The world of Stranger Things, for those who don’t know (and if you don’t, then you should), is set in the early 1980s in Hawkins, Indiana, which has become home to some pretty gnarly monsters, like the Demogorgon from Season 1. Show creators the Duffer Brothers wanted to use more practical effects to bring the monster to life, and called on VFX and design studio Aaron Sims Creative (ASC).
In the current landscape of CGI effects, this is a fairly odd request, but ASC was up to the challenge, though the studio suggested that a hybrid VFX approach of both digital and practical effects would give the creators that authentic, ’80s sci-fi look they were going for.
When digital technology first arrived in Hollywood, but before innovative methods like 3D printing, augmented reality, and virtual reality were readily accessible, these types of practical effects seemed like they were falling by the wayside.
“I think if people 20 years ago were to see what we create right now, their minds would explode. Right now, we’re accustomed to it and, in some ways, bored by it,” said Aaron Sims, Founder and President of ASC. “It’s amazing how things grow and change because of innovation, but also because of people always wanting more.”
The Demogorgon costume ended up being built in such a way that CG enhancements, like digitally simulated slime, could be added later. By using 3D and digital technology, ASC was able to be involved in the entire ideation process.
“The Duffer Brothers originally came to us for the creature designs for the Demogorgon, but it turned into a lot more than that. We ended up helping them design the whole world, the Upside Down, all the different aspects of the show,” said ASC Creative Director Steffen Reichstadt. “But the Demogorgon specifically was really cool. They really wanted it to feel like that old-school, ’80s-mentality, guy-in-a-suit kind of thing.”
Back in the 1980s, when the show is set and before digital effects were an everyday occurrence, as soon as production started, VFX studios would work with film producers to create character models; while these models are now typically created by vendors later in the process, ASC prefers to keep things old school.
“We come on board early on, when they’re actually writing the script, to help shape the direction of the series, the tone, the look, the feel. That helps everybody get their head around it before they move forward and have a script,” explained Sims.
“We look at every project as bringing these characters to life. How do we look at the script, work with the director, figure out exactly what it is that this character has to evoke, and what can we do to help bring that to life? That’s exciting to me. It’s exciting for all of the artists, because it becomes something more personal. It’s not like you’re just doing this as a job and you’re just a manufacturing company, ‘here’s another creature.'”
Specifications for the Demogorgon were not very, for lack of a better word, specific – which Sims says is fairly normal in terms of the show writing process.
Sims said about the Demogorgon specs, “It’s a biped, it’s multi-limbed, it’s actually humanoid, very skinny, very thin, lanky, tall, and no face, but has to eat people.”
The only other requirement given for the monster was that it needed to “elicit ’80s practical effect nostalgia,” and ASC got to work. Sims created the first sketch of the Demogorgon’s flowering, teeth-covered head, which was augmented by the design team and later approved by the directors.
“That initial sketch was really helpful because it allowed us to get tacit approval from the directors right off the bat,” Reichstadt said. “We kind of know what direction we’re moving in after that.”
ASC then created digital 3D assets for the monster, which, once they’ve been sent to the film studio, typically marks the end of a VFX studio’s part in the process. But Sims has a background in clay maquettes and other practical effects, and suggested using a 3D printed model to really get the feel for the Demogorgon.
“When you’re using your imagination on a project, somebody else is too. And your imaginations might not line up. It’s pretty hard to debate something that’s right in front of you in physical reality. You can point at something and say this isn’t right, or this is,” Reichstadt explained. “With a digital model, you can kind of debate that, and it can stay up in the air until the last minute. Whereas with practical effects, you know, concretely, what it is moving forward.”
ASC uses desktop stereolithography 3D printers from Formlabs to print its creations.
“The Demogorgon was one of the first prints that we did using our Formlabs 3D printers, and we were amazed. Before that, we had always outsourced printing. So to be able to grow it in-house, and see a design that we helped create from the very beginning printed right in front of us, was kind of an amazing thing. It was like going back to the days of when we used to sculpt with clay,” said Sims.
Check out a look into the creation process from Formlabs:
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