Building on the first season’s gloom and doom, “Stranger Things” returned for an even creepier second season, thanks to the introduction of the Shadow Monster baddie and its shape-shifting Demogorgon minions.
This meant that the show’s VFX had to raise the bar with greater use of CG characters (Hydraulx) and a mind blowing cavern (Atomic Fiction) for the Emmy-nominated finale (“Chapter Nine: The Gate”).
“This season they wanted more characters, so the Duffer brothers wanted the visual effects to be more polished [and gross],” said Paul Graff, senior visual effects supervisor. The volcanic lightning storm that introduces the giant, spider-like Shadow Monster (also referred to as the Mind Flayer) sets the chilling tone for the return of a more menacing Upside Down.
But most of the heavy lifting involved the CG Dart creature picked up by Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and taken home as a stray pet. The stealth Demogorgon evolved from a baby to adolescence, taking on characteristics of a frog, cat, and dog, as it becomes what it consumes. “We reverse engineered [Dart] as an upright [monster] all the way down to a pollywog,” added Christina Graff, senior visual effects producer. “It needed to be cute, then irritating, then scary. We made it without eyes and we hid its razor-sharp teeth until later.”
Aaron Sims Creative designed the creature and Hydraulx provided the soft body, internal organs, and endoskeleton as a base from which Dart could rapidly become more terrifying, eventually evolving into a larger and more ferocious Demodog. Dart even joins a pack of other “Ghostbusters”-like hounds from hell, with a yellow patch on its hind quarter as the distinguishing mark.
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The key attribute of all Demogordons, of course, is the petal mouth, which also remained hidden until attack mode. “Sometimes you needed some practical tools for stand-ins, like poles with full-size printed Demogorgon heads,” Paul said. “One of the writers, Kate Trefry, volunteered for ninja stunt duty, wrestling with [Sean Astin as Bob] on set” added Christina. “The cloth needed to move, and we can’t do that with special effects.”
The finale’s lift chamber climax, though, in which Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Chief Hopper (David Harbour) defeat the Shadow Monster by closing the underground rift to the Upside Down, offered the most impressive display of VFX. It was the only fully-CG environment of the season, with a cage suspended in a studio on a soundstage, and three blue screen panels on rollers around it.
After a lot of brainstorming with the Duffers, production designer Chris Trujillo, and Emmy-nominated cinematographer Tim Ives, the Graffs figured out a concept revolving around a thin membrane that separates Hawkins from the Upside Down. Then Atomic Fiction went to work on filling in the space.
“The cavern was skinned with vines and nether growth and spores flying around,” said Paul. “Then you have the rift that cuts vertically through the wall and is covered with a translucent membrane. Inside the membrane are veins of light. And all that’s covered by a top web of material stretching over the rift.”
As Eleven uses her angry psychic powers to close the rift, the energy spreads out in circular fashion. The intense, orange light heats up and glows like lava during her face-off with the Shadow Monster. Meanwhile, Hopper splatters the Demodogs with his shotgun.
“As Eleven tries to force it closed, the Shadow Monster gets agitated and brighter,” said Christina. “Things start ripping off, the edges are glowing and pulling in. Matt Duffer called it ‘A Beautiful Hell’ and we intensified that by changing the white light to red until it was extinguished by Eleven.”