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‘Stranger Things’ VFX Team Breaks Down the Demogorgon’s Five Stages of Life

Paul and Christine Graff talk “Lord of the Rings,” “Jurassic Park,” slugs, and Frogogorgons.

Gaten Matarazzo, "Stranger Things"

Gaten Matarazzo, “Stranger Things”

Courtesy Netflix

[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from Season 2 of “Stranger Things.”]

After the Demogorgon terrorized Hawkins, Indiana in the first season of “Stranger Things,” Season 2 doubled down on the monsters by bringing on the Mind-Flayer, which will be discussed at a later date, and showing another dimension of the Demogorgons. The precocious Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) adopts a strange, tadpole-like creature he found in is trash can, but the cute critter grows rapidly, has carnivorous appetites, and soon becomes a Demodog, aka a creature that looks an awful like a Demogorgon that moves on all fours.

Visual effects producers Christine and Paul Graff spoke with IndieWire about reimagining the Demogorgon’s earliest stages:

The Slug Inspiration

Paul Graff said, “We know we have the slug kind of left over in Season 1, when Will spits into the sink this kind of slug-like creature. And the Duffers didn’t know yet whether this was connecting to the Demogorgon or not, but it’s a point of departure, so they wanted to start with the tadpole stage. It’s not necessarily that the slugs are mini Demogorgons. Yeah, there’s some connection there and it’s possible, but the Duffers kind of left that open for themselves. So that’s so there could be uncharted territory, in a sense.”

The Tadpole, aka Pollywog

Dart as a Pollywog, "Stranger Things"

Dart as a Pollywog, “Stranger Things”

Netflix

The Duffers wanted to have five stages of creature development — four before the creature reached the fully mature Demogorgon. “They wanted to start with something that looks like a tadpole and then it needs to develop in the direction of a Demogorgon,” said Paul Graff. “Based on their size, we called them Tadpole, Frogogorgon/Toadogorgon, Catogorgon, and Dogogorgon.

It was important that Dustin would find the Tadpole cute at this semi-larval stage, so the audience could understand why he’d take care of the critter he named Dart. Making the Pollywog adorable was a challenge though.

“It’s not easy without a face,” explained Graff. “We knew that for Stages 1 and 2, we didn’t want to give away that it is a Demogorgon, so we kind of hid all the features that are too obviously Demogorgon-like, like the petal mouth. It develops like a split upper lip and there’s a closeup where it opens its mouth and you can already see the little sharp teeth in there. But we tried to be really kind of secretive about the Demogorgon-like features, and at the same time we knew that that’s where we have to head with the development of the shape.”

Christina Graff said, “Once we had the actual concepts for the four stages…we moved on to motion design where we figured out how the Stage 1 Tadpole moved. The Pollywog wouldn’t strut, so how was it going to move? And all of those models that we ended up sharing with the Duffers and all of those things that they liked, then we passed those on to the sound department so that they could begin with their sound design work.”

This was another strategy to making Dart seem charming: make him sound cute. Paul Graff credits sound designer Craig Henighan for Dart’s adorable voice.

“It was clear that it was kind of chirpy,” said Paul Graff. “There’s the scene on Loch Nora when Will first sees the Shadow Monster turn around and go for him and chase him. That’s when he hears these sounds behind the cars, and it was clear that that was going to be the same sound that we were going to use for the Pollywog but that was exactly the sound designer’s territory so we weren’t really sure when we were shooting how exactly it sounds.”

The Frogogorgon

Dart as a Frogogorgon, "Stranger Things"

Dart as a Frogogorgon, “Stranger Things”

Netflix

Dart doesn’t stay a Tadpole for long. Once he sprouts hind legs and fits more completely inside the Ghostbusters trap, he’s in the Frogogorgon stage.

“Because it had to grow really fast, we felt we also have to show it growing,” said Paul Graff. “We have to basically always kind of show the expansion … even at when he’s twitching and you see something moving under his skin when he’s a Tadpole. Something is going on here that’s fairly aggressive. It’s moving where his legs are going to sprout. We knew we wanted to show him going from a two-legged tadpole to a four-legged toad, see the birth pains of the legs penetrating and the saliva and stuff coming out on the table in the room.”

To facilitate the actors’ interactions with the nascent Demogorgon, actual models of each stage were made.

“For each of our stages, except for the Dogogorgon, we created physical models of them,” said Christina Graff. “Paul came up with the idea to do a 3-D print of the Tadpole, the Frogogorgon, the Catogorgon, and then we turned those into silicone puppets, basically, so the kids actually had something to interact with. They had eye lines and you could actually hold something and practice taping stuff around in the AV room and they could see what it looks like. So we always shot a pass with our actual, we call them, puppets. Then we shot a pass with chrome balls.”

Paul Graff added, “The balls are nice and heavy, and when they hand them over there’s some response on the hands from the weight of the chrome ball. So once you have the response, you’re gonna get much better results when you apply a CG figure in there because it really interacts with the hand and stuff like that.”

The Catogorgon

Dart as a Catogorgon, "Stranger Things"

Dart as a Catogorgon, “Stranger Things”

Netflix

Dustin finally realizes something is very wrong when his cute Frogogorgon molts, escapes its terrarium, and then eats the Hendersons’ cat Mews.

“When it eats Mews it needs to be a specific size in order to actually devour a cat like that,” said Christina Graff. Enter the Catogorgon.

“The next time we see it, it’s moving its skin. We find the skin in the terrarium as he’s eating Mews,” said Paul Graff. “So it’s not a slow process, it’s like a very fast-growing creature. So if you asked me, I don’t know, we don’t have a timeline, but I would say it takes maybe a week all together.”

The Catogorgon stage isn’t seen much besides Dart’s cat feast and running into the storm cellar, where it molts again and becomes…

The Dogogorgon, aka Demodog

Demodog, aka Dogogorgon, "Stranger Things"

Demodog, aka Dogogorgon, “Stranger Things”

Netflix

Much of the action focuses on this fourth stage of development, the Dogogorgon, or as Dustin likes to call them, Demodogs. Packs of them surround the kids in the junkyard and swarm the tunnels underground and the Hawkins lab.

“When they come out of the hole, and we first see them walk somewhere, they have both a human-like way of moving and a dog-like way of moving and a raptor-like way of moving, so definitely ‘Jurassic Park’ for a lot of the scenes was somewhere there in our minds,” said Paul Graff about the movement influences.

And yes, eventually Dart would have become a Demogorgon, similar to the one that attacked the kids at the school last year.

“Basically, if you take the CG model of the Stage 4, which is supposed to be an adolescent model of the Demogorgon, if you take that model and stand it up, it’s already looking very much like a Demogorgon,” said Graff. “And along the journey it loses its tail, or the tail gets shorter and shorter, and the extremities come up and it develops the petal mouth. It’s going to look like a biped. In Season 1, it moves very much like a human creature. So that was very welcome that we had shots where it moves, also when it attacks Bob, and it’s batting him with its hands, that’s not really very much like a dog.”

Bob’s Demodog Showdown

Although the Demogorgon in Season 1 was mainly practical — performer Mark Steger was the human guy in the creature suit — all of the Demogorgon stages this year had to be made using CG. That means that any scenes where the Demodogs interacted with the actors were the most involved to stage and shoot. Christina Graff revealed that the most complex scene was when Bob (Sean Astin) almost makes it out of the lab, but then is attacked and eaten by a pack of Demodogs.

“Chewing Bob was definitely the most challenging,” she said. “That entire scene was super fun to shoot and it was super fun to do in post, but, for the Demogorgons, it was definitely the most challenging.”

“We knew he’s going to be eaten and he’s going to be fighting with the Demogorgons, so we need to have the physical interaction on his body of wrestling with the Demodogs,” said Paul Graff. “We talked with Sean, and he told us about his experience from ‘Lord of the Rings,’ fighting with Gollum and how they had like 80 takes. Or they shot it like 80 times until they had every angle and everything figured out and they shot it with the stand-in and they shot it without the stand-in again. And he would really remember all of his moves. And we knew we couldn’t do 80 takes.”

Instead, they decided to put someone in a green screen “ninja” suit who would wrestle and attack Sean, after which the Demodog images would be added in post-production. Kate Trefry, who wrote Episode 6, “Chapter Six: The Spy,” was just the right size and volunteered.

Sean Astin and a Demodog, "Stranger Things"

Sean Astin and a Demodog, “Stranger Things”

Netflix

“They played this scene, and she had like blood everywhere and the blood was glistening on her hands,” said Paul Graff. “[Sean] was spitting out blood. They filled his mouth with blood, and it was shot at 72 frames in slow motion. They’re like amazing images. We knew it was going to be a little bit harder to clean this up in post and get rid of Kate and just put a dog there, but it was well worth it. It was really cool.”

”Stranger Things” is currently streaming on Netflix.

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