Netherworld — Stranger Things on Netflix

In Reagan-era America, a young boy goes missing in the woods, and shortly thereafter, a girl with extraordinary mental powers is found. A nearby government facility seems to have a hand in both occurrences, and obstinate officials there drive the boy’s mother (played by Winona Ryder), his friends and local law enforcement on separate courses to uncover the truth and rescue the lost child.

Playing on political paranoia concerns derived from the real-world U.S. MK-ULTRA—a CIA program that featured human experimentation—the Netflix series Stranger Things hits many a hot button, including that of nostalgia for the 1980s. Early response has often evoked comparisons to the works of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King and John Carpenter, as well as nods to Altered States and The Goonies.

Stranger Things is the brainchild of brothers Matt and Ross Duffer (writers/directors of 2015’s Hidden). The pair would write two and direct six of the eight first-season episodes. After Netflix greenlit the series, one of their first decisions was to select Tim Ives as their director of photography.

“They liked my work on Girls for HBO and responded well to my shooting of the Mr. Robot pilot, plus a couple of Season One House of Cards,” overviews Ives. “I received their pitch package/outline and found it amazingly well defined. I hadn’t seen anything like this concept in a while. The brothers wanted Stranger Things to have the same feel as the films they grew up with, as if it was made in the 1980s, yet with a necessary modern updated feel.”
All Netflix series require 4K deliverables, narrowing down acquisition choices for the cinematographer. “There’s a new Panasonic that’s wonderful in low-lighting conditions, but just a little bit sharp for what I wanted to do on this show,” he states.

“Since I had used the RED EPIC DRAGON on Mr. Robot, working with SIM Digital, I elected to continue that relationship.”

Ives shot in 5K with the image rezzed down to 4K and then cropped for 4K extraction. “We letterboxed the final product down a little past 16:9 to give it a slightly different feel, more of a ‘letterboxed’ event,” says the DP. “The extraction also gave us flexibility to rework the frame, like if one of the kids didn’t quite hit his mark or if VFX needed additional visual information.

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To achieve more of a “filmic” look to reflect the ’80s, a softer palette was chosen, leading Ives to favor Leica Summilux-C* lenses on Stranger Things. (*Editor’s note: apologies to CW Sonderoptic and Leica as well as DoP Tim Ives for originally stating that the production used the Summicron-C lens line.)

“Contrastier glass like the Cookes and Master Primes are very much in favor these days,” says Ives. “The Leica glass, however, has less contrast and is very flattering on the actors’ faces. They worked well to contribute to the period look I was going for.”

Ives elected to work with a single LUT, then light to that level. “We had a great DIT [Nick Hiltgen], but I still liked doing things this way,” Ives explains. “It let us hone our skills rather than rely on digital tech. After episode one, we decided we wanted to see things deeper in the shadows, but outside of that we were pretty much locked in for the whole shoot.”

Ives feels one of the major benefits of digital technology is the ability to change color temperatures in the camera. “If we wanted to go cooler for night and ‘netherworld’ scenes [the latter representing a parallel world existing on a tangent to our own], we could shoot with tungsten lighting and rate the camera down to 2100 ISO, forcing the warm light to go cool,” notes Ives.

“I rely on shifting balance in-camera to evoke different moods and tones specific to each scene. It was very important to have an image on set that showed this precisely, so we employed OLED monitors for each camera. Our conversations about changes happened live on set, and that let us really nail down the look.”
Initial location scouting succeeded in uncovering homes with exteriors that appeared appropriate for the ’80s period. The challenge then became finding houses that with no modern renovations.

“I had initially intended to shoot the school day exteriors seen early in the series in backlight, but it didn’t fit our schedule,” Ives continues. “In reconsidering the ’80s look and feel, I referenced photographers William Eggleston and Saul Leiter, and we all agreed it would be more than okay to shoot frontlight instead. This gives the scenes a nostalgic, warmer look.”

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Stand By Me was another influence on this look. “I loved how easy it was to relate to the kids in that movie,” he adds. “While we didn’t want things to look quite that raw, the heart and tone of that film was something we strove for.”

The plentiful night exteriors, during which all manner of chills and horrors manifest, merited lengthier discussions between Ives and the brothers. “Still photographer Gregory Crewdson [Beneath the Roses, Twilight] shoots a lot of night work that inspired me with its heightened reality. Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. all have atmosphere to their night scenes, and for a lot of the early stuff—especially with the kids on their bikes—I used a lot of atmosphere, plus one big light for moonlight. Later, when we’re deep in the woods, the light was often a lot lower, keeping things looking a little edgy and scary.”

When the boys start searching for their lost friend, they come upon a mysterious girl on a rainy night, and Ives elected to downplay the weather element, feeling the rain might distract if read too prominently. Instead, he went with a balloon light overhead, along with bounces and booklights to illuminate diffusely over a wide space while shooting Steadicam.

Following his plan to light up to a desired level, Ives only rarely dialed up to ISO 1000, usually remaining at 800. “For day exteriors, where I needed shallower depth of field, I’d pull it down to 500, but those were the only other times we deviated,” he notes.

For camera movement, the directors and DP agreed on dollies, augmented by a 50-foot Technocrane. “Deciding between Steadicam and dolly is always an issue, but rails really allowed us to nail camera movement when we needed precision,” Ives offers. “We saved Steadicam for when things needed to feel a little more unsettling, such as when a boy is chased through his house.”

Three-camera setups were usually limited to big stunt/action set pieces. Both A-camera operator Bob Gorelick and B-camera operator Jeff Crumbley brought strong theatrical experience to the set, treating the project like an eight-hour film event each day, not a TV show.

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Practical lighting abounds in many home interiors, built on stage by production designer Chris Trujillo. “He did an incredible job, as did gaffer Dan Murphy,” says Ives. “I like to motivate off practicals, and we had lots of scenes in a basement set that showed off this approach. We nearly always augmented from off-camera, usually with Quasars, new fluorescent lighting units. Dan owns a few of these, and I was instantly sold on them. He made up a shoebox from LEDs with a double muslin on top—an amazing little unit enabling us to fly in and light a face quickly—a wonderful homemade tool that saw a lot of action.”

Electricity proves to be a connective tissue between our reality and the netherworld in the show, the lost boy communicating with his mother in their home via the flashing of lamps. To facilitate this, his mother festoons the abode with strings of Christmas tree lights, creating a weird electric Ouija board communication device.
“While regular Christmas lights run on a long strand, our electric department had to rig each of the bulbs to its own circuit to create the desired patterns. Rigging gaffer Jonathan Hilton soldered lines to each bulb, then sent those out to a dimmer package, which then got programmed in a chase sequence that reflected the brothers’ vision for how the lights sequenced.”

To keep an appropriate feel on windows for these stage interiors, Ives limited most of the views through windows to a blue-colored daylight bounce. “We let them blow out a little so it felt like daylight was trying to seep in, but not quite making it,” he reveals.

Ives ultimately shot six of the eight episodes on the season. “The brothers and I really needed to step away to get everything squared away for the last four episodes,” Ives explains. “They decided to give episodes three and four to executive producer Shawn Levy to direct, while I called Tod Campbell to shoot them. Tod had followed me on Mr. Robot beautifully, so I was psyched to have him come on—especially since this was a last-minute decision. I had an extra room in my apartment, so he moved in with me for that month, and we’d often sit up late to talk about the show. It was the kind of collaboration you wish you could have every time out with a second DP.”

Another kind of collaboration was required when it came to the show’s many effects, ranging from creepy creatures to the disturbing, yet familiar netherworld. Drifting particulate matter is always present in the netherworld scenes, and the Duffer Brothers insisted on achieving much of this effect in-camera. However, this wasn’t always an option.

“Anytime we’re shooting greenscreen in the lab looking through the rift, the practical floating spores couldn’t be used,” VFX supervisor Marc Kolbe states. “Those were all handled digitally. When the practical spores were used outside, they looked great and worked very well, but we still wound up augmenting most shots in order to keep the flow and drift of elements looking even and natural.”

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Kolbe recalls the effects workload grew significantly as the show progressed. “Things began to shift as the brothers learned what VFX could be done,” he explains. “They were initially leery about the whole digital side of things and wanted to do as much as possible in the old ’80s practical way. But as things evolved, we showed them what we could add to a shot, digitally, to make it better, so they became more excited and, ultimately, the VFX shot count wound up doubling.”

Many of those embellishments were of the invisible variety. “We added starry skies and nuances to shots where you might not know there are any effects involved,” Kolbe elaborates. “When you see the sheriff driving toward the lab, the facility wasn’t there. The actual lab location didn’t tie in with the live-action shot, so we placed a military facility into the background behind some trees. The other extreme was our showier work, like in episode eight. That opens with things upside-down outside the military lab, then the camera drops to our actors entering the netherworld, where pretty much everything is CG.”

Kolbe ascribes much of the show’s success to the integration of VFX with the real world in camera footage.
“That’s why I always prefer mixing practical with digital,” he acknowledges. “It gives the audience pause. What was that? Was that real? The brothers originally wanted to capture creatures entirely in-camera, but there were limitations to movement owing to the armature and animatronics the performers were wearing, plus falling through ceilings and extreme dynamic actions wound up as VFX.”

A whole range of organic-looking netherworld nastiness was also created by Gradient FX.
“Gradient uses Maya for animation and renders with Arnold, augmented by custom software written by owner Olcun Tan,” notes Kolbe. “They did all the goo sticking to the girl as she’s pulled through the tree, along with set extensions for the lab, the netherworld, plus spores and fog.”

CoSA VFX handled an early sequence, in which a teen is pulled down into a swimming pool that transforms into its netherworld equivalent. “They did the entire sequence, including views looking up out of the pool at the ‘nether-ized’ house—everything except one shot of the monster looking at us, which AFC handled,” adds Kolbe.
One of Kolbe’s warmest memories of the project wasn’t effects-related. “At one point, an old Knight Rider episode is playing on a TV—and it’s one my dad [Winrich Kolbe] directed! That was a totally out-of-the-blue discovery, and brought the ’80s era back in a very personal way for me.”

In order to keep VFX in the same colorspace as the RED-acquired live-action footage, vendors matched to dailies. “The big issue for VFX on Netflix is 4K,” he admits. “We were delivered the 6K RAW, then wrote software that let us extract direct from the LTO dailies to create 4K DPX files for the vendors. We could then take the color list PDLs from the Avid and use that, baking it into the Viewing QuickTimes. Our vendors would then deliver Viewing QuickTimes to editorial that would match to the dailies, but the actual 4K final DPXs were kept neutral, so in the DI they had the full color range open to them, which assisted them with retaining that ’80s feel and look.”
Ives was back in New York shooting the new season of Girls when the digital intermediate was being handled, but with so many issues resolved up front, his notes and the presence of the Duffer Brothers was sufficient to carry through the desired look.

“I just went back the other day to examine the images I have from my monitor,” Ives wraps. “I wanted to see how it looked on set versus broadcast—and the look really is pretty much the same.”