Behind Vecna’s ‘UV texture crawl’ vines, the fight of a Demogorgon, and the de-ageing of Millie Bobby Brown

Behind the visual effects of volume one of ‘Stranger Things 4’.

In season 4 of Stranger Things we meet Vecna, a menacing monster from the Upside Down, achieved with a combination of practical and digital work. We are also reacquainted with a Demogorgon, this time in even more CG detail. Plus, we go back in time with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) as a younger girl inside the Hawkins Lab, necessitating meticulous de-ageing work.

To find out how those visual effects were achieved, befores & afters spoke to the three visual effects supervisors on volume one of season 4–Michael Maher, Jr., Jabbar Raisani and Marion Spates–who outline the detailed planning, shooting and post challenges.

Crafting Vecna

b&a: Michael, with the character, Vecna, I’ve seen a lot of amazing behind the scenes for the practical make-up effects by Barrie Gower, but also, clearly, there’s a digital half to it. What were some of the early considerations for how that character would be brought to life?

Michael Maher: It’s hard to believe that it’ll be three years in August since I first went over to the Duffer Brothersʼ writer’s office and we started just spitballing. They had some ideas of what they wanted, but they asked for some visuals to help them write with. They were clear from the beginning that they wanted a villain like Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare On Elm Street. They were also inspired by Hellraiser, which is one of their favorites. And they also wanted something that satisfied the Dungeons & Dragons and ‘Upside Downʼ portion of our show.

Early Vecna sketch.
Vecna concept.
Vecna concept.

Vecna ended up being an amalgamation of all those things. Very early on, we had a lot of conversations asking, ‘Should this character be CG? Should it be a practical man in a suit?ʼ We came to a marriage of the two. In the initial design his proportions were really exaggerated with extremely long limbs and an ultra thin body style and we ended up adjusting to more realistic proportions for the physical prosthetics work on the actor. But the benefit was the ability to really lean into the on set performance which ended up being the right decision for this particular character.

The Brothers were very adamant that they wanted the actors to have the ability to react to a real person on set. In the past with cg characters we would have a tennis ball on a stick, which can be challenging to interact with. I think that’s what drove the decision, ‘Okay, we want to use a prosthetic suit. We want to let the actor be able to actʼ. Luckily Barrie Gower did such an awesome job of taking the design and sculpting everything so beautifully that after everything was shot and in the can, we ended up just cleaning up the nose area and adding the movement on the vines.

Plate.
Final.

b&a: I feel like I could watch those vines moving and slime-ing around on repeat. I know that sounds weird, but it’s almost a little bit soothing.

Michael Maher: You should come work for us. There’s still shots to look at…

b&a: Done!

Michael Maher: Our vendor Rodeo did an excellent job developing Vecna for us. Early on there was discussion of having the vines move more like Davy Jonesʼ tentacles from Pirates of the Caribbean, but we settled on a ‘UV Texture Crawlʼ technique that seemed to give us a lot of control without hand animating every shot. It was a good choice because it allowed us to dial the speed of the crawl per shot. The brothers were very selective of the vine motion especially on tight shots where the performance was key. We were always adjusting the speed of the vines to make sure you felt their eerie presence, while keeping them from detracting from the dialogue and the story.

Barrie Gower works on the Vecna make-up effects.

b&a: I wanted to ask about the scene where Max is possessed by Vecna in the Upside Down and then runs away through the portal. Did you have a name for that sequence?

Michael Maher: Vecna’s Mind Lair is what we called it. Itʼs this red, soupy world that mimicked season three when Eleven goes into Billy’s mind and it’s filled with a storm full of moving memories of Billy’s childhood. The Mind Lair was similar only it was more affixed, more constant. We did introduce something new and thatʼs the floating objects which were made from fragmented pieces of the Creel house. A piece of design that comes into play when Max tries escaping the world.

The art department did an awesome job of building structures that were physical pieces of the Creel house. Stairwells, columns, fireplaces and vine spires and then vfx augmented all of that with floating debris in the sky and adding an extension of the surrounding landscape.

Concept art.
Plate.
Effects.
Final.

b&a: How is a sequence like that filmed? Is the actor shot on some kind of partial set? Is it a bluescreen environment?

Michael Maher: Aside from the two early establishing shots, which ended up being full CG, the rest was a hand-off between the art department and vfx. Art department built a lot of beautiful set pieces, like a pretty impressive island, for lack of a better term, and then everything is a set extension beyond that. We did alter quite a few things within that environment and added all of our floating debris, but as far as the set itself, it was a big extension. When Max starts running away from Vecna, that’s a lot of bluescreen work with very little set pieces. Same with the portal, thatʼs all cg sims and a plate we shot at the graveyard. The falling debris was all cg and we added to the blood splashes and fog interaction when the Creel House pieces were falling all around Max.

Rodeo handled every single effect in that whole sequence. They did a hell of a job doing all of the vine work around Max’s neck when it’s choking her. Usually, we try and do something practical so there’s some interaction, but it’s so sensitive because of the neck of the actor that we really didn’t want to have a rope or anything that would hurt her or be too constricting. It can be a little dangerous for vfx not have that interaction, but thanks to Sadieʼs awesome performance and Rodeoʼs ability to integrate the realism of that vine, it worked out quite well.

The Demogorgon fight

b&a: Jabbar and Marion, that Demogorgon fight is fantastic, what were some of the early conversations you had with the Duffer Brothers about it?

Jabbar Raisani: Marion and I both came on in post. So the sequence was filmed already when we came in. It really started with Michael’s storyboards. For us it was really looking at the intention of each shot and then taking that intention into a 3D space and figuring out performance of the character per shot, based on how the plates were shot and what the storyboards were representing. In some areas, we adjusted a little bit, but as a whole, it really stuck to that structure of what exactly should happen per shot.

Concept frame.

b&a: One of the things I love is how much we see the character this time around. Marion, what were some of the challenges of showing more texture, showing more animation, showing more of the creature during that fight?

Marion Spates: I think the biggest challenge was, they wanted him to feel very animalistic, and then because he’s on two legs, he can very easily start to look like a human, because it’s really humans that are animating him, right?

Another thing is, we like to give our creatures weight. Weight tends to start to make things go a little slower, so I think the biggest challenge, animation-wise, was coming up with that balance between animalistic, which is more frenetic, but also having him feel like he has weight, so he’s not too light on his feet. Then also the overall size of him relative to Hopper–he’s so big–so trying to get the right camera angles and trying to also make him feel big was a bit of a challenge. They did shoot a stand-in with a tennis ball, but once you get him in the scenes, we needed to tweak things every now and then just to make it the best framing.

Then there’s the overall texture of him. Again, Rodeo did a great job, they built the asset, and the level of detail that he has is unbelievable. We could just get that camera as close as we wanted. It’s fascinating, it gives me chill bumps. This big monster running through the set and just destroying people and everything that’s in his way. It was just awesome. But, you do have to deal with high render times, obviously, when you get into that kind of level of detail, there’s a lot of sampling issues we deal with.

Once we get it working creatively we then figure out technically how to make everything pass via QC because of the level of detail that he has and Netflix delivering a 4K show. I’ve worked on additional streaming shows that are not 4K, but you feel 4K.

Final shot.

b&a: I also thought you straddled the line really well of gory-ness. It’s confronting when he swallows a person’s head–it’s disgusting–but it’s not over the top in some ways, it’s what we’re used to on the show. Jabbar, do you want to say anything about that in terms of that kind of approach to the gore here?

Jabbar Raisani: In general, I’m always pushing for as much gore as we can get without overdoing it and making it all about the gore, but that scene certainly allowed us to really push the limits of what we could do. I don’t want to do gore for the sake of gore, but that was a horror moment. I definitely want to sell the gore and the horror in moments like that.

b&a: Michael, the boarding of the fight must have been tricky. It’s effectively a oner for the opening part after he leaps out, right?

Michael Maher: It is! I can’t take full credit for making it a oner, the planning was a collaboration between Hiro Koda, our stunt coordinator, the Duffers and myself. Hiro had made this awesome stunt viz where his guys were flying all around on ratchets and I took that and drew in the Demogrogon in correct proportion for the storyboards so that we knew how to frame for him on the day, as heʼs almost 9 ft tall.

It’s not too hard to board a oner because you’re literally just doing storyboards as if the camera was moving along. It could be a separate shot if you really wanted to, but sometimes when the camera angles are close enough to being a oner, why not? Can we get away with doing a nice steadicam oner here? Or can this be just a crane shot? Full credit needs to go to the stunt guys who did an awesome stuntvis from the get-go.

Final shot.

De-ageing Eleven for the Hawkins lab massacre

b&a: For the Hawkins Lab massacre, what kind of de-ageing work was done for Millie Bobby Brown?

Michael Maher: Lola VFX did all the de-ageing of Eleven, and it was not an easy task. I think a lot of people see the effect and might think, ‘Oh, well that’s a visual effect,ʼ but they still wouldn’t actually know how it’s done. Lola has a technique that’s really unique. Again most people might think itʼs a deepfake, but deepfake doesn’t work here because you can’t get the fidelity as fast as you need it to iterate, and sometimes it doesn’t work for speaking and expression. Lola uses a proprietary shoot. They capture Millie, in present day, and then actually do face replacement onto a stand-in.

b&a: Yes, I’ve been lucky to talk to Lola several times about their ‘Egg’ light rig. I thought here the work was seamless. I mean, people might think that they did shoot it six years ago with Millie!

Jabbar Raisani: Oh, definitely, there are people who think that absolutely, that the Brothers shot this many years ago, which is great and I don’t say otherwise because it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ It’s good if that is the rumour that spreads…

b&a: But, even to the point where, did Millie Bobby Brown have short hair for shooting reference in the egg? Or did they–

Jabbar Raisani: No.

b&a: Right.

Michael Maher: No, not at all.

b&a: That’s amazing.

Michael Maher: That technique was pulled off by the stand-in, who was kind enough to shave her head. Then Millieʼs face was re-projected onto a model and basically Lola morphed the two around the hair line, with the face and everything.

Marion Spates: Yeah. That was way harder than actually having a Demogorgon run through a scene and slash up people.

Jabbar Raisani: Yeah. It really is.

b&a: It’s super-successful here. I’m sorry to miss so much of the work out, but it’s great to focus on a few big sequences. Thank you.

Michael Maher: Ian, before we go, can I tell you that there is something that’s unique to Australia in our show. There’s one scene that we shot where Billy is approaching Max in the graveyard and Billy wasn’t there at all. He was actually in Australia, and we did a shoot with him on blue and then put him into that scene. I just don’t think a lot of people would even know that, even when they’re over the shoulder shots.

b&a: Oh wow, I had no idea, thanks for sharing that! And thanks again.

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