Craig Henighan interview: ‘Stranger Things’ sound design
“When something sonically is written into a script and it’s baked in… it just gives you sort of a launching point, or a jumping off point, to really do something special,” explains “Stranger Things” sound designer Craig Henighan. He is Emmy-nominated for both sound editing and sound mixing for Season 4 of the hit Netflix series, and picked up a third nomination for the animated show “Love, Death, & Robots.” Henighan praises the way “Stranger Things” creators The Duffer Brothers have incorporated sound into their scripts at early stages, providing the designer with a rich creative playground.” Watch the exclusive video interview above.
The most recognizable sound effect from Season 4 is the introduction of a haunting grandfather clock which is tied to the machinations of the villain Vecna. Knowing the effect was vital to the story, Henighan began with the ticking of a standard Westminster grandfather clock and asked himself how he could “stranger-ize” it (his own descriptor for the unique process of fitting sounds into this particular supernatural world). He layered in the ticks from three other time pieces before experimenting with cello strings to bring the pendulum to life. The cello “gave it this old groan-y idea,” he describes. For the final chime, the designer applied a tone from the Westminster clock, but in a “slowed down, descending tone.” That distorted tone felt distinctly “Stranger Things” and is the element most responsible for giving viewers the chills when the clock echoes through a scene.
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Henighan is nominated this year for the episode “Chapter Seven: The Massacre at Hawkins Lab,” which features many revelatory flashbacks to Eleven’s (Millie Bobby Brown) childhood in a secret facility. “It’s a lot of light buzzes, it’s a lot of fluorescent sounds,” explains the designer of the cold and sterile location. “There are a lot of drone-y sounds that you would think is music but is actually in sound design.” Many of the scenes here are focused on dialogue rather than action, so Henighan needed to ensure that audiences were sucked in by the sound. “You want to sort of lean in during some of those moments,” he notes. So, many of the scenes in the lab come after a quick cut from a louder or busier sounding sequence. After a build up of stings and crashes in a more frantic environment, the droning lab scenes earn their sense of stillness.
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The designer gets plenty of opportunity to contrast stillness with action, such as in this episode’s ferocious Demogorgon battle in a Russian prison. Henighan leaned in to the Duffer Brothers’ love of gore when crafting the disturbing sounds of human bones crunching beneath the creature’s teeth. It’s your standard vegetables crunching…ripping apart chickens, ripping apart pumpkins. You look for stuff that has character to it,” he says of the hands-on design process. But he is quick to illustrate that even more important than finding the right sound, is choosing when and how the audience hears it. There are many sounds involved in any given scene, “but we try our best to orchestrate all these different sounds so that they all have their time to shine,” explains Henighan. It might be the simplest effect that gets a reaction from the audience, but “the way its timed is what really makes the sound land”
Henighan is a four-time Emmy winner, having prevailed in Sound Editing for “Stranger Things” three times and for “Love, Death, & Robots” once. With his trio of bids this year, he has earned a total of nine Emmy nominations. He was also Oscar nominated for his sound mixing on “Roma.”