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Emmys 2022: 'Stranger Things' VFX and makeup artists unlock Season 4 secrets behind Vecna, Demobats, Robert Englund & more
The Duffer Brothers wanted Vecna to be a mix of the Night King and radiation burn victims.
A new type of horror came to Hawkins in the fourth (and penultimate) season of Stranger Things by way of Vecna — a.k.a. Henry Creel, a.k.a. 001 — who kills his victims by preying on their deepest fears, secrets, and regrets.
His ultimate goal? To merge the Upside Down with our world and reign over the resultant hellish landscape as an all-powerful deity. Unlike the antagonists featured in previous seasons of Netflix's throwback hit, Vecna (played by Jamie Campbell Bower) is a humanoid being — one who is revealed to be in control of the Demogorgons and Mind Flayer following his battle with a young Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), which saw him banished to an alternate reality.
Recently speaking with SYFY WIRE over Zoom, Season 4 VFX Supervisor (Episodes 1-6) and longtime Strange Things creature concept artist Michael Maher recalled how he began work on the show's latest threat as early as August 2019 — more than three years before the latest collection of episodes finally premiered this past May. "They wanted a mixture of Freddy Krueger and Pinhead," he says, referring to the directive handed down by the series' sibling creators, Matt and Ross Duffer. "Mixing those two aesthetics was the goal ... They're very good at picking out a reference of an ‘80s movie that they like and tossing that into the mix."
Given those retro influences, the Duffers wanted a character that could be achieved practically, albeit with a number of minor CGI flourishes in post-production. For the real-world side of Vecna, the brothers turned to award-winning makeup and prosthetic artist, Barrie Gower, who, just last weekend, took home a Primetime Creative Arts Emmy for his contributions to Season 4. His previous television credits include a pair of critically-acclaimed HBO titles: Game of Thrones and Chernobyl. "When [Matt and Ross] approached us, they said, 'We have this character, this this new villain, which is kind of a combination of your radiation burn victims and the Night King.'"
He continues: "We obviously went back and looked at the previous three seasons of Stranger Things to look at the environment of the Upside Down; to look at tendrils and vines and shapes; the Demogorgons and Demodogs, to get that essence of translucency because there had to be that relationship with what we've seen before in the show. Vecna is from that world, from the Upside Down. So there was always this constant [idea of] 'We need to have a level of continuity.’"
Factoring in the production shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it took around five months to construct the full-body Vecna suit and prosthetics, which included the use of "contact lenses, dentures, [and] urethane fingernails," Gower reveals. "We really put [Jamie] through the wringer, bless his heart." That's no understatement: the makeup application process "averaged about seven hours each day" with a team of four people essentially gluing the actor into a latex cocoon. "By Day 3, he knew exactly where he needed to be, where he needed to turn. He’d lying down before we even asked him and it'd be a really lovely orchestrated dance."
Luckily, Campbell Bower was allowed to step outside of the makeup trailer for sips of water and internet-breaking Starbucks beverages. "We always regard him as the fifth member of the team," Gower says. "He was so accommodating. We all have very similar senses of humor, he’s got great musical taste. We would spend the seven hours listening to so many different albums, podcasts, watching videos ... It was mentally and physically challenging to do this makeup, but it was all the more better thanks to Jamie Campbell Bower because he was like a seasoned pro... We never once had a peep out of him. He never had a complaint and he never moaned."
Since the entire costume was skin-tight, there was no room for an internal cooling system. "We had many conversations with the production quite early on as to the temperature of what the set would be [like] with the hot conditions [from] the onset lights, which usually conduct a lot of heat," Gower adds. "Perspiration is always a problem with actors; the more they sweat, the quicker the appliances come off. So we had an easy-up tent next to the set, which had an air conditioning unit in it and Jamie was always kept at a constant, very low temperature. Considering how extensive the makeup was, we had very little maintenance during the day."
The Freddy Krueger influence ended up coming full circle with the addition of Robert Englund in the brief, yet crucial, role of Victor Creel, a man wrongly accused of murdering his family three decades prior. While locked up, he was telepathically contacted by Vecna (his own son) and convinced to kill himself by gouging out his eyes. The suicide attempt failed, and now, Victor looks upon the world no more, his eyes nothing more than puckered craters of scarred flesh. Getting a chance to work with the Nightmare on Elm Street icon was a dream come true for Gower who grew up with "a shrine on my wall of Freddy Krueger posters and magazine cuttings."
"We had to build his face out somewhat to be able to cheat his eyes back, so we could get those scars through there. It was quite challenging makeup in and of itself," he remembers. "We only shot for about two or three days with Robert and he's obviously a seasoned pro. I don't think there's any other actor who has worn more rubber than Robert in their career. So we couldn't get anything past him. He knew all the products, he knew all the tricks ... and we just had a wonderful two or three hours in the makeup chair with him, where he just recounted so many anecdotes and stories over his career."
CGI entered the picture for the moments in which Vecna goes in for the kill, inserting his grotesque and elongated finger right through the foreheads of helpless teenagers. Maher calls that seamless marriage between practical and digital effects "a great handoff" (no pun intended). The tentacle-like vines the baddie uses to restrain prey and potential threats were also completely digital due to the potential risk of harming a principal cast member. Maher cites the fan favorite Episode 4 ("Dear Billy") as a prime example of this added caution, particularly when Max (Sadie Sink) comes face-to-face with Vecna in the "Mind Lair."
"I feel like [the scene] has everything: it has Vecna, it has Kate Bush, it has Sadie doing her stuff, the vines going around her neck," says the VFX supervisor. "There was nothing there on the day because we couldn't actually tie even just a rope around Sadie. It’s such a sensitive area, we didn't want to get close to hurting her, so Rodeo did such an awesome job of bringing all that stuff to life and I think the whole sequence really benefited from some great direction and acting and visual effects. It's just a blend of all those things that make something special."
When it came time to break the bones of Vecna's victims, the VFX artists had to get creative. "We really wanted to, but their agents were so tough on that. So we had to figure out a way around it," Maher jokes, going on to explain how the goal was to make the deaths of Chrissy (Grace Van Dien), Fred (Logan Riley Bruner), and Patrick (Myles Truitt) incredibly visceral without being too gratuitous (i.e. no blood or bones sticking out of flesh). At first, they tried filming the actors on a special lifting rig, with the plan of augmenting them later. However, they soon learned that the human body behaves differently when our vital support beams suddenly snap without warning.
"We noticed that if you wanted the break of an arm to be very visceral and really feel it, one of the things that you needed to do was shake the whole body as that one bone broke. On set that day, we didn't have that motion, that reaction that was almost like a shockwave that would go through the body. And so, we had to really sort of divert at the last minute and go full CG with those characters ... One of the things that we found was through animation [was] that if you gave a little bit of resistance before the break — if an arm were to shake in a certain way at its hyper-extended point — it would communicate to the viewer that the joint was about to snap."
The team combed through so much "horrifying reference [material]," that Maher thinks he might be on the FBI's Most Wanted list.
Season 4 also allowed Maher to design new monsters in the Demobats, winged and faceless creatures that swarm around the Upside Down version of the Creel House. The initial piece of reference given to him by the Duffers were the Mynocks from Empire Strikes Back (the creatures that attached themselves to the Millennium Falcon while Han, Leia, Chewie, and C-3PO hide unknowingly inside the gullet of an Exogorth). While continuing to refine the look, Maher also used Alien and arachnoids for inspiration.
"It was sort of like, ‘Oh, that kind of looks like a Facehugger. That would be cool if we had aspects of that.’ The wings and the appendages had this sort of hand-like, carpal structure, so we leaned into that. What we were also thinking about is when it was walking around... rather than flying, it would almost have a spider-like quality, too."
The idea of the Demobats relying on prehensile tails to incapacitate their targets was always part of the plan, but had things gone a little differently, these nasty little buggers would've been even deadlier in a way that hauntingly recalls Stephen King's The Mist. "At first, we designed them to decapitate people," Maher reveals. "The tails would actually have these little razor barbs on them, they would wrap around [someone’s neck] and almost like rip like a circular saw."
Steve Harrington stans can breath a sigh of relief.
And then, of course, you have the old standby: the Demorgon, which Hopper (David Harbour) and Enzo (Tom Wlaschiha) are forced to battle, gladiator-style, at the Soviet prison. While this monster is nothing new for longtime fans, Maher saw an opportunity to "evolve" the design created by Aaron Sims all the way back in Season 1.
"We have never actually seen the Demogorgon running in an open environment where he’s fully lit and seeing how athletic he actually was. That was a big challenge for us, to actually try and figure out: ‘Alright, what is he going to look like at full speed? Is he is he going to be slower or is he going to be like a cheetah?’ I think Matt and Ross were very clear that they wanted like a caged animal, something that was like a raptor in a cage with all these prisoners ... We were trying to keep in mind that he was going to be like a visceral animal the whole time. And Hiro [Koda, the stunt coordinator] did some awesome work with all the stunt poles of all the guys flying around. Then it was just about timing out those slashes and the way his attitude was and how he was hunched or all the blood coming off of his mouth and all of that fun, gritty detail. I know it's violent and gross, but it's one of the coolest things that we could do and it was just kind of beautiful what Rodeo did in that scene."
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of Season 4's unprecedented VFX responsibilities was the de-aging of Eleven for the flashbacks the Hawkins National Laboratory in 1979. Deepfake was floated as an option, but scrapped simply due to the fact that A) the technology would have taken too long and B) was not yet up to par.
"We were freaking out, trying to figure out how we would do it. Luckily, our friends at Lola really came through with a system, where we shot Millie Bobby Brown in her present day and then sort of grafted her face onto a stand-in [Martie Blair]," Maher says. "They did some amazing work, like truly impressive stuff. But it took a long time to get there because we’re all professionals at spotting fake facial expressions and strange, uncanny valley-looking things and faces. Because from the time we're born, that’s all we study. We're looking at faces all the time. So it was a real challenge because you'd see an eyebrow or something [that was] just slightly off and you'd be like, ‘What is wrong with this?’"
All nine episodes of Stranger Things 4 are now streaming on Netflix along with the show's first three seasons. Season 4 is currently nominated for Outstanding Drama Series at the 74th Annual Primetime Emmys. It faces stiff competition from Squid Game, Severance, Yellowjackets, Ozark, Better Call Saul, Euphoria, and Succession. The awards ceremony will take place on Monday, Sep. 12 at 8 p.m. EST with a simultaneous broadcast on NBC and Peacock. For a rundown of all the pertinent genre nominees, click here.
Looking for more sci-fi TV? Check out shows like Resident Alien, Brave New World, Project Blue Book, Eureka, Heroes, Intergalactic, and more streaming now on Peacock. Looking ahead, SYFY has the new series The Ark in the works from original Stargate film producer Dean Devlin, as well as Stargate SG-1 producer Jonathan Glassner.