Michael Maher has been working for over 10 years as a graphic designer and concept artist on shows like Real Steel, Argo and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Today he talks about his work as a VFX Supervisor on the new season of Stranger Things.
What is your background?
I am an illustration major. I studied drawing and painting in school before getting involved with film. From there I accidentally landed a job as a graphic designer on a few small films and then worked my way through the art department to become an illustrator, eventually making the transition to visual effects.
How did you get involved on this series?
I was brought on at the very beginning of Stranger Things 2 to help with concept art and storyboards. The show was growing in size and it required more precise planning to pull off more complex sequences. I’ve worked on all the seasons since.
How was the collaboration with the Duffer Brothers?
I’ve been lucky enough to work closely with the Duffers for a number of years now. To me, their writing has always been the center of what makes this show so special. The clarity, precision and emotional impact is really something that has always jumped off the page and made it easy to imagine. It helps that we’re a similar age and many of the influences they draw upon are some of my favorites too, which makes for a short hand when communicating an idea for a shot, creature, etc. Also, the true benefit of being included in the design of the creatures and boarding the major VFX sequences during production is that I can carry that same vision through to the finished shots when I’m supervising.
What was their approaches about the VFX work?
There are so many facets to making visual effects. From how it’s planned in preproduction, shooting the actual effect, the rounds and rounds of layout, animation or comps that the vendors produce. All of these steps contribute to what ends up on screen and the process can be quite overwhelming day in day out. The bros are an integral part of all pieces of the puzzle. They have an astounding ability to always keep in mind the goal of a shot or a sequence no matter the phase. They serve as a great barometer when things get complicated.
What was your feeling to be involved on such iconic franchise?
I love it. I was such a big fan of the show before I started so it’s a very special thing to be a part of. I think it makes us really push the envelope of what we can achieve. It’s also nerve wracking because so many people love the show the way I do. It can certainly add to the pressure of every decision. In the end though, I’m happy with the results and I hope the fans will be too.
How did you organize the work as a VFX Producer?
Terron Pratt // There is constant communication between the Supervisors and the VFX Producer. From budget discussions, to vendor selection but more importantly, understanding the resources available as vendors start to make their way through the work. It was particularly challenging this season as the volume of work was immense and the timeline for post was condensed. A good deal of time was spent on meeting new teams, evaluating their work and « casting » the available shots to the appropriate teams.
How did you choose the various vendors?
Terron Pratt // Since we’re now in the 4th season, we tried to maintain some vendor consistency as looks have been established over the years. There is comfort and confidence with returning vendors but we also added several new ones this year that have made a substantial impact on the series. We’ve also increased the workload on a number of returning vendors due to the overwhelming volume of VFX on Season 4. Between all of us, we have solid relationships with a number of incredible teams around the world who have pulled off an impossible task.
Can you tell us how you split the work amongst the vendors?
Terron Pratt // This is a very collaborative process. With a show this large, the plan tends to evolve over time. It’s like putting together a puzzle; we start with the corners and edges, the major VFX sequences in the series, and distribute the larger bodies of work to the main vendors on the show. It’s important that we’re cognizant of where the larger shot count or complex sequences fall in the episode order so we don’t overload a vendor on back to back episodes. From there, we continue to load balance the teams across the series until the major beats are awarded.
How was the collaboration with their VFX Supervisors?
I was lucky enough to work with excellent supervisors across all of our vendors. Julien Hery from Rodeo, Niklas Jacobson from Important Looking Pirates, Justin Mitchell from Scanline, Manolo Mantero from Digital Domain, Neil Eskuri from DNEG, Juri Stanossek from Mackevision, Steve Dinozzi from Crafty Apes, Brian Hajek from Lola… The list would go on forever since we had over thirty vendors on our show. There is no exaggeration when I say that each of these teams made a herculean effort to finish in the time given. With so much to do and such a crazy deadline I’m really impressed by the end product of their work. I can’t sing their praises enough.
I also share this season with my great colleagues VFX Supervisors Jabbar Raisani and Marion Spates who oversaw the work on episode 407.
This new season introduces a new villain, Vecna. How did you work with the art department for his design?
I had the great pleasure of collaborating with the Barrie Gower on the design of Vecna. I created the original concepts for the creature which then got passed to Barrie for the final design and prosthetics (which were absolutely amazing and a true labor of love). Then after everything was shot, Vecna was passed back to me and the VFX department to add in all of the moving vines and missing nose. So it was pretty cool how it came full circle. As for the early designs, I started drawing way back in August of 2019 when the Brothers were still in the writing room. They wanted a villain who would stand apart from the Demogorgon who is an animal acting on pure terrifying instinct. Vecna had to be cerebral, haunting, a mastermind. We talked a lot about A Nightmare on Elm Street and Hellraiser but at the same time we wanted something that embodied the Upside Down. A villain that could control it and connect to it and invade peoples minds from afar. A character that would have no need to run, because there is nowhere to hide when he gets into your mind. That was the genesis of Vecna. Early designs were far less human. A few drafts crossed into looking too much like alien or predator, but eventually we started experimenting with rot infestations on the body. At one point there was even plans to have writhing maggots in his wounds, but that gave way to living vines squirming across his skin. That seemed to bridge the gap and even hinted at the Dungeons and Dragons theme of the show.
Can you tell us more about the creation of the other creatures and especially the Demogorgon?
Aaron Sims designed the Demogorgon and it’s been a great staple of our show for so many seasons. In Stranger Things 4 the brothers wanted to do something different with the character. They wanted to see him out in the open and let his animalistic rage take center stage. It was a task that proved to be a little more challenging than we initially thought. It gave us the opportunity to tune him up and improve the detail of the character and we went so far as to tweak his proportions a bit in order to allow him to move as fast as we needed him to.
How was simulate their presence on set to help the cast and the crew?
I was lucky enough to have directed a few shots with the Demogorgon this season so I can speak to this specifically. In typical VFX fashion we used a stunt performer in a green suit to help us visualize where the creature would be and when. Since the Demogorgon is nearly nine ft tall, the stunt performer would carry a green pole with a tennis ball at the top of it to help with eye line. This coupled with storyboards and a lot of preplanning/stunt coordinating allowed us to inform the performers of the action required. We would often rehearse with our stunt performer to understand the framing and give the performers something to react to, then pull the green man and shoot it clean.
Which location was the most complicate to create and why?
There were so many complicated sets built this season by production designer Chris Trujillo and the art department. It’s hard to know where to start. In consideration of VFX, the Mind Lair (the red world present in episode 4) was one of the most complicated sets to create only because it required so much extension. Luckily we had a great base to start with. The art department created a stunning practical environment to play in and VFX added all of the floating pieces of the broken Creel house and additional vine spires.
What’s the VFX shots count?
A big thanks for your time.
// The Duffer Brothers Break Down the Demogorgon Fight – Behind the FX – Netflix
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Digital Domain: Dedicated page about Stranger Things – Season 4 on Digital Domain website.
DNEG: Dedicated page about Stranger Things – Season 4 on DNEG website.
Rodeo FX: Dedicated page about Stranger Things – Season 4 on Rodeo FX website.
Netflix: You can stream Stranger Things on Netflix now.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2022