VFX Voice

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.

Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.

Subscribe to the VFX Voice Print Edition

Subscriptions & Single Issues


October 03
2022

ISSUE

Fall 2022

STRANGER THINGS SEASON 4: THE EPIC NEXT-LEVEL VFX OF A GLOBAL PHENOMENON

By CHRIS McGOWAN

Images courtesy of Netflix.

Season 4 effects highlights include the formidable monster Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower), a mostly practical creation that also had VFX augmentation from Rodeo FX.

Season 4 effects highlights include the formidable monster Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower), a mostly practical creation that also had VFX augmentation from Rodeo FX.

Asked if Season 4 of Netflix’s Stranger Things is bigger and more intense than what came before, Visual Effects Supervisor Jabbar Raisani responds, “It has a longer run time, higher shot count and higher budget than any of the previous seasons, so it’s probably safe to say it’s all of that and more.” Indeed, Season 4 has more than 4,000 visual effects shots spread over some 13 hours in nine episodes with a total budget estimated at $270 million by The Wall Street Journal. Twenty-eight VFX vendors contributed to the effort, according to Visual Effects Supervisor Marion Spates, who was Additional Visual Supervisor on Episodes 1-6 and Visual Effects Supervisor overseeing Episodes 7-9 with Raisani, while Visual Effects Supervisor Michael Maher was responsible for the visual effects in Episodes 1-7 and was Additional Visual Effects Supervisor on Episode 8. Most of the cast has returned for Season 4 of the hit horror series created by Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer, including: Millie Bobby Brown, Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Matthew Modine, Paul Reiser, Joe Keery, Sadie Sink and Natalia Dyer. Maher notes, “I’ve been on since Stranger Things 2, and it’s amazing to see how much the show has grown.”

Raisani points out that every shot of Vecna’s Mind Lair and an expanded Upside Down required VFX in Season 4, and in general “we had multiple climaxes and sequences that involved fully digital or CG-augmented characters. So, there is just a lot of storytelling on the show that requires an extensive amount of VFX support.” Spates adds, “Especially in Episode 9, there is so much happening, the brothers are brilliant, the editing is amazing and the shots never stop.”

Key vendors for Season 4 included Rodeo FX, Important Looking Pirates (ILP), Digital Domain, DNEG, Lola VFX, Crafty Apes and Scanline VFX. Production started in early 2020 but then paused for six months during the pandemic. Filming finally wrapped in September 2021. Spates says, “We were playing catch-up from the gun. Therefore, just trying to keep up with the pace of the looming deadline and deliver quality VFX we could all be proud of, and serve the story, was the biggest challenge for me.”

Along with new or expanded environments, Season 4 effects highlights include the formidable monster Vecna, numerous digi-doubles, Demobats, a Russian prison, the epic Hopper- Demogorgon fight, the de-aging of Eleven, and assorted creations such as swarms of black widow spiders.

Vecna is a fearsome and creepy nemesis, a mostly practical creation who also had VFX augmentation from Rodeo FX. The creature’s origin lay in the Duffer brothers’ wish to take the series into a darker place than before. Maher explains, “From the beginning the brothers were really inspired by A Nightmare on Elm Street and Hellraiser. We went through lots of variations to achieve the balance of Upside Down, Dungeons and Dragons, Pinhead and Freddy Krueger that they were after. Pretty early on they knew that Vecna would be cast as an actor in a practical suit [rather than] a full CG villain. The brothers have an uncanny knack of knowing their audience and understanding what will have ‘presence’ on screen.”

Maher began providing Vecna concept art in 2019, and the monster was fine-tuned in later discussions between the Duffer brothers, Maher, the visual effects team and Special Makeup Effects Designer and Makeup Effects Department Head Barrie Gower, a three-time Emmy winner for his work on Game of Thrones. Maher continues, “I digitally sculpted just about every option just so we could see it in a turntable and get an idea of how different lighting would look. In the end it came down to three different choices, and we settled on [a version that] Barrie Gower then made into a beautiful, practical sculpt.” Each shoot day, Maher recalls, “It took Barrie and crew hours and hours to apply the practical suit on [actor] Jamie [Campbell Bower]. Many different molded parts came together on his body to form the base of the costume.”

“On most of the shots we’d replace the shoulders to add the crawling vines on his body, replace the nose with our hollow nose, and paint out Jamie’s pupils,” notes Julien Hery, Visual Effects Supervisor for Rodeo FX, about adding the VFX. For Vecna’s tentacle-like vines, Maher explains, “We augmented [them] with a technique called ‘UV crawl,’ which was a texture displacement animation that gave the illusion of movement.” Maher notes, “Whenever his clawed hand was interacting with his victims, it became fully digital. We would use the practical hand as a reference, but due to interaction with skin when he punctures faces, it made it easier to go fully CG.”

Maher comments, “Previously, we’d had success with CG creatures of all shapes and sizes, but this season the challenge came from the sheer amount of CG humans that we attempted.” He explains, “Every Vecna victim had to be fully digital due to how dramatically they would break, and the camera was so close that it required an extreme amount of detail in animation, texture, groom, dynamics, etc. to pull off. Luckily, we had some extremely talented artists working on those shots from Rodeo and Digital Domain.”

Fragments of the Creel family house hover in the Mind Lair space in Vecna’s mind, an environment requiring extensive VFX.

Fragments of the Creel family house hover in the Mind Lair space in Vecna’s mind, an environment requiring extensive VFX.

The flowers in the foreground will soon wilt as a gate to the Upside Down opens and tears apart the town of Hawkins. From left: Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers, David Harbour as Jim Hopper, Noah Schnapp as Will Byers, Finn Wolfhard as Mike Wheeler, Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, Charlie Heaton as Jonathan Byers and Natalia Dyer as Nancy Wheeler.

The flowers in the foreground will soon wilt as a gate to the Upside Down opens and tears apart the town of Hawkins. From left: Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers, David Harbour as Jim Hopper, Noah Schnapp as Will Byers, Finn Wolfhard as Mike Wheeler, Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, Charlie Heaton as Jonathan Byers and Natalia Dyer as Nancy Wheeler.

Eddie gives the ultimate Metallica guitar solo in the Upside Down, an environment that required heavy VFX in every shot.

Eddie gives the ultimate Metallica guitar solo in the Upside Down, an environment that required heavy VFX in every shot.

Season 4 of Stranger Things reveals more about the Mind Flayer.

Season 4 of Stranger Things reveals more about the Mind Flayer.

The gateway into the Upside Down, with Vecna’s vines everywhere. The vines moved with a technique

The gateway into the Upside Down, with Vecna’s vines everywhere. The vines moved with a technique called ‘UV crawl,’ a texture displacement animation.

Demobats attack Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), choking him with their tendrils. They were based on Michael Maher concept art and developed by Rodeo FX and DNEG.

Demobats attack Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), choking him with their tendrils. They were based on Michael Maher concept art and developed by Rodeo FX and DNEG.

Steve (Joe Keery) battles Demobats in the CGI Upside Down. The Demobat rigging was a challenge with a creature that could do so much with its body, including using its multiple tendrils to strangle victims. (Image courtesy of DNEG and Netflix)

Steve (Joe Keery) battles Demobats in the CGI Upside Down. The Demobat rigging was a challenge with a creature that could do so much with its body, including using its multiple tendrils to strangle victims. (Image courtesy of DNEG and Netflix)

The Demobats, a new menace introduced in Season 4, resemble bats with tendrils. Hery recalls, “For the Demobat, we started with a concept from Michael Maher. Our main goal was to make sure we could cover all possible actions with its anatomy. So, we started animation tests to develop the behavior. For example, it would walk and climb like a spider but then fly like a bat or a large bird. Once we settled on a behavior, we implemented all those changes on the bats while also adding a lot of sculpt and texture detail to its skin. The rigging was also a challenge with a creature that can do so much with its body, even use its multiple tails to strangle.” Along the way, Rodeo “shared their work with DNEG and both did some great animation to bring them to life,” Maher says.

DNEG’s Demobat work was often complex. DNEG Visual Effects Supervisor Neil Eskuri recalls, “One shot that came in at 1,600 frames, over a minute and a half in length, was definitely our most difficult shot and biggest challenge. It had five different plates, four live-action characters and three CG bats in a CG environment, and a constantly moving camera. It took roughly five months to complete as the complexity was enormous, from the roto and prep to the body and camera tracking and stitching of the multiple plates, to specific animation of the bats and EFX.”

Makeup Effects Designer Barrie Gower came up with Vecna’s practical sculpt. The molded parts of the suit took hours to apply each day to actor Jamie Campbell Bower.

Makeup Effects Designer Barrie Gower came up with Vecna’s practical sculpt. The molded parts of the suit took hours to apply each day to actor Jamie Campbell Bower.

Digital Domain worked on a smaller threat in the black widow spider sequences. Digital Domain Visual Effects Supervisor Manolo Mantero explains, “We took special care with the modeling and grooming of the spiders to make them feel as real as possible while also creating variations based on real references. Our animation department was delighted to bring them to life and give different personalities to the individual spiders. We limited the use of crowds of spiders created by the FX department to the ones in the background to bring as much realistic movement and behavior as possible through pure animation.”

Maher notes, “We certainly see a lot more of the Upside Down in this season than others. We’ve never really shown a sprawling bird’s-eye view of it like we did in Episode 3 when the Demobats fly toward the Creel House over downtown Hawkins.” Practical vines covered entire outdoor locations like the trailer park, but there was still a lot left for VFX to accomplish. DNEG contributed to the extensive environment work, which, according to Eskuri, “required a lot of CG vines, lightning with sky replacement, and the ever-present spores floating in the atmosphere.”

Hery comments, “One of the most challenging and iconic environments was the Mind Lair [existing in Vecna’s mind] that is featured in a few episodes. We built close to 200 shots in that environment. It was a real challenge to come up with an environment covered by spires, fog and rain squalls to infinity. We took a procedural approach based on the LiDAR scan of the set. We were able to keep the look and feel of it while generating an infinite environment. It was a large volume of shots with a lot of art direction, and our compositing team really rose to the challenge.”

Chrissy Cunningham (Grace Van Dien) as Vecna breaks her bones, necessitating a digi-double. (Images courtesy of Rodeo FX and Netflix)

Chrissy Cunningham (Grace Van Dien) as Vecna breaks her bones, necessitating a digi-double. (Images courtesy of Rodeo FX and Netflix)

Chrissy Cunningham (Grace Van Dien) as Vecna breaks her bones, necessitating a digi-double. (Images courtesy of Rodeo FX and Netflix)

“We were playing catch-up from the gun. Therefore, just trying to keep up with the pace of the looming deadline and deliver quality VFX we could all be proud of, and serve the story, was the biggest challenge for me.”

—Marion Spates, Visual Effects Supervisor

Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) dissolves Henry (Jamie Campbell Bower) and sends him through the wall to the Upside Down, where he burns and falls, in a full CG sequence worked on by Digital Domain.

Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) dissolves Henry (Jamie Campbell Bower) and sends him through the wall to the Upside Down, where he burns and falls, in a full CG sequence worked on by Digital Domain.

Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) dissolves Henry (Jamie Campbell Bower) and sends him through the wall to the Upside Down, where he burns and falls, in a full CG sequence worked on by Digital Domain.

Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) dissolves Henry (Jamie Campbell Bower) and sends him through the wall to the Upside Down, where he burns and falls, in a full CG sequence worked on by Digital Domain.

Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) battles One (Jamie Campbell Bower) and dissolves him into light and ash, with spectacular visual effects by Scanline VFX.

Hellscape is a full CG environment in Episode 7 that was developed by Digital Domain and is essential to Vecna’s origin. Mantero comments, “We received some beautiful concept designs from Michael Maher and brought to life a fully digital character – One – for the occasion. The result is a full CG sequence immediately after One is banished by Eleven, where he is falling and burning. It was heavy in FX and character work.”

Another important location is a Russian prison where Hopper and other inmates battle with a Demogorgon. According to Niklas Jacobson, ILP Visual Effects Supervisor, establishing shots or exterior views of the prison utilize ILP’s full CG build that includes a digital environment of the area around it. He explains, “Our CG set features cars and digital guards patrolling the area to make it feel alive. A handful of shots also feature the actors together with the digital environment, and those cases used a large green screen to separate the actors from the live-action environment and were blended seamlessly into our digital extension.”

Hery comments, “In Season 4, we now experience the Demogorgon in the light performing a lot of actions in any type of framing. So, we needed to update the asset to a 2022 standard and make sure we could film it anywhere without having to hide it in the dark. Our first step into this re-haul was slightly changing its morphology to allow for new actions, as we needed to make him run on all fours, slash prisoners and jump around. So, we did animation tests to see what kind of morphology changes we would need. Once we established our new proportions, we started to sculpt much more detail into the asset and re-do the texture to support closeups, also adding many more scars coming from its captivity.”

The Demogorgon’s menacing movements are on full display in the epic prison-yard battle it wages with Hopper and the other inmates. Raisani reveals, “We started with the storyboards that Michael drew and used that as a blueprint for all of the action and beats in the fight.”

Spates adds, “This is by far one of my favorite sequences in the show. It’s not often you get the chance to create a raging creature slashing his way through some inmates! Rodeo was tasked with creating the high-fidelity asset, which gave us complete control to create the best shots possible. One of the biggest challenges was to make the Demogorgon feel animalistic yet give him weight because of his size; he stands nine feet tall. It was such a pleasure to bring this creature to life.” ILP also contributed to the Demogorgon sequence. “We were provided amazing assets by Rodeo,” Jacobson comments. “The creatures were rigged in Maya using our own proprietary modular rigging system. Muscle and tissue were added using Ziva Dynamics and involved us creating a skeletal and muscular structure of our own to drive muscle, fat and skin simulations, with some additional Vellum and Ncloth for custom shot work and drool. To give life to the Demo creatures’ unique petaled faces we built custom facial rigs that favored a high degree of animator control. The sequence also featured a wide variety of FX simulation work like fire, smoke and ember simulations for the flamethrower effects.”

Rodeo FX built close to 200 shots for the environment of Vecna’s Mind Lair.

Rodeo FX built close to 200 shots for the environment of Vecna’s Mind Lair.

Jacobson adds, “Creature work is always fun, and this was even more special, as it takes place during the epic crescendo of the episode. The work passed through most disciplines, and it was a fantastic team effort and collaboration to make it all come together.”

In Season 4, flashbacks to the past in the Hawkins National Laboratory required some VFX wizardry. Maher praises the “astounding de-aging of young Eleven by Lola VFX.” He observes, “It’s interesting to me that some people still think we found unused footage of young Eleven from Season 1 and just repurposed it. It’s a testament to how well Lola did on the face replacements. We started by shooting our wonderful stand-in, Martie [Blair], who would act out the scene completely, and then we employed the help of our friends at Lola to perform an ‘egg shoot,’ capturing footage of present-day Millie Bobby Brown acting out each scene as Martie had and then doing a full face replacement in post. It was one of the hardest things we did on the show, especially with moving cameras and matching the consistency of her age and look across several shots.”

One of the least obvious uses of VFX in Season 4 came in a sequence where Eleven bashes Angela with a roller skate. “The blood on Angela was fully digital,” says ILP’s Jacobson. “This sequence is an emotional peak, and it was important to really feel the damage inflicted by Eleven. Angela was meticulously match moved in order for us to have a solid base to run the FX blood simulations on. The blood was lit carefully matching the very dynamic lighting from the set, featuring a lot of animated light sources, flickering, blinking, and actors going in and out obscuring light sources. In the end, there was a lot of compositing work to really integrate and refine the look of the blood.”

Vecna’s Mind Lair utilized both practical and visual effects. (Images courtesy of Rodeo FX and Netflix)

Vecna’s Mind Lair utilized both practical and visual effects. (Images courtesy of Rodeo FX and Netflix)

Vecna was mostly practical, but the tentacle-like vines sprouting from his body were added effects.

Vecna was mostly practical, but the tentacle-like vines sprouting from his body were added effects.

Additional vendors for Season 4 include: Some of the other vendors for Season 4 not mentioned previously include: Clear Angle Studios, MARZ VFX, The Resistance, Jellyfish Pictures and El Ranchito (this is not a complete list). Spates remarks, “Our pipeline was pretty robust, giving us all the ability to work from home or in the office which was helpful when you’re working with vendors that are all over the world.”

Digital Domain’s Mantero comments, “This season was epic in terms of VFX. But it is not just about scale – the level of sophistication and complexity of the VFX work went well beyond anything before. The work done throughout Season 4 took the look and all the classic elements from previous seasons and evolved them, while also adding completely new work and complexity to the visual effects design.”


Share this post with

Most Popular Stories

THE RETURN OF HAND-DRAWN AND STYLIZED EFFECTS ANIMATION
27 September 2022
Television/ Streaming
THE RETURN OF HAND-DRAWN AND STYLIZED EFFECTS ANIMATION
If you’ve noticed that a raft of animated films, shows and visual effects projects have been toying with more hand-crafted effects animation lately, you’re not alone.
LOOKING AT HIS DARK MATERIALS THROUGH THE AMBER SPYGLASS
03 October 2022
Television/ Streaming
LOOKING AT HIS DARK MATERIALS THROUGH THE AMBER SPYGLASS
Extensive creature work sparks fantasy series finale.
FRAMESTORE GOES TO WAR FOR THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER
13 September 2022
Television/ Streaming
FRAMESTORE GOES TO WAR FOR THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER
Thor: Love and Thunder, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Indigarr battle, a crystal temple and giant goats.
SOUTH AND EAST ASIAN VFX STUDIOS MEET LOCAL AND GLOBAL DEMAND
03 October 2022
Television/ Streaming
SOUTH AND EAST ASIAN VFX STUDIOS MEET LOCAL AND GLOBAL DEMAND
Inside the South and East Asian VFX industry boom.
THERE IS HORROR IN THE CLOUDS IN NOPE
07 September 2022
Television/ Streaming
THERE IS HORROR IN THE CLOUDS IN NOPE
Being conventional when it comes to the horror genre is something that does not apply to filmmaker Jordan Peele
cialis online buy cialis