'Stranger Things': Inside the action sequence you never saw and other VFX secrets of Season 3

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
The Stranger Things kids at Starcourt Mall. (Photo: Netflix)

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Stranger Things Season 3.

The third season of Stranger Things climaxes with the show’s most ambitious episode yet: a feature-length siege movie in the tradition of John Carpenter classics like Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing that totally demolishes the totally awesome Starcourt Mall. It’s such a logical ending for the third year’s eight-episode arc, you might think that it was the plan all along. But the show’s Emmy-nominated visual effects supervisor, Paul Graff, tells Yahoo Entertainment that we almost saw a different ending, one more influenced by Godzilla and Jurassic Park than a Carpenter joint.

“Whole storylines disappear, and get replaced with different storylines,” the VFX artist remarks of how Stranger Things masterminds, the Duffer Brothers, shape a season. “Basically, Chapter 7 and 8 were a mirage [when we started]. They had an outline with some ideas of what’s going to happen to the characters, which is about 30-35 pages. For the next round, we’d get an outline for the individual chapters. Then we’d get the scripts, and then we’d get the revisions of the scripts, and it was like, ‘I can’t believe how much they changed — and how many more good ideas there are!’”

According to Graff, the brothers’ original idea for the finale would have taken some of the action outside of the Starcourt’s neon-emblazoned walls. In the version of the show millions of viewers have binged since its July 4 premiere, the series’ young adult heroes face off against the Mind Flayer’s spider monster form in the food court, while the actual adults — including Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Hopper (David Harbour) — tangle with Russian soldiers in the mall’s sub-basements. Graff remembers that the earliest outlines hinted at a different location for the spider monster’s attack.

Nancy (Natalia Dyer) takes aim in Stranger Things Season 3. (Photo: Netflix)

“We heard this idea that the spider monster was going to crash the Fourth of July parade in Hawkins,” he reveals. “It would be a real Godzilla-type story or like the T. Rex in Jurassic Park chasing the kids in a car. In my mind I was seeing shots of people running away and screaming, and this mad panic. Maybe you’d see a tree getting knocked over or a car flying through the air and landing in the Hawkins movie theater. Maybe the Duffers would put the title of an ‘80s film they don’t like on the marquee and we’d throw a car at it. I don’t know — maybe that was a stupid idea.”

If you ask us, it sounds hilarious. But a finale filled with airborne cars and screaming parade attendees would also have meant a lot more work for Graff’s VFX team at Crazy Horse Effects. Not that they weren’t up for the challenge, having previously staged such memorable Season 2 sequences as the Demodog-assisted death of beloved dork Bob Newby. “We would have had to do a lot of rotoscoping,” he says of the parade finale. “We would have been able to handle it, but the volume of what our department had to put on our plate was already a multiple of Season 2. All the resources were stretching really thin.” So the Fourth of July parade set-piece fell by the wayside, and the Mind Flayer made a beeline for Starcourt instead. “I can’t remember if I brought it up or if the Duffers did, but we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if the monster crashes through the ceiling of the mall?’ It’s not a giant leap when you look at the Starcourt. I mean, there’s really no other way for the monster to come in.”

Meanwhile, the fairground chase between Hopper and the Russian Terminator, Grigori (Andrey Ivchenko) took the place of the Mind Flayer’s parade attack. “I think the Fourth of July parade turned into the fair,” Graff says. “We did extension stuff for that sequence, like all the shots on top of the Ferris wheel.” If he’s at all disappointed about the Godzilla climax being downsized into The Thing territory, he doesn’t show it. “In our first meeting, they knew they wanted to play with all of those delicious gore movies from the ‘80s like The Thing,” Graff remembers. “The kids are a little older, so we could go a little further. So even though we didn’t know what was going to happen at the end right away, we knew it wasn’t going to be like it was last year. Stranger Things isn’t a recipe: it’s a playground for the Duffers to do all the movies they’ve ever wanted to do in the form of a series. They get to play and the theme is different every season.”

Here are some of the other Season 3 VFX secrets, straight from the Duffers’ personal playground.

Graff has one clue about Hopper’s fate… and he’s not telling

David Harbour as Hopper in Stranger Things Season 3. (Photo: Netflix)

Assuming that he returns for Season 4 — and that’s a safe assumption since the Duffers clearly like having him as a member of their playground crew — Graff doesn’t expect to learn how the supposedly dead Hopper returns to the land of the living until he receives that first 30-page outline. That said, he’s privy to one clue that may or may not have something to do with the way the gate to the Upside Down is closed in the season finale. “In Season 2, the rift was open, and it took Eleven’s powers to close it,” he explains. “This year, they were like, ‘She’s not going to do that this time. They’ll have to pull it off without Eleven.’” So with Eleven depowered, Hopper and Joyce head to the gate room to destroy the beam that the Russians are using to try and infiltrate the Upside Down.

“The Russians are trying to open the rift, but when the beam is turned off, it closes by itself,” Graff notes. “Maybe that means that the rift has a mind of its own. We had to come up with a little bit of visualization of how that’s different [from Season 2]. There’s an energy coming from the wall, which is denying access to the Russians. I came up with this idea that it’s crushing inward: It’s not Eleven pushing the edges and forcing it down. It closes down itself.” That would seem to fit with Ivchenko’s theory that Grigori — and maybe Hopper? — had time to slip through the gate before it closed. Don’t consider Graff’s “the gate is alive” explanation to be canon, though. “Sometimes you get lucky and the Duffers tell you how this season ties to the next season,” Graff says, laughing. “But usually I don’t even know what’s happening at the end of the current season, let alone what’s happening next season.”

It came from the Sarlacc Pit

Hanging out above the deadly Sarlacc Pit in Return of the Jedi. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

No actual giant spiders were harmed — or used as inspiration — for the Mind Flayer’s multi-legged monstrosity. “We called it the spider monster because it has a very small body and very long limbs,” Graff says. “But one of my references was Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. That’s not an ‘80s movie, but it had these giant alien structures that also had spider legs.” Once again, Jurassic Park — another non-‘80s Spielberg movie — also served as a source of inspiration. “We wanted the spider monster to be a heavy, thumping creature, so we looked at the T. Rex ripple in the water where you feel something coming that’s big and has teeth. I wanted to play with jaws — pun intended.”

The Mind Flayer in Stranger Things Season 3. (Photo: Netflix)

Funnily enough, though, Jaws wasn’t the only basis for the spider monster’s chompers. Credit also has to go to an actual ‘80s movie: Return of the Jedi. “The Sarlaac Pit had that ring of teeth, and that was the reference for the mouth of the monster. I felt like we hadn’t ever had anything with a real jaw, and a jaw means that teeth are really locked in space. They're mounted on something hard, and when that crunches down it has more power than something that's soft like the petals of the Demogorgan. I wanted to play with that a little bit, so we made it the monster’s mouth a mix between shark teeth and the Sarlacc Pit.”

How to get into — and out of — a monster jam

Dacre Montgomery as Billy in Stranger Things Season 3. (Photo: Netflix)

Even though Graff and the Duffers set out to push the envelope on the show’s gore factor this year, they knew there were lines they couldn’t cross. “There was a struggle of ‘How do we make this not cruel?’” he explains. “We didn’t want to harm anybody. We were talking about all of the horrible things you can see on TV, and comparing it to something like the melting Germans in Raiders of the Lost Ark. That’s not cruel — it’s absurd. So it was about finding that line, you know?” Early on, the VFX team realized that unrealism would be their friend. “When our people liquefy or our rats explode, what’s inside their bodies is basically jam. That’s the thing that really takes the edge off. It would be very different if it was a realistic depiction of somebody’s face coming off!”

Finding the right consistency of “jam” for the exploding rats and liquified humans did take some trial and error, though. “We had to have transitions between the goop and when it turned to the solid body of the monster. The monster is created out of more than one person, so it was important to me that it have different textures and isn’t completely repetitive with itself. But the Duffers weren’t stoked about some of the early shots of the goop. They were like, “Something is wrong here.’ And what was wrong was that we just had goop — there wasn’t anything that anchored the eye. It was like we had jam and not marmalade. So we added little bits of animation with limbs sticking out or big chunks of meat. Throwing those pieces into the mix made it work when it didn’t work so well before.” Yum yum... anybody hungry yet?

Stranger Things is currently streaming on Netflix.

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