Nine Gnomon graduates helped the top creature designer put a modern spin on a classic movie monster for the Duffer Brothers' hit Netflix horror series
The San Francisco Chronicle called it “irresistibly appealing”. Time branded it “an unqualified success”. And millions of people tuned in on Netflix last month to watch Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers’ hit 1980s-set horror series.
A loving homage to the movies of the era, channeling John Carpenter, Stephen Spielberg and Stephen King in equal measure, the show balances modern visual effects with classic directorial chops. Despite boasting a genuinely creepy digital creature – designed and animated by a team at Aaron Sims Creative (ASC) that featured no fewer than nine Gnomon graduates – Stranger Things knows that it’s scarier to hint at horrors than to show them directly, saving the bulk of the monster’s screen time for the final episode of the series.
As the A.V. Club put it: “It feels like watching a show produced during the era in which it’s set, but with the craft of today’s prestige television.”
“The Duffer Brothers really embraced the ‘80s, and they did it in such a great way in the show – not just with the music and the overall look but with the creature itself,” says ASC founder and creature design lead Aaron Sims. “The less you see it, the more you build suspense. That’s very rare nowadays: with VFX, you can do anything.
Aaron Sims Creative worked with the directors from the outset, having collaborated with them on their previous project, 2015 thriller The Hidden. Despite the relatively open brief – “the one request was for something that didn’t really have a face” – the studio hit on a winning concept in its second round of designs: a thin, elongated humanoid creature with a head that resembles a carnivorous flower – all mouth and no eyes, with toothed ‘petals’ that open like jaws.
“The tricky part was figuring out how many petals there were: too few would have felt like an insect’s mandible, but too many would have looked too complicated,” says Sims. “Then it was a matter of reverse engineering the mouth to work out what it would look like closed. After a couple of weeks of going back and forth, we found something that resonated, where you could see the indentations of the petals when they’re closed, with overlapping teeth.”
Blending practical and digital effects
In keeping with the 1980s spirit of the show, the creature effects were partly practical, with a physical suit created by Pacific Rim and Hellboy veterans Spectral Motion. ASC provided a posed 3D model from which the firm could work, sculpted in ZBrush and rendered in KeyShot.
“With packages like ZBrush, we get to a refined design faster,” says Sims, who also helped oversee the practical build. “We still do traditional 2D sketches, but they're more thumbnails that we create for ourselves internally. They don't necessarily help the client, who wants to know right away what a creature would look like in a movie.”
Creature look development
Initially, ASC thought that its final effects would be largely confined to clean-up of the live footage plus one or two hero shots, but as filming progressed, it became clear that there were several key scenes that would be impossible to shoot convincingly using only the practical suit: notably, those in which the creature breaks through a wall and knocks down a door.
In the end, the firm would complete around 100 VFX shots, working from a 3D scan of Spectral Motion's costume, which ASC cleaned up and modified in line with the original concept designs.
“We went in on top of the ZBrush sculpt and pushed it in ways you couldn't possibly do with a real suit – for example, by making the waist thinner than [physically possible] and removing a lot of mass from the model,” says Gnomon graduate and Lead 3D Artist Dan Edery. “By working digitally, we were able to change the proportions of the creature to make it more menacing.”
Rigging and look development were done in Maya, with the ASC team paying special attention to shots in which the creature has been burned – “I spent a lot of time looking at pictures of burns victims, trying to get the perfect [...] kind of look,” says Edery – and rendering in V-Ray.
Animating an other-worldly killer
For ASC's animation team, which was made up entirely of Gnomon graduates, the creature's alien proportions posed several technical problems. “Rigging the face was a challenge,” says Animator Adam Nixon. “We had to make sure the teeth stayed in the same place all the time, and that they weren't bending.”
“We had to work out how to make him look less aggressive, because he's already pretty aggressive design-wise,” says Saucedo. “As we see him so little, pretty much every shot of the creature is a hero shot. We had to work out how to give him some kind of progression.”
However, Keefer notes that even in its quieter moments, the creature had to project a constant sense of menace. “One of the challenges was not making him look too sympathetic,” he says. “By the end of the story, he's been shot lord knows how many times, he's been burned and bear-trapped – but even though he's damaged, he's still a vicious killing machine.”
Solving Stranger Things' FX challenges
Another technical challenge was getting the creature to interact convincingly with the destruction simulations, such as that of the wall being torn down as it breaks through into our world. The ASC team exported the character animation from Maya as Alembic caches, generated the simulations in Houdini, then returned the completed scenes to Maya for rendering.
To help minimize unnecessary work, Art Director Steffen Reichstadt notes that the team kept a “really practical mindset” for the FX, particularly for recurring themes like the tendrils of slime between the 'petals' of the creature's mouth. “We ended up getting practical slime and using that as a 2D comp element, rather than trying to go in and sim the whole thing out,” he says.
For Executive Producer Michael Pecchia, such an approach was crucial to achieving the period feel the directors wanted for the series. “Sometimes we would want to do more digitally, but we had to pull back to match [the constraints] of an '80s horror film, which was actually exciting.”
Gnomon: a school for multi-faceted artists
From initial meetings to final delivery, Aaron Sims Creative worked on Stranger Things for over a year, while the show's 100-plus VFX shots make it the studio's largest final effects project yet. One key to the success of the work was ASC's team of artists, the majority of whom are drawn from Gnomon – School of Visual Effects, Games + Animation.
“So many talented artists come from Gnomon,” says Aaron Sims. “The school gravitates towards talent and inspires [the people who study there]. We're often surprised at how much graduates have been taught, and in a way that works well within our own pipeline.”
“From an art director's point of view, the reason we have so many Gnomon grads is that they teach you to wear many hats,” adds Steffen Reichstadt. “In a small visual effects house, nobody can do just one thing. Everyone has to be able to solve a problem from many angles, whether that's an animator doing a bit of compositing work, or a lighting guy doing some texture work. Gnomon makes you multi-faceted.”
Bringing a classic creature from concept to reality
This artistic versatility helped the team at Aaron Sims Creative bring the Duffer Brothers' vision of a contemporary spin on a 1980s movie monster to the screen in its purest form: a workflow ASC terms 'from concept to reality'.
“Often, the fidelity of the creature designs can [slip] as they go from [VFX] house to house, and everybody puts their own spin on them,” says Reichstadt. “The designs we were doing for the Duffers in the beginning are exactly what you see on screen. They got their vision exactly.”
The work clearly struck a chord with the viewers: Stranger Things has become one of Netflix's highest-viewed series, and has already been confirmed for a second season. “For us as designers and visual effects artists, it's nice to be involved with a project that not only feels so fresh and exciting, but one that's so well-received,” says Sims.
But for animator Eevee Saucedo, the proof of Stranger Things' effectiveness was rather more personal. “The way it was directed was so good, I actually had nightmares about a creature I'd worked on,” she says. “Even though I knew everything about him, he was still terrifying!”
Congratulations to all of the Gnomon graduates who worked on Stranger Things at Aaron Sims Creative:
Jared Krichevsky – Creature Design Lead
Adam Nixon – Animator
Kyle Brown – Creature Designer/Modeler
Dan Edery – Modeler/Texturer/Lighter
Eevee Saucedo – Animator
Erik Keefer – Animator
Pat Ratanopol – VFX Simulation Artist
Kate Berezhnova – VFX Editor
Nuttavut Baiphowongse – Senior Concept Artist
See Stranger Things online
Watch Aaron Sims' creature design tutorials for The Gnomon Workshop
Browse Gnomon's concept design and digital sculpting courses
Read Luma Pictures' career tips for young VFX artists
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