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‘Stranger Things’: How the VFX Team Channeled ‘The Thing’ for Season 3’s Return of the Mind Flayer

The greatest VFX challenge was creating a multi-layer rig to animate the slimy Mind Flayer during three transformations.

Stranger Things Netflix

“Stranger Things” Tombruce Monster

Netflix

Animation

In Season 3 of Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” the Mind Flayer from the Upside Down returns with a vengeance. The Duffer Brothers knew they needed more complex CG animation to pull off the necessary transformations, so they turned to Quebec and Montreal-based RodeoFX for the first time to handle the creature work under the VFX supervision of Martin Pelletier. Yet the showrunners still insisted on maintaining a period-correct monster vibe for their summer of 1985 setting.

“The Duffers said, ‘This year we want to go crazy,'” said Pelletier, who collaborated with Emmy-nominated production VFX supervisor Paul Graff on Season 3. “They had different creatures that they wanted to bring to life that were more complicated. They used to be made of ash particles — a smoky feel. Now they wanted them to be fleshy creatures.”

And the reference they used was John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” a simple yet disgusting-looking animatronic creature with lots of practical slime dripping off. “They wanted to bridge both worlds between practical and CG,” Pelletier added. “Creatures that move in a super realistic way. But they wanted them to look exactly as they did in the ’80s with refracted light for a dripping, wet look.”

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“Stranger Things” exploding rat

Netflix

The plan for Season 3 was to reintroduce the Mind Flayer in a series of progressive transformations as it systematically rebuilds its physical body by consuming a horde of rats and humans. This began with the rat explosions inside a basement, which led to the creation of a 9-foot monster, the Tombruce, after the melting of two men in a hospital, and, finally, the eventual 22-foot spider monster reboot of the Mind Flayer, which terrorized the Starcourt Mall.

“Whenever we start shooting, [the Duffers] are still in the middle of writing it,” Pelletier said. “Which means when we start doing the work, the look development, some of the assets, we’re still not sure where we’re going to land, and the evolution we need to deal with, and how much iteration there’s going to be in between the first stage of this and the final. They started off with a rough idea: We want this thing to come to life as a small pile of goo, which is essentially a rat being flipped inside/out. And this thing is going to grow by the very end into a giant monster that is 20 feet tall.”

However, this required a very sophisticated, customizable animation rigging system from RodeoFX that could accommodate the continual design changes throughout the season. They needed to control various body parts (head, feet, legs, back), while relying on a procedural approach for muscle fibers, which constantly adapted to the physical needs of the creature. It therefore was a multi-layer rig that was shot-specific. The base rig was devoted to movement for the legs, body, torso, and head, while a second rig controlled facial movement. The final spider monster was built with the utmost flexibility for adding and positioning the tentacles.

Stranger Things Netflix

“Stranger Things” Mind Flayer Starcourt Mall

Netflix

Additionally, they developed an evolving dripping wet look through three main simulation layers, fully adaptable and optimized for meshing. The textures, meanwhile, were created through the Substance Designer and Substance Painter programs. “By the time we got to the final episode, the first thing we did was apply a uniform scaling factor on the monster so that it would fit in this mall,” Pelletier said. “We basically scaled him up to 22 feet. And when we looked at him, it was obvious that we had to modify some body parts for him to look like the adult version.”

“Now the legs had the proper length, but they were too bulky. He looked clumsy so we slimmed him down. And the head was way too big and we had to scale down 30 percent. We didn’t want a bubble-headed creature. In the end, the only thing that mattered to the brothers was that it didn’t want it to be realistic in terms of biology — just nondescript flesh and bones on the outside covered in slime.”

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