Sunday’s Creative Master Series “The VFX Wizardry of ‘Stranger Things 2’” offered attendees in the packed auditorium a rare behind-the-scenes look at effects creation for the second season of Netflix’s enormously popular series.
The panel discussion, produced in collaboration with Adobe, zoomed in on the work of the team that brings together the unusual, effects-intensive series set in the mid-1980s. Panelists included the core team that took the many visual effects shots for each episode — look-dev for the show’s monstrous creatures, environmental work and everything that couldn’t be photographed — from script page to either final delivery or to Santa Monica, Calif.-based VFX studio Hydraulx for additional work.
Moderated by Mike Kanfer, principal strategic development manager at Adobe, the panel consisted of Senior VFX Supervisor Paul Graff, VFX Producer Christina Graff, Associate VFX Supervisor Fred Raimondi, Senior Concept Illustrator Michael Maher Jr. and VFX Editor Matt Carson. With the aid of multiple clips of finished work as well as individual elements of shots and early renderings, the group outlined how they worked on the series’ tight schedule, building iteration after iteration of each shot for signoff or notes from the show’s creatives, led by the writer/director/creators Matt and Ross Duffer, before moving on to the next step.
“You have written words that you have to translate into images,” Paul Graff noted.
Panelists walked through the workflow by which Maher would communicate with the Duffer brothers, who were concurrently writing and directing episodes, about their overarching ideas and concerns. Using tools such as Adobe Photoshop, Maxon Cinema 4D and Pixologic ZBrush, he would create storyboards and animatics, generally coming up with multiple approaches for the show’s creatives to choose from.
Specifically, the panel showed examples from the creation of the CGI demogorgon characters from the alternative universe referred to as the Upside Down. The demogorgon grows within the season from what the team referred to as the tiny “polliwog” stage to “tadpole” to “frog” states, until it finally reaches its terrifying grown likeness. Attendees were able to view various versions of the demogorgon as Christina Graff pointed out some of the many attributes that had to be developed for each stage of the creature’s development, such as the “slippery look” and “clumsy movement” that the early version of the otherworldly character possesses.
In addition to discussion about the animation and compositing, the team also addressed the all-important VFX work that was done on set to ensure that the VFX and live-action worlds could be seamlessly melded. They showed examples of the half reflective silver/half medium gray ball that they would shoot to reference lighting conditions that would subsequently be re-created within the VFX realm.
“We need to be able to run the scene through the CG pipeline and have it look exactly the same,” Paul Graff explained. “Then, whatever else you light in CG, you know it will match” the live-action environment.
The group also discussed the importance of careful preparation going the other way, too — sometimes requiring the main unit to capture live-action elements or elaborate camera moves in a way that will work seamlessly with a planned visual effect. Paul Graff offered as an example the powerful final image of season 2 that builds anticipation for what’s to come next year in season 3.
The live-action basis for this final shot required the camera to capture the exterior of the familiar Hawkins Middle School twice, using some very specific moves. What was needed, Paul Graff explained, “seems very simple when you look at it but it is actually extremely complicated to explain.” And this was especially true as this was the also the last shot on the schedule for the first unit, at the end of an intense season. Fortunately, Maher had already created animatics that allowed the crew to see the desired final effect and, perhaps even more important, a rough moving sketch of a camera and its support gear doing the exact move required.
“Even though everybody was very tired by that time,” Paul Graff recalled, his team’s diligent prep work “enabled the crew to get the exact shots we needed.”