Working In An Upside Down World

Retro Visualization

The fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, has taken on a special significance to an ever-increasing audience for Netflix’s hit series, Stranger Things. Now in its second season, set in a non-specific year in the 1980s, the next chapter of the show is set a year after the first season took place, finding the characters trying to return to normal life and recovering from the events that affected the town during the first season.

Directors Matt and Ross Duffer, known as the Duffer brothers, developed the series as a mix of investigative drama combined with supernatural elements. Several show themes and the brothers’ directorial style were inspired and informed by the works of John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, among others. A true reflection of the era’s aesthetic, Stranger Things 2 is chock full of references to ‘80s video games, music and pop culture.

Stranger Things

Before production on the second season began, Senior VFX Supervisor Paul Graff and Senior VFX Producer Christina Graff had to figure out how exactly to transform the Duffer brothers’ ideas into visuals that would achieve the right mix of wonder, dread and, yes, fun. The Graffs and their team had to figure out a way to capture Will’s fever dream-inspired visions of the small town of Hawkins consumed by the Upside Down; how to visualize Dart, a slug-like creature that, in true ‘80s movie language, Dustin adopts; how to visualize the abstract Shadow Monster, the season’s show-stopping force of overriding evil. As the production progressed, the Graffs had to quickly solve problems to plot out how they’d achieve the needed VFX shots on tight timelines and budget. In the end, the Duffer brothers needed feature film-quality visual effects but on an episodic budget and deadline—no small feat.

Paul Graff says, “My job is to take whatever idea the Duffer brothers come up with, no matter how difficult, and find a way to do it. We just put together our reel for Emmy consideration. With the Emmys, you can only submit a reel from a single episode, so we chose from Episode 9 because it contained over 400 visual effects shots. We completed over 2,000 visual effects shots for the season; it was mind-boggling.”

Bringing the vision of the Duffer brothers to life was no easy task, often requiring hundreds of VFX shots and countless hours to pull off.
Bringing the vision of the Duffer brothers to life was no easy task, often requiring hundreds of VFX shots and countless hours to pull off.

Graff, along with the rest of the Stranger Things 2 visual effects team, recently sat down with Mike Kanfer, principal strategic development manager at Adobe, to discuss exactly how the team managed to generate such a huge volume of high-quality, innovative visual effects shots in such a short amount of time. Paul Graff was joined by Christina Graff; Michael Maher Jr., senior concept illustrator; Fred Raimondi, associate VFX supervisor; and Matt Carson, VFX editor.

Christina Graff says, “In order to make this show work, we did a lot of prep work. Paul and I started by just meeting with the Duffers and brainstorming. We thought the best way to proceed was to grow an in-house team, getting concepts prepared, seeing what the Shadow Monster would look like, what the Demogorgons would look like, the five different stages in their development.”

Maher Jr. came on in pre-production to generate a “look bible” for the visual effects. “By the time I came on, the Demogorgon and the Mind Flayer were already designed. So I just got to illustrate them and play with them in the context of ‘how do we put them in shots to make them look interesting and fun?’ I mainly used Adobe Photoshop, Cinema 4D and ZBrush for the storyboards, which I ended up animating in Photoshop. Sometimes I drew pretty pictures, but at times they would look gross, too.” The style of the show generally eschews much gore, but there were a few scenes in the second series where the Demogorgons kill and feed that reflected a fairly bloody look and feel. Maher Jr.’s illustrations were essential in setting the framing, look and tone of those sequences.

Creating the murky world of demons was hard enough, but merging that with the real world, circa the 1980s, was a real challenge for the VFX team.
Creating the murky world of demons was hard enough, but merging that with the real world, circa the 1980s, was a real challenge for the VFX team.

Raimondi adds, “When the Shadow Monster confronts Will at the school, there were basically just empty plates of the school and some reverse shots of Will with the camera behind him. Because Michael Maher was such an amazing concept artist but also had great Cinema 4D and After Effects skills, he was able to hand off to me a rigged Shadow Monster, which I was then able to light, integrate into the scene and animate. I was able to hand those sequences to Matt Carson, our VFX editor, who would integrate it into the show and then send those sequences to editorial, who would report back if it worked or needed more work. The great thing was that we were right down the hall from each other, so I was able to do three or even four iterations in a day because we were able to communicate so quickly.”

Carson says, “For the junkyard sequence, which was a long sequence, the editors would tell me, ‘We want to see the Demodog here and have it move to here in this timing.’ I was able to take a reference comp that vendor Hydraulx did where the Demodog roars, re-time it so that it would work out for the timing that the editors and directors were requesting. I used stills to edit together a timing reference because we didn’t have shots of the back of the Demodog in the CG reference pass. We used kind of whatever we could get our hands on to temp in for timing and positioning, then we would swap that out with the finished pieces for when the studio and Netflix would look at scenes for approval.”

Stranger Things

After the roundtable discussion with the Stranger Things 2 VFX team, Kanfer was able to go a bit more in depth about his role with Adobe and how he interfaced with the team as they produced the project. “I am a principal strategic development manager at Adobe, representing our Hollywood team. I work closely with directors, editorial teams, post-production and VFX facilities to integrate Adobe technology into their workflows. A large part of my role is connecting with filmmakers to show how our technology can improve their workflows. With Christina and Paul Graff, through the years our team helped them with any software- and workflow-related concerns, such as how to make 2D tracking better, color science improvements, 3D integration and more.”

Adobe After Effects played a leading role in the visual effects work for Stranger Things 2. When asked about what trends and feature requests Adobe hears most often from filmmakers, Kanfer responds, “It’s all about the need to do more, faster. Delivering a film or an episode of a TV series no longer means delivering a single, finished video. There are now hundreds of final outputs, in multiple formats and languages—and that’s not counting all the different variations created while shots are still in development. So, we’ve been focused on not just improving speed of the app itself but streamlining tools to help users work together more efficiently. We’re also looking at ways that our AI product, Adobe Sensei, and other new technology can reduce time spent on tedious, repetitive tasks while giving artists more space to be creative.

Characters had to seamlessly blend with effects shots in order to pull off the emotional storyline without breaking viewer continuity.
Characters had to seamlessly blend with effects shots in order to pull off the emotional storyline without breaking viewer continuity.

Much like the other products in the Adobe portfolio, After Effects has a huge amount of third-party plug-ins that greatly enhance its capabilities. Kanfer speaks about Adobe’s relationship with its plug-in partners and how they work closely to expand the capabilities of the program, “We love our partners. One of After Effects’ greatest strengths is its robust third-party ecosystem. We have an open API, so anyone can make a plugin, script or extension, and we have a close relationship with all the major third-party developers. After Effects is a “Swiss army knife” with a diverse user base, so we try to focus the core app on tools with the widest possible application. Outside developers with particular areas of expertise can push the app in new directions.”

Looking at the quality and quantity of visual effects in a show like Stranger Things 2, it’s interesting looking back at the history of a product like Adobe After Effects and how far its capabilities have evolved. Artists like the visual effects team for Stranger Things 2 invent new ways of using existing tools while working with developers like Adobe to make the product simpler, more streamlined and more efficient to use. This, in turn, allows the team to push the limits of what can be achieved on an episodic budget and schedule. Netflix has ordered another season of Stranger Things, which is in production now, so we’ll all get to see more of the team’s visual effects as soon as season three hits our screens. Stay tuned to see what happens next in Hawkins, Indiana.

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