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A lot goes into moments that only last a few seconds.
Earlier this summer, the fourth season of Stranger Things made its debut on Netflix. As with previous seasons, it was a massive hit, becoming the most watched English language season for the streaming titan. It ended up being released in two volumes throughout the summer with the majority of the episodes debuting in May and the last two premiering in July.
Before this season of Stranger Things was released, stories began to emerge about how much the series cost and how many visual effects were created for the show. The fourth seasons of Stranger Things was rumored to cost $30M an episode, with the season finale said to include more visual effects work than all of season three. Earlier this summer, we had the chance to speak with one of the show’s Visual Effects Supervisors, Justin Mitchell.
Justin Mitchell is a visual effects supervisor for Scanline VFX. At the company, Mitchell has worked on a number of projects, including Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Game of Thrones, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Justice League. As we started talking, Mitchell revealed that he and his team had been working on the final episodes merely days before they came out:
“With streaming, things have changed as to how far you can push things in the delivery cycle so here we were pretty late. We were working on the final episodes a couple of days before they were released. It’s just a big digital file now that they can patch it as they go along really.”
There are probably a lot of people who don’t know what a VFX supervisor/director does or is. It’s kind of a name on some credits for a lot of people. Tell me in your own words what a VFX supervisor/director does.
“Visual Effects supervisor is actually my title. So a Visual Effects Supervisor is in charge of overseeing the… well, in my case, a post-production visual effects supervisor is in charge of overseeing the various departments in creating visual effects to meet the needs of the filmmakers. And that often times combines computer-generated imagery with photography. So things get shot on set be it on green screen or blue screen or maybe just a background plate and those things are combined with some computer-generated imagery or CGI to make the final result. I’m a visual effects supervisor for Scanline so I just oversee the work that’s done at our company. There is also an overall effects supervisor or in this case, there were three visual effects supervisors, for the actual production that then oversee the various vendors that are working on Stranger Things. So there were 3000 shots or something like that in the latest season of Stranger Things and we did like 225 so there were a lot of other people and a lot of other vendors involved in the show.”
Getting into the show itself, from what I was told, your team’s work started off relatively small. In the first episode, it involved the damage effects and the carnage of what appeared to be Eleven’s slaughter. In fact, a lot of the work you guys did throughout the season involved making a lot of things gorier. How did that even come about? Some of them seem like minor changes almost. Was this something you were told to add in? Did the Duffer Brothers or whoever specifically instruct you to do this? How much freedom did you have on that? What was the process for that?
“Sure. So as a vendor…as a visual effects supervisor for Scanline, I answer to the overall visual effects supervisors for the show. So they are the people who give me direct instructions and feedback and they get their guidance from the Duffer Brothers in this case or the filmmakers, generally speaking. So in the case of the broken limbs like the various numbers or kids that are in the research facility, there was actually some concept art for some of the shots that would give us guidance on what the look should be. There was some freedom to decide how the bones should be broken or how they should be posed. How much blood there should be where that blood or bruising should be. But there were definitely guidelines and a certain aesthetic they were trying to achieve that was informed by the concept art.”
On a similar note, you guys did a lot of work on the season finale. A lot of it involved the destruction of Hawkins in particular. Can you describe the process of creating that? Again where did your creativity begin? Where did the oversight start? What notes did they tell you to hit for that kind of thing? Because there was a lot involved in that.
“Yeah absolutely. There are a lot of moving parts. So again there was concept art for that sequence. The concept art was used as more of a visual guideline. It wasn’t that we were matching to it explicitly. So early on in the show, we did some development tests and showed works in progress. Some tests for the ground opening up and things falling in and the way that the membrane would stretch across the rifts. Those kinds of things. And we shared that with the visual effects supervisors and they would give us some feedback on how they did or didn’t want it to behave or how they wanted it to look.
Then we went about blocking the shots in a very sort of simple manner using some crude, two-dimensional shapes to sort of block out the timing and overall animation. In the case of some shots that didn’t have plates, like shots that were completely CGI, we designed some different camera moves in order to show the action to go along with these crude blocking versions of the rifts and we would get overall buy-off on that from the storytelling standpoint. We knew that it’s a story point that these rifts that had to start at the extents of Hawkins. There are four unique locations where the rifts originate. They’re ultimately going to converge into the town square in Hawkings. That part we knew. So it was really about blocking out when the rifts would get to at various points in the town. How far along they would be and what would be destroyed as they got there. So we did that blocking phase and we did some crude effects versions where we did simplistic versions of buildings and the ground in order to evaluate how it would feel as the rifts spread across the landscape because we knew that it would take time for the hole to open up in the ground as things began to fall down and that these shots were at night and seeing the rift was largely dependent upon the red glowing light coming up from below, defining the shape of the rift. So it took a little bit of time for the rigid body of the ground and buildings and trees to clear enough so the light could shine through, which was a bit of an offset from our original blocking path.
Then we started to fill in the details much like a painter might do a sketch and some broad stroke of colors, light, and shadow and then got into more details. We then start layering on the various elements that define the rifts. Those were sort of explored earlier on in the production and we came up with like a series of consistent elements based on what had happened in previous seasons. So that was the fleshy mold down along the sides of the rifts, there were vines that would crawl up from below originating in the Upside Down and crawling up out of the rift. There are some membranes that are sort of like a fleshy drum skin barrier that spread across the rifts and there was the red light that was shining up from below. So those were all kinds of key elements of the rifts in addition to the simulation of whatever would be falling into the rift like trees and cars and ground and what have you. So we’d start layering on these various elements starting with the larger scale items like the ground and then transitioning into buildings and trees before starting to layer on the mold, vines, the membrane, and those sort of organic elements which really differentiate the rifts in Stranger Things from a traditional earthquake type where there’s a crevasse opening up along a fault line.”
It sounds like there is a lot involved in these things that a lot of people don’t know about.
“Yeah. I mean episode 9, the season finale, some of the shots we started with very early on in our work and so it ultimately took us seven or eight months to get all the various layers of that shot built up to the final result.”
So you guys were working on the season finale before the live-action footage was shot?
“No. We already had the photography. That sort of came around a little more than a year ago. They had started shooting this season a couple of years ago. I don’t know all the details but it was sort of happening in the midst of the pandemic so I think they had to shut down the whole production and then go back and shoot whatever they weren’t able to get earlier on. So that’s what really delayed that season vs the previous season. So they shot a lot of it and we had started working with plates very early on.”
So it was primarily the pandemic delaying a lot of the VFX work that caused this season to be delayed as long as it did as far as you know?
“It’s not delaying the VFX work exactly. It’s just really shooting the season really. Like they weren’t able to end… to get everything that they were able to shoot because of the pandemic. It basically sort of stretched out the shooting schedule.”
On that note, Covid-19 hits in the mid-2020 and really begins to spread accross the world. Everything gets shut down to the point where some of the kids in the later episodes actually look older than when they started in some instances. How badly did it affect your team’s ability to work on the series? Did you guys shut down early on as well? Did you guys keep working on what had already been shot at that point? How did that shake out for you?
“So we were not working on Stranger Things in the begining of the pandemic because that was a couple of years ago. We worked on Stranger Things for around a year/a little less than a year. But to answer your question as a company we were certainly affected because we didn’t go into the office anymore but we were very well positioned. Our network is set up in such a way that we never actually had workstations at our desks. But rather we connected to our workstations via these technology called PC Over IP which is kind of like a remote desktop. And we have offices all around the world and even people in, say England or Germany or Vancouver, connecting to workstations that are actually in Los Angeles and always were. So for them to then take those boxes that allow them to remote desktop in from home wasn’t a big deal. So we really didn’t miss any work at all. We were one of the studios that were very fortunate in that regard because we already had that technology in place. We needed to change some of our workflows, and get used to not seeing each other in the office, and video conferencing was an important part that we had to sort of get used to. But as far as the actual work itself we really didn’t miss a beat.”
So the technology just allowed you to work remotely. It was just kind of a sociological adjustment for the most part?
“Yeah. I mean, honestly for me, I’m in Los Angeles and I have teams all around the world. Most of the people I work with are in North America but in Vancouver or Montreal primarily. Tax incentives really changed the industry years back. So the industry that was predominantly in places like Los Angeles and the UK migrated to capture those tax incentives that were offered around the world in places like Canada. So for years, I’ve been going into the office in Los Angeles and then working with a team remotely and sometimes visiting as well, but often working remotely with a team that is in another location.”
Now that you have one of Netflix’s biggest shows under your belt, Stranger Things, what’s next for you guys?
“Well, that’s a tricky one because I can’t really tell you that! Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to release names of next projects but it will be cool!”
Note: this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Created by the Duffer Brothers, the Netflix series stars Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Sadie Sink, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery, Maya Hawke, Priah Ferguson, Cara Buono, Brett Gelman, Jamie Campbell Bower, Eduardo Franco, and Joseph Quinn.
All four seasons are available to stream on Netflix.
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