raisani discussed all the ways in which they created monsters and digital human doubles in order to drag viewers further into the world of the Upside Down. Watch the exclusive video interview above.
Maher is also the senior concept illustrator for “Stranger Things,” which means he is the man responsible for your latest nightmare about Vecna, the “Big Bad” of season 4. He began drawing the villain as far back as August 2019, working off of the Duffer Brothers mandate for a humanoid that felt part “Nightmare on Elm Street,” part “Hellraiser.” “We went through maybe 100 different versions,” he admits, before the brothers found a design they liked.
The bulk of Vecna is made from practical makeup, but the visual effects team had to help “augment” the character. He’s a mass of ooey gooey texture and interacts with the pulsating vines that snake through the Upside Down. “It’s always a collaborative process,” notes Raisani, “With creatures, the more you can put on camera physically, the better off you are and the better starting point you have.”
Vecna and his blood red “mind lair” weren’t the only new digital elements introduced in the season: this villain is aided by a host of grotesque bats which sport dangerous tendrils instead of legs. In Episode 7, a flock of these nasties descend on some Hawkins teens, which proved to be a complex sequence. “You have to have something there for the characters to interact with,” explains Spates. He reveals that 3D prints of the bat tentacles were created with a soft rubber, which gave the actors something to grab hold of when they were being attacked.
But not every digital element in the series deals with something supernatural. Several flashback sequences present a de-aged version of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) which successfully tricks the human eye. Raisani says there were “lots and lots of versions” of this digital double, as arriving at a realistic final product is a painstaking process. “If you pushed it too far, it was like, I don’t understand who this person is,” he explains, “It’s a ton of small moves that lead to a photoreal shot in the end.” Every new angle in which this younger Eleven appeared required an entirely different set of tweaks and adjustments in order to make the effect convincing. “Your constantly re-solving the puzzle,” explains Raisani.
Maher has earned two Emmy nominations for his work on “Stranger Things,” and an additional bid for “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.” Spates has been Emmy-nominated twice for “Lost in Space” and once for “WandaVision.” Raisani is a two-time Emmy winner for “Game of Thrones,” and has two additional nominations for “Lost in Space.”
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