With terrifying beasts like the Demogorgon and the Mind Flayer, stranger things gradually builds an impressive bestiary of monsters. But, for the final season, the show is going in a slightly different direction. Its new villain, called Vecna, is less of a dumb beast and more of a classic ’80s movie monster in the mold of Freddy or Jason. So showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer tapped prosthetic designer Barrie Gower to bring their attempt at an iconic villain to life. “The rather interesting thing about stranger things is it already this huge property, and it has this great sense of design,” Gower said The edge. “They already had a very clear vision of what they wanted to do with this character.”
Gower is no stranger to featuring villains, having previously worked on game of thrones‘ Night King, among other notable projects ranging from Harry Potter at Chernobyl. But he was a stranger to, well, stranger things, having only joined the series for the fourth season. According to Amy Forsythe, head of the make-up department, who has worked on the show since the beginning, Gower’s experience added a different dimension to the show. “Practical effects are so important with ’80s nostalgia, and we were losing so much of that on our show,” she explains. “So finally having someone with Barrie’s expertise, it really levels the show.”
Vecna is a gloopy black creature that definitely looks like something from the dark world of the Upside Down. But he’s also the most humanoid monster featured in the series so far. Gower says the process began with concept art from artist Michael Maher Jr., which was followed by extensive discussions with Maher, the Duffers, and the visual effects team, among others. One of the main goals, says Gower, “was to make the character as close to 100% practical as possible.”
Instead of a rubber suit, Vecna’s costume consists of a series of different pieces that were glued directly to the actor’s skin. This offered a few advantages, including giving the actor more freedom of movement. Rubber suits also tend to warp, which doesn’t look great on camera. However, it was a lot of work: the application process took an average of 6.5-7 hours.
And there are also, say, human issues that need to be factored into the design. One is heat. The costume was designed to be as comfortable as possible, but even still, the actor could be seen hanging out in an air-conditioned tent to cool off between takes. “Most importantly, the actor has to go to the bathroom at some point during the day,” says Gower. “So you have a special undercarriage that went under cycling shorts so he could open a special Vecna pouch and go to the toilet.”
Gower notes that many of the techniques used in the creation of Vecna were developed in the 80s, although the team had the advantage of more modern materials. Some of these helped give the monster its decidedly slimy look. The prostheses themselves were painted with a shiny silicone finish, but that was not enough. “On the day it needs to be super viscous, so we use products like KY Jelly. There’s a product called UltraWet, which is kind of like a clear gel that you would smear all over him,” says Gower. “It’s the kind of thing where on set you put your hand on his shoulder and regret you did it because you’re covered in drool.” (It should be noted that applying lube is a fairly traditional monster-making technique.)
That’s not to say everything was convenient. From the start, the plan was to augment Vecna’s design with some digital effects. His cordate tendons, for example, subtly move and twist in an unsettling way, which was done by the VFX team. Likewise, the actor’s nose was digitally removed. But for the most part, what you see in the show is what the prosthetics and makeup teams have built.
“We’ve worked on shows before where we created characters, and as far as you know, that’s how they would play in the final cut,” Gower says. “And then you see the show and think, ‘Where’s the character that we did? That’s been completely repainted. It wasn’t at all [on Stranger Things]. It was this beautiful collaboration with VFX.
From what I’ve seen of Season 4 so far, Vecna also fits right into the world due to the apparent thought and planning that has gone into other elements of the game. series around him. Most notably, his victims all have a distinct appearance with horribly broken limbs and gouged out eyes. Forsythe explains that this kind of cohesive visual style is the result of how the different departments work so closely together. “The collaborative aspect is so much fun,” she says.
Like most other shows and movies in recent years, production has been challenged by the pandemic. In total the crew filmed for 14 months but with a six month gap halfway through due to COVID protocols. “It was just a wild little 20-month shoot,” Forsythe explains. “From start to finish, I could have had two children.” She notes that the biggest challenge was continuity. “We went through maybe four different makeup teams,” she says. “It’s the nature of the beast. Every time we picked up our pace, we lost someone who was essential to our team.
The benefits of focusing on practical effects and merging them cohesively with digital effects are evident when watching the new season. More than any season before it, stranger things 4 has the feel of a classic 80s horror movie, with a monster that gets scarier the more it’s revealed. Gower also believes that practical orientation has a positive impact on the performance of different actors. “I think from their perspective, it’s nice to have something physical and practical on set that they can interact with,” he explains. “He’s not a guy in a mo-cap suit or a green suit or something. There it is in the flesh.
There are, however, drawbacks. Forsythe recalls taking a photo of a costumed Vecna sitting in her 1965 Ford Ranchero, with members of the makeup and prosthetics team in the back. “He slimmed down the driver’s seat of my car,” she says.