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June 24
2018

ISSUE

Summer 2018

The Supernatural VFX of STRANGER THINGS 2

By Ian Failes

The Duffer Brothers review a scene on set of Stranger Things 2. (Photo: Jackson Davis, All images © 2017 Netflix)

A television series about supernatural events in a small American town featuring otherworldly creatures and depictions of an alternate dimension might seem like a show that requires a heavy dose of visual effects.

But Stranger Things, the hit Netflix series created by the Duffer Brothers – while certainly having its fair share of effects shots – is a show in which visual effects are very much used in service of the story.

For the show’s second season, Stranger Things 2, the role of shepherding scenes featuring Demogorgons, encounters with the underworld and a raft of other supernatural scenes fell to the husband-wife team of Visual Effects Supervisor Paul Graff and Visual Effects Producer Christina Graff. They share their ‘stranger’ experiences with VFX Voice.

Filming takes place in the underground tunnels set. (Photo: Jackson Davis)

‘WE GOT REALLY LUCKY’

Prior to working on Stranger Things 2, Paul and Christina Graff had supervised or contributed to numerous films and television shows, mainly via their studio, Crazy Horse Effects. Although this new task was initially daunting, partly from the added pressure of an already enormous Stranger Things fan base out of the first series, the Graffs immediately gravitated to the sensibilities of the Duffer brothers.

“We got really lucky,” says Paul. “We got sucked into the most creative powerhouse without even knowing what happened to us. We’re extremely fond of the Duffers, and I think they’re some of the most talented young directors that I can remember.”

A large-scale design effort for Stranger Things 2 was led by Production Designer Chris Trujillo and his art department, with the Graffs and their visual effects team designing and creating key elements of environments and other ideas.

“It was a fantastic collaborative experience,” notes Christina. “I think they gave us a lot of leeway to furnish some fun ideas and contribute both to the look and the story. It was a bit of a synergy between our two departments, the art department and visual effects. We held hands throughout the entire season.”

Things moved quickly on Stranger Things 2’s nine episodes. The Graffs were based in Los Angeles for pre-production, then moved to Atlanta for shooting, with post production back in LA. Ultimately, though, pre-production, production and post always overlapped in some way, as Christina explains:

“We were in pre-production, production, and post production simultaneously while shooting chapters three through nine. So for us, post production started two months after the show began shooting. We had four months of post after we wrapped production.”

A previs still from Will Byers’ (Noah Schnapp) encounter with the Shadow Monster, also known as the Shadow Man, and the final visual effects shot as he jumps between dimensions.

DESIGNING DEMOGORGONS

Among the CG creature assignments for Stranger Things 2 was the strange amphibian-like lizard that Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) finds in a trash can and calls d’Artagnan, or Dart. It eventually transpires that Dart is a young Demogorgon from the Upside Down – an alternate dimension – and grows up quickly as the events of the show progress. Aaron Sims Creative, which had worked on season one, first designed a number of the stages of Dart, with Hydraulx then taking on the CG character.

“Hydraulx rigged and textured Dart, put in a muscle structure and the internal organs,” says Paul. “The first two stages are translucent, so depending on the light angle, you can see internal organs shine through. People were ecstatic about it. They really loved Dart.”

Later in the series, Dart – now the size of a large dog – joins a group of fellow Demogorgons. One unfortunately kills Bob (Sean Astin), and that required the actor to mime interaction with what would later be inserted as a digital creature. Having previously worked on The Lord of the Rings films, Astin shared with Paul Graff that he thought having someone to interact with was the most important thing in pulling off a convincing shot.

“Kate Trefry, one of the writers, was there when we had this conversation,” recalls Paul. “And she was like, ‘Oh, I want to do it!’ So she volunteered and then stood in as the Demogorgon when Sean gets eaten. She had bloody hands and we got the craziest shots of her in slow motion as they struggled. Later in post we had to erase her and put a Demogorgon in her place.”

The original plate and final shot featuring a CG Dart, which was built by Hydraulx.

Bob (Sean Astin) meets an unfortunate death at the hands of a Demogorgon. For realistic interaction, Astin performed the scene against a stand-in.

“Hydraulx rigged and textured Dart, put in a muscle structure and the internal organs. The first two stages are translucent, so depending on the light angle, you can see internal organs shine through. People were ecstatic about it. They really loved Dart.”

—Paul Graff, Visual Effects Supervisor

MEETING THE SHADOW MONSTER

A recurring visual effect throughout the series is Will Byer’s (Noah Schnapp) connection with what is known as the Shadow Monster or Shadow Man, the result of his time in the Upside Down in series one. Paul and Christina worked with Production Designer Chris Trujillo to give the Shadow Monster the characteristics which would be befitting for the Duffers’ legacy. Matte painter and Concept Designer Steven Messing created the Shadow Monster as a dark, inky being with multiple appendages, referencing storm clouds and tornadoes.

In one scene, Will envisions the Shadow Monster while switching between dimensions, all while the camera circles around him. “When we shot that, I knew I wanted to have a constant lighting situation for Will and that we’d need to have a greenscreen behind him while the camera was moving,” says Paul. “So we built a daisy chain train of three or four dollies on a circular track that went around Noah that had the camera, a wind machine and a greenscreen on them.

“It took 10 minutes to shoot but it was really one of the most difficult visual effects shots of the season,” adds Paul, noting that Hydraulx completed the work. “The Shadow Monster is huge and he had these tornado-like qualities, which come right into the camera – we’re basically inside the vortex. So there were a lot of simulations and streams of particles, including the little fingers that go into Will’s eyes and ears and nose, which all started as a concept painting by Mike Maher.”

Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Jim Hopper (David Harbour) confront the rift, a sequence crafted by Atomic Fiction.

Original concept design for the underground tunnel system by Mike Maher, the on-set plate and the final shot, which includes the addition of heavily art-directed CG spores.

NEW KINDS OF POWERS

In search of her mother, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) leaves Hawkins and finds Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), also known as Eight. She’s a fellow test subject who is able to conjure illusions in the minds of others. Some of these are destructive in nature such as a fake wall that suddenly appears to hide their escape from pursuing police, while others are beautiful, like the bioluminescent butterfly Kali summons.

“For the butterfly,” says Paul, “on set we had a metal screw for the eyelines that was dangling down on a fishing line. And then we asked the Duffers, ‘Do you want it to be bioluminescent?’ and they said, ‘No.’ Christina asked Atomic Fiction to try a bioluminescent version to tease the Duffers with. So when Atomic Fiction turned one around, the Duffers changed their minds. The other thing to note in that scene is that it’s just Kali and Eleven sitting in a corner of the room in front of a bluescreen, and all of the background is a whole Chicago background done as a Steven Messing animated matte painting.”

THE DUFFERS REALLY, REALLY CARE ABOUT SPORES

During the series, Hawkins Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) discovers the existence of a series of underground tunnels being ‘infected’ by the Upside Down. These were practical sets built in modular sections, designed to feel fleshy and have the quality of internal organs. Visual effects were then used to enhance tunnel scenes by adding moving vines, tunnel extensions and spores – lots of spores.

“The Duffers really liked the spores in season one, and they were particular about the spores,” states Paul. “We had different vendors and in order to establish a trust we told the vendor, ‘Look, you gotta get the spores right.’ We had a lot of reviews about spores, and lighting spores, and interactions with light, and depth of field, and all kinds of issues that had to be closely matched into the shots. I think we got it to a level that I’m particularly proud of.”

“It was a fantastic collaborative experience… they gave us a lot of leeway to furnish some fun ideas and contribute both to the look and the story. It was a bit of a synergy between our two departments, the art department and visual effects. We held hands throughout the entire season.”

—Christina Graff, Visual Effects Producer

Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) fights off the Shadow Monster at the rift. The scene was filmed in a bluescreen stage, with the environment and effects handled by Atomic Fiction.

INTO THE RIFT

In the final episode to season two, Hopper and Eleven descend in a cage elevator below Hawkins to confront ‘the rift’, the link to the Upside Down. This rift cavern needed to be around 200 feet tall with a 70-foot diameter, so it was filmed on a soundstage against bluescreen. Here, the two characters battle an incarnation of the Shadow Monster and several Demogorgons before Eleven uses her powers to close the rift.

“Those shots began as some ideas from the Duffers, our department, the art department and Mike Maher’s concepts,” outlines Christina. “In-house we built out a rough model, worked out the scale, and Michael created the storyboards –which became our shooting bible. We then turned everything over to Atomic Fiction to begin developing the CG environment and all the volumetrics and atmospherics. There was very little time for completion and they knocked it out of the park.”

The rift cavern sequence was, Paul reveals, an incredibly challenging one to pull off – not simply because of the large amount of visual effects (which, of course, included more spores), but also owing to its place in the grueling schedule. “We had only one and a half shooting days for these 115-odd shots inside this non-existent set with just a shark cage, three panels of bluescreen and a bunch of lights,” says Paul. “But it went really well in the end.”

The rift sequence also involved some slight alterations made to Eleven’s face and eyes. For that, tracking markers were placed on Millie Bobby Brown, and Atomic Fiction then augmented the actor’s features.

“We were in pre-production, production, and post production simultaneously while shooting chapters three through nine. So for us, post production started two months after the show began shooting. We had four months of post after we wrapped production.”

—Christina Graff, Visual Effects Producer

THE STRANGER THINGS JOURNEY

For Christina and Paul Graff, being part of Stranger Things 2 proved to be a monumental experience. The pair had not managed a show of that scale before – somewhere in the realm of 2,000 VFX shots – but they found it to be one of the most collaborative experiences they’ve had. “It’s been quite a crazy creative journey,” says Christina.

“Things were definitely always in flux creatively as scripts were being turned over to us two weeks prior to shooting. Many points we discussed in our first Duffer meeting never actually became part of the story, and other things had to be invented on the fly with the new scripts. We were always thinking on our feet, which is normal, to come up with quick solutions on how to shoot something, be flexible, and handle a mother lode of visual effect shots. It went smoothly since we all worked as a team and knew we could count on each other.”

“The spirit of the show was very collaborative,” adds Paul. “It comes from the two brothers who are in perfect sync with each other, and it just bleeds from there through the whole team, where everybody was trying to help each other out. It was a cool journey and very satisfying to be able to make such a large creative contribution.”


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