Going Practical With Stranger Things' Vecna Was A Painstaking Process From Start To Finish

The first three seasons of "Stranger Things" overflowed with nightmare-inducing, monster-filled alternate dimensions that intertwined with Spielbergian childlike wonder that brought light and hope into the darkness of The Upside Down. That childhood innocence is noticeably absent in "Stranger Things 4," which is visually and thematically the darkest season of the popular series.

"Stranger Things 4" continues to revolve around Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and her rag-tag group of underdogs, but life has gotten considerably more complicated for the group. Their days of fearing imaginary D&D monsters are over, as they now face the real things and experience adult boogie men in the form of trauma, depression, and impending death.

The Demogorgon and Mind Flayer creatures of the first three seasons are formidable villains, and nothing you'd want to come across in a dark alley, but both pale in comparison to this season's dark wizard. Inspired by nightmare merchant Freddy Krueger and demon masochist Pinhead, Vecna tears his way into reality from The Upside Down and makes his '80s predecessors look like child's play.

In an interview with Bloody Disgusting, special effects artist Barrie Gower discussed bringing Vecna to life with practical techniques. Unlike the CGI foes that came before him, Vecna was assembled from prosthetics, special effects makeup, and your darkest fears.

Horrors of the real world

Throughout "Stranger Things 4," Max (Sadie Sink) struggles with the gruesome death of her brother, and the devastating effect it has had on her family. Her emotional pain and trauma make her a prime candidate for a dark wizard's curse.

Vecna is intelligent, calculating, and vicious, but his true power lies within his ability to pinpoint his victims' weaknesses. He reads emotional fragility like a book, which allows him to taunt his victims with their worst fears and traumas, before making a meal of their emotional pain. He ushers the emotionally vulnerable through horrifying visions of their worst memories and fears to psychologically torture his victims before killing them.

Unlike The Demogorgon or The Mind Flayer, Vecna is not an adaptation of some childhood game piece; he is the product of authentic trauma and scientific hubris, which makes him the most frightening and realistic monster yet. The Duffer Brothers are no strangers to the use of CGI — and have used it to create successful, thoroughly creepy monsters in past seasons — but they chose to highlight realism and authenticity in season four.

Given Vecna's real-world origins and former humanity, The Duffers decided to keep Vecna as true to life as possible, which included using practical special effects. Special effects artist Barrie Gower, creator of The Night King in "Game of Thrones," was hired to bring Vecna into reality.

The Vecna Concept

While speaking with Bloody Disgusting, Gower explained that the bare bones of Vecna were already built when he joined the project:

"When they approached us, they already had concept art done by Mike Maher, who was also the VFX producer on the show. He did this incredible concept work for Vecna. We had a few slightly different iterations of it, but we knew he was going to be humanoid in form."

Maher's concept was given a realistic edge by Gower, who drew inspiration from the world around him:

"Obviously, we had the original concept art, but we always use sources of real reference from the real world. We used a lot of photos of sea life, all kinds of different kinds of fish, lots, lots of things to do with trauma reference, like bruising to the skin, anemic skin tones, and looking at vines and all kinds of things. Just literally, the texture and the quality of the surfaces, his skin was very pitted and very smooth in areas. We used all kinds of references from the real world, as well as fantasy."

After adding realistic muscle and fat over the fantastical bones of the concept, Gower had a complete blueprint that he used to bring Vecna to life.

Sculpting and applying Vecna

Gower made a lifecast of Jamie Campbell Bower, who portrays 001 and Vecna in the latest season. Every detail of Vecna's veins and skin were then sculpted from modeling clay over the lifecast to ensure the prosthetics would fit the actor's body. From there, Gower carefully cut the sculpture into pieces to make molds, as he explained to Bloody Disgusting:

"We had to separate the sculpture up into many parts, making molds. Then we just injected a couple of different materials into the molds. His makeup consists of silicone appliances and foam latex appliances. The foam latex pieces are the larger, heavier pieces on the body, which foam is naturally a lighter material; it was about 24 to 25 prosthetic appliances in total of his makeup."

Gower revealed that the first application of the prosthetics took eight and a half hours, which the special effects team cut down to six hours and 21 minutes with practice:

"We would spend the best part of five hours just purely gluing the appliances onto his skin. Then we'd have an hour and a half of airbrushing and joining all the dots together with the paintwork and airbrushing veins and blending everything."

Finally, after all the prosthetics and airbrushing, the whole costume was covered with lube to produce the glossy finish of an open wound.

Of course, that's just the beginning of the day for the special effects team and the man behind Vecna, because what goes on must come off. After a long day of shooting, it took another hour and a half to free Bower from all the prosthetics. 

We'll fix it in post

Despite all the effort, talent, and time Gower put into sculpting and applying Vecna, he admitted to Bloody Disgusting that some results could only be achieved in post-production:

"There would be a little bit of VFX augmentation in post, but it'd be things we couldn't necessarily achieve practically, like giving a subtle movement to Vecna's vines on his body. They would be removing the nose of the actor and his pupils as well."

Those final adjustments shouldn't be dismissed because the life-sucking vines, and empty eyes are two of the monster's most spine-chilling characteristics, and only enhance the meticulous details Gower and his team painstakingly crafted. 

After the final tweaks in post-production, Vecna was officially part of our reality, and ready to live rent-free in our darkest nightmares.