The humanoid monster from Upside Down, which relies more on practical effects, could earn the series its first VFX Emmy win.
[Editor’s Note: The following story contains spoilers for “Stranger Things 4.”]
For the oversized, penultimate Season 4 of Stranger Things (Volume 1 is currently streaming on Netflix; Volume 2 launches July 1st), creators Matt and Ross Duffer have channeled A Nightmare on Elm Street to give their album a more tangible Newest monster to give horror atmosphere: Vecna, a humanoid creature from Upside Down. Much like Freddy Krueger from the “Elm Street” franchise, Vecna hunts his victim’s mind and psychically manipulates their traumatic memories into terrifying hallucinations before murdering and possessing them.
Vecna represents the series’ most ambitious creature work to date; it’s good enough that it could win the series’ first VFX Emmy. Following on from Season 1’s Demogorgon, the VFX team on Vecna relied more on practical effects than CG. The Duffers wanted the creature to reflect forms and textures of Upside Down and its monstrous denizens: roots, vines, organic shapes, fibrous muscle. Vecna’s color palette also includes purple, crimson, black, and darker hues reminiscent of the Upside Down that has visually taken over his body. Patches of exposed skin, pale and anemic, show he hasn’t seen sunlight in years—like a vampire.
“We wanted to use a prosthetic actor to control the character,” VFX supervisor Michael Maher told IndieWire. “But a lot of consideration was given [about the mix between practical and CG]. Does that mean we CG the rest of the body? Shall we do a full CG with a face replacement? We’ve created full CG characters before [the Mind Flayers from Season 2], and it was great, but in this case I’m so glad we leaned into the performance. I do not think so [the CG option] would have been just as emotionally effective.”
Vecna, unlike the other creatures, is a human who has mutated into a monster from overexposure to the Upside Down. He has been exposed to the toxic environment for about 20 years and has become a part of it. His silhouette contains sharp shapes, so even as a slow-moving character, his toothy appendages and jagged edges make him too dangerous to touch. His victims are trapped in the vines like trophies.
All of these spooky details have been incorporated into Vecna’s convenient full body suit, designed by prosthetic designer Barrie Gower (three-time Emmy winner for Game of Thrones) and his team. There were almost 20 separate prosthetic devices made from a mixture of materials. Also, the Duffers wanted Vecna’s mutated left hand to be enlarged and distorted with extended fingers. Gower and his team created mechanical finger extenders with aluminum joints that lengthened the actor’s fingers by up to 10 inches.
For the CG extension of Vecna, Maher turned to Rodeo FX, who previously made Season 3’s massive Mind Flayer. The work included a digital rendering of the mutant hand for close-up interactions with Vecna’s victims, vine-like texturing of the body, and replacement of his nose and right pupil. “We put this creeping texture pattern on the vines that makes it look like they’re constantly moving, but very slowly,” Maher said. “The brothers wanted to do something that wasn’t too flashy or overdone. They didn’t want to detract from the performance, so this wasn’t Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean.”
The most lavish sequence in Volume 1 occurs in Episode 4 (“Dear Billy”), in which Max (Sadie Sink) becomes trapped in Vecna’s mind cave and narrowly escapes through a portal home. The hands-on set is series production designer Chris Trujillo’s most ambitious setting to date, the Upside Down equivalent of a key Stranger Things filming location, rendered in the alternate dimension’s gnarly, organic iconography and red color palette. Its counterpart to Hawkins is the attic where the Creel family was murdered in the 1950s; Father Victor (original Freddy Krueger actor Robert Englund, deepening “Elm Street” connections) was the sole survivor of the massacre and was later convicted of the crimes and incarcerated in a mental hospital. Thus, Upside Down’s mysterious connection to Hawkins can be traced back to what happened in that attic.
Alongside Vecna, Rodeo FX also took care of the Mind Cave CG environment. In fact, there were almost as many VFX shots in the mind cave sequence as there were in the entire first season. “The brothers really wanted it to be a forest mixed in with shards of the house appearing in fragments,” Maher added. “It’s the eerie, frightening mind of a madman with shattered memories. That was the brief.” The VFX studio created lightning bolts, fake blood on a blue screen set with Max walking through on a glossy floor, and pieces of the house and boulders falling and exploding around them.
“The Duffers wanted to up the ante,” Maher continued. “Rodeo dismembered his model and it exploded with huge splashes [fake] Blood. Max’s goal is to get to the portal, which was a ray of light through the clouds. It’s surreal where it tears away for a clear view of the graveyard. If she’s trapped in the vines, so is CG. The texture suits Vecna, who is in control of his surroundings and everything comes from him. He hangs on the vines that lift him up. It’s like a spider web. Black widows are a big part of the season as a metaphor. Essentially, the vines come into the Upside Down and merge with him to allow him to get into that meditative state.”
Season 4’s distinction for Maher was her darker tone and ability to create a more menacing environment as the series comes to a close in Season 5. “As the children grow, they have to give up some of the immaturity and move on to heavier subjects. he said. “The first season was about friendship and this season is more about power and responsibility and what can happen with too much power.”
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/05/stranger-things-season-4-vecna-vfx-1234729087/ Stranger Things Season 4: Vecna’s Making Of