Netflix’s ambitious fourth season stranger things involved developing the look and sound of its menacing, vine-laden antagonist Vecna. Creator-showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer were inspired early on by the character of Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series and Pinhead of the hellraiser franchise, says Michael Maher Jr., one of the effects team’s three Emmy-nominated VFX supervisors. In total, their work involved a staggering 4,400 VFX shots created by nearly 30 effects vendors, including DNEG, Digital Domain, Rodeo FX, Lola and Important Looking Pirates, as well as Scanline, which Netflix acquired in November.
“We have worked with several [Vecna] designs until we whittled it down to something that had a bit of the Upside Down and a bit of Dungeons & DragonsMaher, also a concept artist, says of the design, which was to tie the character to the look of Henry Creel (Jamie Campbell Bower), who at one point turns out to be Vecna.
It started with a detailed prosthetic suit designed by special makeup effects department head Barrie Gower (who and his team are Emmy nominees for the show’s prosthetic makeup). Digital visual effects augmented the look with facial elements and creeping vine movement around the character.
The latter involved some kind of texture animation to give movement to the vines. “It took a lot of body movement and painstaking effort to get it all to properly match his on-set performance,” Maher said, adding, “[The Duffers] I didn’t want it to feel like it was literally levitating, so we always gave the vines a bit of movement to feel like they were actually supporting it. It was something they were very attached to; they didn’t want it to feel like it was floating.
“But we were very careful to keep the performance of the actor,” he continues. “And every time we increased the face, the nose [which was removed] above all, we were just very careful not to harm the performance.
While many finished shots combine the actor in costume with VFX, the effects team also built an all-CG Vecna to meet the demands of the script. “Whenever we enter the moments when it burns, [those were] complete CG takeovers,” cites Maher as an example from the final episode.
Making Vecna even more menacing was the work of the Emmy-nominated editing and sound mixing teams. “We wanted to make sure that as soon as you heard the slightest sound coming from Vecna, it was clear that he was not human. It was his voice, but it was also his feet, his movements and his body. We had to make sure everything about it sounded otherworldly and monstrous,” says Will Files, who along with Craig Henighan served as supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer. (Key sound credits also include re-recording mixer Mark Paterson and production mixer Michael P. Clark.)
For Vecna’s vocals, Henighan says they took Campbell Bower’s performance and manipulated his voice so that “the clarity and strength and power are there. … [Jamie’s] the performance was so good, I wanted it to be a special sounding villain, but I couldn’t process it in a way that would make it too monstrous or low, because you have to understand every nuance in Jamie’s voice.
Meanwhile, the sound effects — for example, Vecna’s footsteps — were meant to sound heavy and humid. “The Duffers took to this idea right away that we have to make it look damp. They always wanted it to sound like it was gooey and always moving and rippling,” Files explains, noting that when Vecna walked on, they added layers of “wet and gooey sounds, and then I got them. treated to give them a kind of larger than -life sound.
“I tried to approach it like the drums in Led Zeppelin,” he adds with a laugh. “Like, ‘How do I make this sound big and bad and cool?’ A lot of the ways to do this are to use a lot of the same techniques they would use in the 60s and 70s – overdrive, analog style distortion, saturation.The team also gave a slippery sound to the vines placed around the body of Vecna.
When characters like Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Max (Sadie Sink) go up against Vecna during the season, they’re tied to her vines. It involved a variety of tricky techniques, in some cases starting with the actors’ performances and in other cases using digital doubles.
With scenes such as when Sink’s Max encounters and flees Vecna in episode four, it also became clear that Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” would play a key role in the narrative.
Sound was designed to work in concert with music. “It was such a music-driven moment, but it also had to have these big sounds,” Files says of the scene. “We cheated the synchronization on [the sound effects for the] big rock events so that they synchronize more with the musical rhythm than with the visual rhythm. It actually made it all cohesive. It also helped the sound effects not distract from the music. It almost feels like part of the song.
He adds that they’ve used the song as a thread throughout the season “so that the audience subtly, unknowingly or not, stays hooked to it. By the time you get to the last episode and we’re using it as a point culmination of the entire season, it feels even more epic because we’ve made it part of the whole story.
In addition to Vecna, season four also featured the return of CG Demogorgon. This includes a scene in which Hopper (David Harbour) and other inmates of a Russian prison are sent to confront the creature. “The Duffers wanted it to be animalistic,” says visual effects supervisor Marion Spates. “One of the hard things about when a big creature like this is 9 feet tall, you want it to have weight too. But usually when it’s more animalistic, it moves a little faster.
“One of my favorite things about him is that super high frequency flutter that happens in his pedals. [That was] another way to make him look angry and feel vicious.
More subtle, but also critical to getting it right, there were around 50 shots of an 8-year-old eleven in flashbacks, which were done using various face replacement techniques, depending on the requirements of the shot. Work began with filming age-appropriate actress Martie Blair for the body performance and capturing Brown’s facial performance with multiple cameras. “Sometimes it’s about doing a 2D remapping of Millie’s face onto Martie. Sometimes it’s a full CG face,” says VFX supervisor Jabbar Raisani of de-aging work.
The team also referenced the shape of Brown’s head from season one (the now 18-year-old actress was cast in the role in 2016). “Once we were able to articulate his head from the first season, everything started to get a lot easier. Then a lot of profile pictures started working,” says Raisani.
As discussions gather pace about the potential of deepfake technology for such purposes, he comments: “It was certainly considered very early on. [to create the 8-year-old Eleven]but back when we were researching exactly how to achieve this, the true reality of [factors such as] the render time at 4K was so challenging. … They’re only getting better and faster from what I’ve seen. It’s just a matter of time.”
On the other side stranger things‘ Four seasons saw a variety of creatures battle the teenagers of Hawkins, Indiana, all from the alternate dimension known as the Upside Down. While the first three seasons saw the Demogorgon and Mind Flayer enter the human world, season four’s villainous Vecna is a departure from the stranger things playbook, a man-made psychological antagonist.
Creators Matt and Ross Duffer tell THR that they envisioned Vecna as something resembling the horror movie villains of their youth. “We talked about these cultural touchstones… like, why did this scare me so much?” said Ross. But the antagonist also represents the Duffers’ ongoing efforts to keep the show fresh and leave its fans surprised, yet satisfied.
“Fan response has gotten louder and louder every year,” Matt says. “Even if the goal was to please everyone, it would be impossible – we would drive each other crazy even trying.”
Vecna’s origin story – detailed in the seventh episode, “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab” – ties in with the Duffers’ experimentation with storytelling and form. “We needed time to get it right,” says Ross. The episode, 98 minutes long, was not included in the original season plan. “We went to Netflix and asked for an extra episode,” adds Ross. “I don’t think at the time we said, ‘That’s going to be the length of the movie,’ but that’s what it ended up being.”
This story first appeared in an August issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.