Netflix’s “Stranger Things” from the Duffer Brothers unmasks the dark side of the ’80s, and its nightmarish Upside Down also represents the perfect allegory for Trump’s America, too. Everything gets unhinged when a monster invades from another dimension and kidnaps youngsters. It’s Spielberg meets King meets Kubrick.
Creating the Town of Hawkins
For the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, the Duffers shot in Atlanta, which still retains its mid-20th century sense of suburbia. “We weren’t making a slick, glossy version of the ’80s, but, rather, a gritty, textural feeling that is lost in high-definition movie-making these days,” said production designer Chris Trujillo.
For the central Byers house, the art department built a set with the right “lived in” look. It contained strategically interconnecting rooms, and set dressing from estate sale pillaging.
Cinematographer Tim Ives, meanwhile, took his cues from “E.T.,” using the Red Dragon and Leica Prime lenses for a softer, filmic, less contrasty look of the ’80s. Also, in a nod to Kubrick, Ives divided compositions into thirds. The Duffers even wanted grain added in post to further the retro experience.
One of the highlights was the clever use of Christmas lights as a communications link between Winona Ryder and her son (Noah Schnapp), who’s trapped in the membranous tentacles and slime of the Upside Down. This was achieved by rigging each individual light bulb from a dimming board.
Creating the Upside Down
The filmmakers spent a lot of time figuring out the science of the Upside Down. “Essentially, at the moment that the rift was formed and [unleashed] the monster, this dark dimension overlaps with the Hawkins’ world and it gets inflected with the vines and the spores,” said Trujillo.
The same set for the Byers house doubled for the Upside Down, with removable and replaceable walls, specially enhanced for practical effects. “It was quite a dance, dressing and redressing it,” Trujillo said.
There was also the trippy black void. “I wanted it to be source less lit [from the ceiling] with no sense of direction,” said Ives. “And there was a tank built with water to get the reflective tone.”
Mixing Practical Effects with CG
There was a combination of practical and CG vines and spores, and tying together multiple locations. The practical spores were made from floating dandelions. Vines were made as practical set pieces and then extended out, when necessary, with matching CG versions.
CG work was done by Gradient Effects, which utilized a combination of in-house particle software (used for the snow in “The Revenant”) and Houdini.
“The issue with the spores was a fear of people breathing it and the level of control,” said VFX supervisor Marc Kolbe. “And we didn’t want to shoot with indoor green screen. We developed a digital option that looked identical to the practical version.”
As the level of spores increased, they enhanced the practical spores digitally; outside they used CG spores because you couldn’t blow them effectively.
Making the Demogorgon Monster
The humanoid monster from the Upside Down (dubbed the Demogorgon from “Dungeons & Dragons”) was also a combination of practical and CG, and a definite throwback to the ’80s. Aaron Sims Creative did the design and the suit was built by Spectural Motion with an animatronic head.
“We realized early on that we were going to have to build a CG model to enhance and augment in different situations,” said Kolbe. “We went back to Sims to build a CG model based on the guy in the suit [Mark Steger].
The Duffers wanted a unique look — a monster with no face — and Sims came up with a flower petal-like design with no teeth. The inspiration came from a snapping turtle.
There was great flexibility between the suit and CG model. “For instance, when the creature comes out of the ceiling, that was CG,” said Kolbe. “But then they transitioned to [Steger] in the suit after he drops to the ground and stands up.”
Added Kolbe: “When he breaks through the wall in the school, that was fully CG because we wanted to shoot angles and have interaction with the location, which was a real school with cinder block walls.”
Thus, the monster was the perfect demon from the Upside Down: simple and unforgettable.