After Season 1 of Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers — showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer — realized they needed to bring in a visual effects team a lot sooner in the preproduction process. Rift Chambers can’t just be cobbled together on the fly, it seemed. So the Duffers called in the Emmy-winning husband-and-wife VFX team of Paul and Christina Graff. The Graffs immediately said yes, but there was a problem — they had never actually seen Stranger Things, and didn’t know a Demogorgon from a Shadow Monster.
“We didn’t know what the show was about!” Paul Graff admits with a laugh. After a quick video binge, Paul and Christina were caught up and ready to dig in on some complex tasks: showing the four pre-stages of the Demogorgon (from Polliwog to Demodog), developing the Shadow Monster/Mind Flayer, and creating the climactic CG scene in the finale in which Eleven closes the Rift.
The Graffs explained their problem-solving process to SYFY WIRE in the wake of their Emmy nomination.
What were some of the initial conversations like with the Duffers? How developed were their ideas, versus how much could you infuse visual ideas in the scripts? What were some of the things that changed along the way?
Paul: We got a rough outline of stuff, and 50 percent of that outline was truly crazy stuff that they had come up with. As we started developing what the Shadow Monster could look like, what the Rift could look like, we’d see a script, have a discussion with the Duffers, and then the next script would have what we were talking about on the page. That was really cool.
Christina: Somewhat early on, the Duffers had an idea about using a bridge that would collapse that never made it into the show, because there are no bridges to shoot on in Atlanta! So we reinvented what that could be, and made it a tunnel which we could extend with CG. That’s the opening sequence where our new character Eight is introduced, and the cops are chasing her…
Paul: … and they almost crashed. And Eight was a different number. And it wasn’t a girl. He was a guy. But using a bridge would have allowed us to be really high up, and the cars would jump over the edge of the bridge. But that’s why the location of Pittsburgh was chosen, because Pittsburgh has a lot of bridges.
How did you approach expanding and enhancing visual effects for things where we got a taste of them in Season 1 — the Demogorgon, the Rift Membrane?
Paul: Aaron Sims Creative did the Demogorgon in Season 1, and we added Hydraulx to help with the stages. We thought we could 3D-print those to scale and make rubber puppet versions of them, so we could put something in the scene that had the same size and reflections, so we could have a visual reference and the actors would have something to work with. So if Dustin is holding a Polliwog, we could do a take where he’s holding a rubber ball, and then a silver chrome ball, and that gives us good information on the eyeline and how the surface light plays on the creature.
That worked for smaller things. When Bob is killed, we couldn’t 3D-print a whole Demodog, but we could do the head and the paw, and then the head and paw were used when the Demodog goes in the fridge.
Christina: Paul and I spent a lot of time in creative discussions with the Duffer brothers and [production designer] Chris Trujillo, and we came up with some core ideas of how certain things could move, how they could act with each other. How do these electrical disturbances in Season 1 tie into Season 2? How does the storm tie into that? Where does the storm come from? Is it a natural phenomenon, or a supernatural phenomenon? And the Rift… it’s actually alive. So we spent a lot of time discussing that, and then coming up with some reference images and a visual vocabulary.
Paul: The Duffers said that it was like a storm was approaching, with red lightning. So we started looking for really cool storms, and Chris Trujillo found these clouds over a volcanic eruption, and it was like red lightning striking out of these really dark ashy clouds. So we had volcano eruptions, we had tornadoes catching fire… We had the particles from the end of Season 1 when the Demogorgon turns into a black cloud. We had a bit of the Rift in Season 1, like when the guy gets swallowed and doesn’t come back, and it’s like a membrane. A skinny, wet membrane, with stuff hanging across it, and a little bit of pulsing light behind it.
Christina: And then our concept artist, Michael Maher, was able to come up with all these elaborate visuals and concept drawings. The dimensions and the components of the Rift, how they react with each other, the atmosphere that drives it, and where those impulses come from. He translated those specific elements into our storyboards and animatics, which, before we even had a finished script, was our bible.
Paul: He was really our secret weapon, because he would go to set and measure all the geometry and reconstruct the sets as 3D models, and make these drawings to scale and how they were accomplishable as a shot, through the lens. He could explain to the camera operator how to shoot — the angle, the rotational speed, the axis, the lighting, the lens, the shooting order.
Christina: It all requires an immense amount of preparation. Like with the Rift, there’s a progression, since the Rift is closing, so how much light is coming through? Where is the Shadow Monster in all of these things? We wanted a continuity of light throughout the entire season, because everything is enormously brighter. When Will steps out onto his porch at the end of Chapter 1 and discovers the Shadow Monster for the first time, the sky is red behind the clouds. So the red light, the pulsing red light in the Rift Cavern, has a lava-like closure on the edge of the Rift.
Yeah, it makes it look very hellish. Beautiful, but hellish.
Christina: Yes! That’s what Matt Duffer called it! He called it a “beautiful hell.” [Laughs]
Paul: So when we see a bit of the Rift in the opening scene in Chapter 2, which was the introduction of how Eleven came back from when she disappeared, that was also something that changed. We had a different plan for it originally. We had the idea to make the Rift more lit, to add more light to it, so there’s more of a light source in the membrane in Chapter 2 than there was in Season 1. And that became the model for the big Rift Chamber. It’s much more a source of light. You have pulsing light and electric activity in the Rift, and it’s shining, illuminating the whole space.
Christina: There was nothing there except the shark cage — that’s what we were calling the elevator — the actors, the blue screen, and the lights. The entire environment had to be modeled out early on to understand what the scale would be, and to work out perspective for the camera. So we had to storyboard that frame by frame, shot by shot.
Paul: We had to do that whole sequence in a day and a half, which is crazy.
Were there any elements that you could decide upon in post-production?
Christina: The Duffers came up with a shot for Hopper. While he’s shooting the Demodogs, we get his POV of leaning over, and shooting him from down below.
Paul: Yeah, that wasn’t in the storyboards. The other thing that came up in post was that when they get there, the Rift is pulsing, and it’s like it wakes up and gradually becomes more agitated. The red light becomes brighter, and the intensity of the light becomes stronger. And then the walls, when Eleven starts to close the Rift, there’s a lava-like white edge that takes over. We originally thought when the Rift would close, it would turn all white. Like a whiteout. Like really bright light before it closes.
Christina: That’s what the Duffers wanted.
Paul: That’s what we shot for. It was originally white light. But then the Duffers liked the “beautiful hell,” so we dialed it back and made it more of a reddish finale rather than a white-out finale. That was all decided in post, and color-corrected back to be more orange rather than all white. That’s something that happened in the post-production process that wasn’t part of the original plan.
What about Eleven’s digital makeup? When her eyes go dark, and her skin goes all vein-y?
Christina: Millie Bobby Brown, she has this beautiful performance as is, and all we did was enhance the arduous task of closing the Rift. Without making her look like a monster, we added a lot of texture and veins to her face, and changed the pupils of her eyes in post-production.
Paul: We did tests where the digital makeup was too strong, and we dialed it back down. The whole subtext of Eleven as a monster is in the story. When she’s watching Frankenstein on TV. And that’s something every teenager goes through. She’s questioning herself – is she normal? Is she a freak? So there can be a little bit of monster there, but it can’t take over. We had to find a balance.
Christina: When Will’s possessed by the Shadow Monster, he looks much more monster-like. He looks like something disgusting and evil inside needs to come out, and we showed that with the veins growing all over his face and hands.
Paul: [Distortion and loud noises behind him] Sorry, I have to go. A monster is trying to get me now! [Laughs]