By KEVIN H. MARTIN
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
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By KEVIN H. MARTIN
In its first two highly popular seasons, the Netflix series Stranger Things has managed to brilliantly reinterpret familiar tropes, ranging from outcast schoolkids pulling off unlikely triumphs to government conspiracies being carried out in plain sight.
Taking inspiration from trademark Spielbergian films (Poltergeist and E.T., to name but two examples), plus the works of novelist Stephen King and genre-meister John Carpenter among many other works of horror, writer/director team the Duffer Brothers are a singular driving force behind the series. Taking place in the summer of 1985, season 3 finds the youthful leads again dealing with an otherworldly menace, while also logging significant time at the town’s Starcourt Mall.
The Brothers were initially enamored with in-camera solutions, but that view expanded to encompass a greater reliance on postproduction as they went through a first season learning curve.
“I wasn’t here that first year, but the plan had been initially intended to feature nearly all practical effects,” says Senior VFX Supervisor Paul Graff, a four-time Emmy winner for The Triangle, John Adams, Boardwalk Empire and Black Sails, who oversaw work on both seasons 2 and 3. “As it turned out, the Brothers became less enthusiastic about everything achieved going that route, and the digital approach gained more and more traction. We’ve continued along these lines, but I still find it important to have something practical on-set during live-action shooting that gets the physical idea of the thing across.”
Graff goes on to observe, “The Duffers do reference other shows and other movies, this is a unique little tale. Solutions never just come off the shelf from them. The story usually stays in flux until a few weeks before shooting. In my experience, it is very wise to approach the VFX sections with a maximum of flexibility, because one never knows how a shooting day is going to play out, taking into account inspirations that turn up on the day as we shoot with the kids.”
While Netflix affords Stranger Things a healthy budget, Graff admits the effects are done at a price point less than the sky’s-the-limit Game of Thrones level. “Making an effort to remain frugal is often just being smart with your up-front planning, such as working out details with storyboards. Then there’s the matter of conveying the presence of something not actually there to those out onstage. If you have the money to do very tech-heavy lifting, you can project a pre-rendered creature into the camera so the director and operators can see it, but we didn’t have the time to previs and generate in advance like that. Last season we made a 3D-printed stand-in prop for our pollywog creature, which was used both as a lighting reference and an aid for the child actors. But this season, we’ve got something the size of a T-Rex invading a shopping mall, so there was no way that 3D printing approach was going to work for us this time out,” he laughs.
In order to visualize and puppeteer the monster’s head, special effects initially constructed a zeppelin-shaped creature shell. “But it weighed a hundred pounds, so it wasn’t very practical having something like that way up in the air,” Graff recalls. “So I bought the lightest large object I could think of – a blow-up beach ball. Taping that to the end of a 20-foot boom pole let us puppeteer the ‘head’ enough to provide an eyeline for the actors while also giving camera operators a shot at framing for and tracking the creature’s movements.”
Planning sessions concerning VFX – especially the monsters – involved production designer Chris Trujillo, senior concept illustrator Michael Maher and the Duffers sitting down with Graff. “Last season’s Shadow Monster was kind of ethereal, a particle creature, [manifested] by the Mind Flayer,” explains Graff. “Having now identified Eleven as his opponent, he returns this season in a much more corporeal way to deal with her. Everybody really liked the Duffers’ idea of leveraging off 1982’s The Thing, so that helped form a backbone for the whole season. The team’s initial deep exploration was all about visualizing this incarnation of the creature. VFX-wise, it allows us to play with some real weight and, consequently, a different new feel for our creature animation, including specularity and moisture.”
“Everybody really liked the Duffers’ idea of leveraging off 1982’s The Thing, so that helped form a backbone for the whole season. The team’s initial deep exploration was all about visualizing this incarnation of the creature. VFX-wise, it allows us to play with some real weight and, consequently, a different new feel for our creature animation, including specularity and moisture.”
—Paul Graff, Senior VFX Supervisor
The big menace from season 1, the Demogorgon, is also back, but seen in a new stage of its growth. “Last season featured a different, earlier phase of life for the creature. We called them stages one through four, from the pollywog to the adolescent, stage-four Demodog. This time out, we indicate the final evolutionary step from season 1’s Demogorgon to season 2’s Demodog. Having all these new aspects to the creatures meant it was going to be a really nice playground for us and our vendors. One of the biggest parts of this job is picking the right collaborators, because not every house is good at all things. We got very lucky this season, having Rodeo FX do the creature work.”
On-set supervisory work was most often about going with the flow rather than saying “no.” “There was definitely a very attentive, creative and collaborative approach to shooting, and I think the show benefited from that,” states Graff. “Lack of energy and lack of interactivity can kill a scene, or work against creating the proper emotional response, so it can be better having to deal with a messy plate than to have a perfectly lit one that is too tame. Stranger Things has a lot of trademark visual elements, one of which is when shit hits the fan and things get crazy, that there are a lot of flickering lights. Because of the random aspect that comes with all that flickering, you can’t do multiple passes and get them to match, so we tried to get as much as we could in one, which meant getting our lighting reference during the same take.”
Graff’s solution: “I came up with the idea of having a stunt guy wearing this giant silver ball helmet while standing in for an incarnation of the monster that was 6-feet or 7-feet tall. This helmet let us see the variance in brightness of the lights from frame to frame. I told assistant stunt coordinator Ken Barefield that I needed him to really be that monster, conveying all that evil energy. ‘I need you to roar – and you can’t let yourself be intimidated by the fact you’re wearing a ridiculous red spandex suit with a giant silver ball helmet.’ He told me, ‘Don’t worry, Paul, I’ve got this – I’ll deliver for you’ – and then he sure did. The lights flicker and go out, and when they come back on, this guy is screaming at the top of his lungs, charging like a bull down the hallway. It looked completely absurd, and yet at the same time, it was really cool, one of the most amazing moments of the year for me.”
The other major effects thrust revolved around a massive underground machine constructed by Russian agents, operating right under the feet of the unaware locals. Utilizing hard-surface modeling and elaborate lighting effects, the work was divided between Spin VFX (based out of Toronto, now also in Atlanta, where the series is shot) and Munich’s Scanline (Crafty Apes, Alchemy 24, Vitality Visual Effects and RISE also contributed to season 3’s workload.) Described by Graff as a cross between a jet-engine turbine and a ray gun, the device attempts to force open a new rift to the Upside Down. While production’s art department could have built the Russian machine, the turbine would not have been functional. “So we suggested they build only a skeleton,” notes Graff, “and let us take it the rest of the way with our vendors. That frame was enough to provide a sense of what the shape would be if it were fully built, but you could still see through it.”
“This time out, we indicate the final evolutionary step from season 1’s Demogorgon to season 2’s Demodog. Having all these new aspects to the creatures meant it was going to be a really nice playground for us and our vendors. One of the biggest parts of this job is picking the right collaborators, because not every house is good at all things. We got very lucky this season, having Rodeo FX do the creature work.”
—Paul Graff, Senior VFX Supervisor
Production shot practical light passes to provide an interactive element to serve as a basis for animation, which featured heavy electrical flicker and a powerful beam emitted by the machine. “We built a Christmas tree-like metal scaffold, spiked with little tracking dots and featuring large silver and gray tracking balls to reflect the lighting every few feet,” says Graff. “That let us track the camera motion and changing light without slowing down or otherwise impacting the shoot. Then, for the end of the sequence when the lights really get going, special effects built this cylindrical rotating rig with lights in it and mirrors inside and out. This complicated device had a Viper [automobile] motor that could spin at any desired speed, which helped us capture really amazing plates with all this chaotic lighting.”
The season climaxes with the episode “The Battle of Starcourt,” which gives evidence to the idea that in the 1980s, everybody, even monsters, went to the mall. “One thing that really saved us there was choosing very early on to address potential approaches to the big showdown with the monster,” Graff reveals. “The Duffers liked the T-Rex chasing the car in the first Jurassic Park, and in the pitch documents for the season, the monster was rumbling through the Hawkins Fourth of July parade.”
Graff developed the idea of using the necessary animation development by Rodeo for pitching certain key shots to the Duffers. “I thought it would be a way to get a leg up on this,” he relates. “We could use these for testing approaches to the animation. It was like throwing a bunch of darts at the board – even if just one of these caught their eyes, it might stick and get written into the finale. We generated some nice grayscale views of the monster tearing through Hawkins, tossing cars around like they were footballs, with one crashing into the marquee of the town movie theater.”
Ultimately, none of these wound up onscreen. “Even so, it was proof of concept for whether we could pull off something very feature-sized,” Graff notes, “and so it did inform how they wrote things, giving the Brothers new ideas about how things could play out after seeing the scale of our testing. Perhaps most importantly, this work gave them more of a feel for the character of the monster. I talked with the head of Rodeo the other day, and we both were saying this was the best way things could have worked out, because that fairly limited investment of resources and time got us to the point where we knew how the monster moved, and had it down cold when executing the finals.”
The whole run of the series has been shot on RED cameras, and for season 3, director of photography Tim Ives began shooting on Leitz Thalia lenses in 8K via the RED DSMC2, which employs the Vista Vision-sized Monstro sensor. “The Duffers like shooting with a 15% overscan,” says Graff, “as it can be a great lifesaver if they choose to reframe or stabilize a shot. So we worked with a center extraction slightly over 7K before entering Ultra HD. Our workflow for the season used ACES 1.03. We built our color pipeline around Red’s wide-gamut RGB. Then there’s the show LUT and CDLs for each shot – our vendors deliver QuickTimes with the LUTs applied, so everybody sees things in the same way – which, in the DI, our phenomenal [Deluxe/EFILM digital immediate] colorist Skip Kimball kept fairly punchy and contrasty.”
Just a couple months before the season debuted, Graff remained extremely optimistic about the future of the series. “We’re pretty stoked about how things on our end came out,” he states, “but the bottom line is since there are only two Duffers, even with them seemingly working 24/7, it all kind of revolves around how fast they can turn these great stories out. Whatever we can do to keep them on schedule while hopefully providing some additional inspiration is only going to help it along towards being another big win for us all.”