Paul Graff Interview: ‘Stranger Things’ visual effects
“The Duffers don’t really like to repeat themselves,” says visual effects supervisor Paul Graff. He is of course referring to “Stranger Things” creators The Duffer Brothers, who brought the monstrous Mind Flayer back in Season 3 to terrorize Hawkins, Indiana in the flesh. This new version of the terrifying demon provided fresh new challenges for Graff and his team. Watch the exclusive video interview above.
“The Mind Flayer in Season 2 was kind of a particulate monster,” describes Graff, “but it didn’t have mass.” The beast was composed of shadows and almost looked like a living tornado. When the Duffer Brothers informed the visual effects artist that John Carpenter‘s “The Thing” served as major inspiration for Season 3, Graff studied that film in order to discover what visual cues made that movie monster so terrifying.
“One of the things that really makes it work,” admits Graff, “is the moisture, the wetness.” That aspect proved essential for one of the season’s grossest and most effective effects. As infected townsfolk gather at the Mind Flayer’s lair, they drop and dissolve into hideous mounds of flesh. The puddles of body parts morph together to form a new Mind Flayer. Needless to say, he has that mass which he lacked last season. In order to up the horror factor, Graff was intent on creating a beast that was full of contrast and shrouding some of the moments in darkness. “It’s not about seeing everything,” he explains, “sometimes it’s really important to be bold enough to underexpose, even if you have the horsepower.”
The creature had to work in both darkness and light, however. In the finale, “The Battle of Starcourt,” the teenage protagonists battle the Mind Flayer in the food court of a mall. He may have tentacles and size to his advantage, but the kids have a barrage of fireworks. The massive amounts of lighting due to the particle effects of these fireworks proved quite a challenge for the visual effects team. “If you see a visual effects shot that doesn’t work” in film or TV, explains Graff, “chances are, over 50%, it’s lighting related.” Being forced to confront this major lighting challenge in the season finale made the supervisor realize that “lighting is a vehicle” because “your eye goes where the light is.” He ultimately concludes that “the strongest visual effects are when the visual effects are made of light.”
Graff is a four-time Emmy winner for “The Triangle” (2006), “John Adams” (2008), “Boardwalk Empire” (2011), and “Black Sails” (2014). He has an additional four nominations for “The Pacific” (2010), “Boardwalk Empire” (2013 & 2015), and “Stranger Things” (2018).