For Stranger Things season four, creators The Duffer Brothers wanted “their own iconic villain”. Enter Vecna, a Freddy Krueger-inspired big bad with an aversion to Kate Bush, who has a particularly gruesome way of dispatching teens.
The man tasked with changing the good-looking Jamie Campbell Bower (an actor who’s starred in both Twilight and Harry Potter) into a nightmarish creature straight from the Upside Down was Barrie Gower. Approached by the Duffer Brothers after seeing his work on Game of Thrones‘ Night King, Gower and his team had two years to turn the concept art from VFX supervisor Michael Mayer into a bone-cracking, blood-curdling reality. Here’s how they did it.
They built Vecna around Campbell Bower
Armed with the concept art and knowing they wanted “a very physical presence for this new big bad”, Gower got Campbell Bower to visit his London studio to create a full, head-to-toe plaster cast. “After that, we sculpted Vecna over the top in modelling clay. Then it was a really lengthy process of generating the 25 different moulded pieces that made up his makeup,” Gower says. These pieces were created from a variety of foam, rubber, silicone, foam and latex.
The team also created a mechanical left arm, added contact lenses and dentures, then made sure Campbell Bower could still deliver his lines under the prosthetics.
It still took hours to transform him
Despite spending years on the design and having blueprints to ensure every piece of Vecna lined up “like a complicated puzzle”, it still took Gower and his team between six and eight hours to apply the makeup to Campbell Bower. “It was just this massive production line,” explains Gower. “We shot 25 days with Jamie and every day needed a brand new set of appliances because when we removed them at the end of the day, we needed to use a mineral oil which destroyed all the fragile, delicate edges where everything overlapped.”
Vecna was inspired by mould
The design for Vecna was driven by the shapes and forms of the Upside Down, which meant Gower and his team had a general colour palette to work from. But according to Gower, they also “looked at a lot of sea life, moulds and animals to create the look, feel and consistency of his skin”.
Gower says the Duffer Brothers were also “very adamant that Vecna be glossy and shiny, that he looked as moist and wet as the rest of the Upside Down”. So, after a seven-hour process of carefully assembling Vecna, Gower and his team found themselves waiting in a small, air-conditioned pop-up tent waiting for their call. “The last part of the process was the four of us artists surrounding Jamie and covering him from head to toe in this wet-look gel,” he recalls. “It was basically gloopy lube and meant he was slimy throughout the whole shoot day. It also gave the paint job a really nice ping and made everything look really vibrant.”
His creation was soundtracked by a death metal playlist
As well as listening to Placebo’s cover of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up The Hill’, Gower and his team also played a lot of “thrash and death metal” during the application process. “Music played a huge part, and a lot of that was down to Jamie wanting to get into the mindset of the character by listening to intense music,” says Gower, who “was a big metalhead in my youth before getting a bit more indie”.
They knew Vecna was a horrifying hit almost instantly
“With Stranger Things coming into its fourth season,” Gower says, “the Duffers realise their audience has matured and they want to mature with it.” This is where the Nightmare on Elm Street-inspired villain comes in. After a two-year development process, the makeup team knew Vecna was as terrifying as they hoped from the moment he walked on set. “It was a good sign when a cast member would meet Jamie for the first time and gasp. Those horrified looks were exactly the kind of reaction we hoped for,” he says.
That terror comes from having a physical presence on set
As well as being a nod to ‘80s monster movies, it was important Vecna was a practical beast, Gower says, because “there’s always something to be said for having two actors that can act and react against each other”.
“Look at Sadie Sink in episode four,” he adds, “or the other cast members that work with Vecna, it’s much more intuitive for them to have something right in front of them, that’s pretty much the end product to what you see on screen.”
Gower goes on to explain that sometimes practical characters will be removed and replaced in post-production, but Vecna “is a predominantly practical, prosthetic character that uses VFX to augment a little movement and animation. It’s this perfect marriage of the two.”
They included easter eggs to his true identity
While Gower won’t be tricked into revealing anything about the rest of season four, he does explain that the design of Vecna gave an early hint to his true identity: the orderly helping out in Dr. Brenner’s lab, a.k.a. Number One.
“He looks like he’s come from the world of the Upside Down but there are patches on his body – his chest and his scalp – that are paler and aren’t quite as mutated,” Gower says. “Even though his identity isn’t revealed until the end of that first volume, there are clues to give fans the hint that this isn’t a creature purely from the Upside Down. He was a human at one point.”
Vecna will be tough to top in season five
Gower doesn’t know how The Duffers are going to best Vecna, but he has faith they will. “Every season, they’ve been bettering themselves. The storytelling has always been very strong but the quality of the filmmaking from every department is so strong, they’ve given themselves a very high bar to top,” he says. “It’s been said by a few department heads that what’s to come in the final two episodes of season four is above and beyond anything you’ve seen before. It’s going to be really exciting to see the public reaction. We’re just as excited as everyone else to see where Stranger Things season five is going to go because we have no idea.”
‘Stranger Things’ season four, part two streams on Netflix from July 1.