Stranger Things' season four has taken things to a wholly new, dark level and its newest baddie, Vecna, is the epitome of that eeriness.
Stranger Things' head of makeup effects, Barrie Gower, is responsible for upping the ante on the horror, at least as far as Vecna is concerned.
The Best Make-Up BAFTA winner made use of his impressive resume (which includes his award-winning work on The Witcher) to put together The Upside Down's most terrifying villain yet, one whose bone-crunching, eye gouging killing spree will make you long for the demogorgon's primitive savagery.
It was Gower's work on Game of Thrones, however, that influenced Vecna's look most of all.
In this exclusive interview with Digital Spy Gower talks all things Vecna, including Jamie Campbell Bower's painstaking transformation into the monster which involved a personalised lavatory contraption. Strictly for number ones of course.
Congratulations on your work with Vecna, because he was very creepy.
We're super happy and relieved. It was a couple of years in the making, and I think we were quite anxious. There was a lot of anticipation, with season four releasing a couple of weeks ago. So I think we've all been over the moon and overwhelmed with the response as well.
Vecna really fits the darker tone of season four. Where did your influence for the costume come from?
We were approached by Matt and Ross Duffer, and one of the producers, Iain Paterson. Their brief, really – they were fans of our work from Game of Thrones, and the character we did, the Night King. And they were also fans of recent work we'd done for Chernobyl for HBO as well, with all the radiation-burn victims.
For season four, they were after an iconic villain, and I think they almost wanted a mix of those two approaches. I think they were basically after their own Night King for Stranger Things.
So when we joined, they had some beautiful concept art already drawn up by the concept artist, Michael Mayer, who also runs the VFX department. They had the sort of blueprints that they presented to us, and said, "This is basically the look of the character that we want."
They wanted him very humanoid in form and shape, which is one of the first real Stranger Things characters and villains that was human in shape. But obviously, with the feeling of the Upside Down and the forms and the colours and the vines and the shapes and the environments that come with the Upside Down.
So it was actually already quite clear, the design and the appearance of Vecna. We worked very closely with them.
The next step, really, was to cast Jamie Campbell Bower. We got Jamie into our studio here, in the UK, and we did a full body live-cast.
Then really, from there, it was just an extensive build from January. We went into lockdown about two months later, and everyone stood down for about two or three months. And then Stranger Things was the first project to return back to our workshop, to work in quite a reduced capacity, because of all the social distancing.
But Vecna's actual build, his prosthetics, was probably about four months in total.
Did you take any kind of inspiration from the Night King? Or was it strictly within the kind of Stranger Things world?
It was strictly within the Stranger Things world. I think they were after a menacing character, and somebody who had a similar presence to the Night King. Obviously Vecna has a lot of dialogue, which the Night King doesn't.
I think with the dialogue and the type of presence you need on set, and the interaction with the cast, we had to take it into account that there would be a lot of body movement, and he would be very expressive. You know, his left hand is quite an important part of the character, with his finger extensions.
I think we approached his character, and the build of Vecna's makeup… It had to be a prosthetic makeup, rather than a man in a rubber creature suit. You could just put it on each day. So that would dictate to us the extent of how everything was made, and also the on-set application each day as well, with having a lot of overlapping appliances, which make up this whole character.
There's 25 pieces that all overlap each other, and they're all glued to Jamie's skin. That gave us about a seven- or eight-hour application time for each day, sticking his makeup on, and that was a team of four of us.
We might start at 2am or 3am in the morning, and get on set for about 10am, and shoot for the entire day, and then wrap at about 7pm or 8pm, and then spend about an hour-and-a-half removing his makeup at the end of the day.
It was scheduled very cleverly, so we would never shoot two days in a row with Vecna. It was day on, day off, day on, day off – so we would be able to rest the day after.
How did Jamie cope with that?
He was incredible. We are so blessed to have an actor like Jamie. He had a little bit of prosthetic experience before but not a great deal. This is the most extensive an actor could possibly be in prosthetics. There wasn't really an area of Jamie showing. It was all a second skin over his entire body.
He was probably the most patient, good-humoured actor we've ever worked with. I think it's always very daunting going into a process like this when you know how long the process is going to take, and how much time you're going to spend with this artist as well.
So there's a lot of things that have to be taken into consideration.
We're going to be the first people they see in the morning, we're going to be the last people we see at night before he leaves. There's a team of four of us. We've got to make sure that that team of four get on very well, and we get on very well with the actor.
Chemistry is the most paramount thing because if you haven't got that chemistry, and you've got one bad egg, it's going to upset the applecart.
We all got on well. Incredibly well with Jamie so well, and he never once complained. He was an absolute trouper. We were really, really lucky.
Are there any hidden details within the costume that are relevant to the show that we might have missed?
Not really. There's no hidden Easter eggs as such with Vecna. There was talk originally – for the reveal of his 001 number on his wrist, at the end of episode 7 – of us having that within the makeup and the costume.
But I think it was designed in a way that you never really see that. You never really clock it. So we never incorporated that into the makeup, and it was always going to be a sort of VFX reveal at the end of that episode.
There's no real secrets inside there, really. Vecna is what he is.
Makeup like that, it has to be designed in a way that visually it all works on camera, but you have to take a lot of things into consideration as well because you've got an actor in there at the end of the day. He needs to be able to move. He needs to be able to drink. He needs to go to the toilet.
So we had various things, like an undercarriage sort of built into the suit, which you could pop open, and Jamie could go to the loo every day.
It's just taking into consideration that he could potentially be wearing this costume for 20 hours at a time. So it's making everything user-friendly. Even though it's all pliable and glued to his skin, you've just got to make sure it's really free and easy for him to move.
It was quite a technical process, breaking it down, and making sure that everything was going to work seamlessly as well. It's probably one of the most expensive builds we've done for any character for a show or film to date.
Vecna is a mix of prosthetics and CGI. What were the benefits of using those practical elements instead of just going for SFX?
Matt and Ross were very keen from day one with this character that they wanted a physical presence on set. They wanted something very practical and grounded.
I think it's two things. They wanted a physical presence that could interact with the cast, and that there would be a very real reaction from the other cast members.
I think, also, it's a nod to their inspirations from the '80s as well. You know, Stranger Things having this '80s homage, and all these nods to so many different franchises. The feel, and the era, and the environments, and the sound, and the music, and the look of everything has got a very grounded, '80s feel to it.
Matt and Ross have said, from season one, really, they've wanted to use a lot of practical makeup, but for whatever reason, things didn't quite work out. So I think it got to a point with season four that they knew with this character, they wanted to return to a lot of very traditional methods.
Even though there is a combination of effects here and there are some visual effects on Vecna the VFX have beautifully augmented his vines. There are these subtle moments in camera, and they've removed Jamie's nose, and there's a few other bits and pieces – like with all the vines attaching to the sockets on the back of Vecna.
There is a level of augmentation in post production with VFX. But a good 95% of Vecna is practical.
Are you going to have any involvement in season five?
I don't know. I genuinely don't know. It's a very well-guarded secret what's going to happen in season five.
We've been very lucky. We did some press in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, and we were talking to a lot of the cast, and they're in exactly the same boat as us. We've got no idea what's going to happen in season five.
So as far as I'm aware, I don't think [the Duffers have] necessarily written the whole thing, but they've got a very clear idea of what the story arc is. I can imagine, if we are involved, we won't be privy to that for a little while yet, I don't think.
Were you involved in the creation of other costumes? Especially the victims of Vecna.
No, we weren't. We were brought on primarily for Vecna, and then we were responsible for Robert Englund's character, Victor Creel. We did a facial appliance for him.
We also had to beef up David Harbour as Hopper for the sequences where it was direct continuity from the end of season three, and his first sequence is in the Russian prison. We had to make Hopper fatter again, because David lost so much weight for season four.
But they were the only characters we were involved with. A lot of characters— well, the dead bodies of the victims, and several of the characters who wore prosthetics – that was all Amy Forsyth in the makeup department. She was responsible for a lot of makeup effects as well over season four.
Stranger Things season 4 part 2 premieres on July 1, streaming on Netflix.