How Stranger Things Created Its Iconic Vecna
Silicon, foam latex, and a whole lot of lube - Stranger Things season 4 Makeup Effects Department Head Barrie Gower reveals the origins of Vecna.
This article contains spoilers for Stranger Things season 4 volume 1.
From Game of Thrones’ chilling Night King to The Witcher’s creatures and corpses, makeup effects artist Barrie Gower has been behind some of television’s most indelible supernatural creations.
When Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer approached Gower to work on the show’s fourth season, however, they had another, less expected, example of his recent TV classics in mind.
“They had just seen some of our work in Chernobyl for HBO and they were fans of our work doing the radiation burn victims,” Gower tells Den of Geek about the Duffers’ pitch.
The Duffers’ interest in one of Gower’s more reality-based (but no less grim) makeup work is the first step towards truly understanding why Upside Down monster Vecna has left an impression with Stranger Things viewers. Unlike previous villains the Demogorgon and The Mind Flayer, Vecna is a human creation.
In fact, the demonic being who would come to be given the name of a D&D necromancer was once a human himself: a little psychic psycho Henry Creel a.k.a. Number One a.k.a. “The Orderly,” as played by Jamie Campbell Bower. Vecna’s human originations make him the perfect Stranger Things villain – an unholy combination of mortal hubris and pure sideways dimension malice. Striking that careful balance is precisely why Netflix and the Duffer Brothers turned to Gower and his team in the first place.
With Stranger Things season 4 volume 2 arriving on Netflix *checks watch* right now, we decided it was time to catch up with Gower about Vecna’s unique creation. What follows is the full story of Vecna was conception to first kill and beyond.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Den of Geek: How did your involvement in season 4 come about? How did Netflix and the Duffers approach you?
Barrie Gower: It was totally out of the blue. (Season 4) is the first season we’ve been involved in with Stranger Things. We were approached, I think it was November 2019, by the Duffer Brothers and one of their producers, Iain Paterson. They had just seen some of our work in Chernobyl for HBO and they were fans of our work doing the radiation burn victims. They liked our work on Game of Thrones as well – of the Night King.
They were looking for an iconic character and it was going to be their first (monster) who was more humanoid in form, less creature-like as such as some of the previous creations had been. And they wanted to achieve something as practical as possible in-camera. Ideally they were looking at an actor in prosthetics who could interact with the rest of the cast and would be there for them to film in front of the camera every day. They already had concept art and some blueprints that were created by their concept artist in the VFX department, Michael Mayer. They had these beautiful illustrations of Vecna. It’s actually very close to what we see in the final show now.
They hadn’t cast Jamie Campbell Bower at the time but about three months later, after they cast him, we took Jaime over to our studio in the U.K. and got him a full body cast using Michael’s designs as the springboard. We split all the prosthetics up into their many different pieces, made the molds, and cast in a couple different materials – silicon and foam latex. We started the process about January 2020 then went into lockdown for three months. Then we came back in June and continued to build. We did the final camera test with Jamie in Atlanta in November of that year. We shot about three or four days later.
You said that when the Duffers came to you, they mentioned Chernobyl. Did that give you a particularly good idea of what they were going for and that it would be a unique challenge? Because a lot of your work is monster-oriented.
Well, they said they were big fans of Chernobyl and the Night King (on Game of Thrones). They are also friends with (GoT showrunners) David Benioff and Dan Weiss so they’d already approached them and did a little bit of homework to find out what this Barrie Gower guy was like. In that initial chat, they shared images of this villain but they didn’t share scripts or storylines with us yet. So we were oblivious as to who this character was, other than that we knew what he looked like. There were a bunch of rumors in our workshop from us trying to figure out who it was. Was this Billy? Was it Hopper? It wasn’t until several weeks later when they shared some pages and we read some scenes and then we were privy to the fact that it was Jamie’s orderly character Number One.
Seeing the show and speaking to Jamie now – we’re really pleased with the actual story arc of Number One. It is sort of running concurrently with the character of Vecna, even though it’s in flashback. For us it’s a really fascinating character. It has so many nods to Nightmare on Elm Street and so many iconic ’80s franchise movies. For us as monsters-makers, this was a dream come true. It really was. And not only Vecna but to do the prosthetics for Robert Englund’s character, Victor Creel, as well. We’re already massive fans of Stranger Things so to get the call and become a part of the show has been insane. It’s been incredible.
Did Robert Englund ever get a chance to stop by on set and meet your monster?
Robert was never in at the same time as Jamie unfortunately. We only shot for two, maybe three, days with Robert. That was in May. We did a day with Vecna, two days with Robert, then shot the following week with Vecna. I think he knew of his character but he never actually met Jamie or saw the Vecna makeup.
It sounds like you guys knew Vecna was (formerly) a human being pretty early on?
Yeah, pretty much. We were aware he was from the Upside Down and he was once human but we didn’t know who he actually was at first. Him being humanoid was part of the decision-making of them wanting a practical character as well, I think. It would interact with the cast members. It would feel very grounded. It wouldn’t feel like some kind of CGI visual effect even though we work closely with the visual effects team.
There’s a lovely marriage there between ourselves and VFX. They did the augmentation of his “vines” – those beautiful movements. We were always going to be removing Jamie’s nose and they removed his pupils in post as well. They digitally animated his left hand for a large portion of his scenes with the fingers penetrating into skulls and what have you.
It was always going to be a digital left hand and we would probably have had Jamie perform with a green glove but we thought “I’m sure that there’s a method where we could do finger extensions and have a practical glove on the day.” So that’s exactly what we did. We built this hand that had large aluminum finger extensions and a foam latex glove over top. It was something that Jamie could manipulate. I think quite a lot of the scenes are practical hands. We’re just super chuffed that 95% of what you see is our practical makeup.
I’ve read in some previous interviews that elements of Vecna incorporated features of the Upside Down itself. How did you go about crafting those?
It was the general forms and textures. And the finish of the colors as well. (Vecna’s color) palette was very much driven by the things we saw in the landscapes and the environments of the Upside Down. We used a lot of the previous three seasons and environments as part of our toolbox. All the different colors that go into his makeup – the purples, the blues, the blacks, the yellows, the oranges – we actually had a palette that Jamie helped design of colors that we stuck to. We always had in mind that this character’s presumably lived in the Upside Down for the last 10-15 years or so. It’s something that needed to feel very much part of that world.
Even though we had these beautiful designs from Michael Mayer at the start, we also looked at a lot of real life references – anatomy of animal life, sea life, all sorts of colors and textures, really. Even down to the translucency of the prosthetics as well. The overall gloss was definitely an effort to capture the environment of the Upside Down. It’s why we finished with this kind of gloss-like gel that we would smother Jamie in at the end of the application. It was a very conscious decision to make him look and feel like he was part of the Upside Down world – a very moist, glossy, sort of slimy dark blues, grays, purples.
I’m glad you mentioned him being moist because I watched this season with closed captions on and Vecna is always accompanied by “squelching.”
[laughs] A lot of his movement on set, you know, you can actually hear some squelching. We were constantly topping him off with this lube – a glossy sort of finish every day. He was almost dripping with it.
Speaking of (maybe) gross things. I’ve had the chance to talk with a few monster-makers and I usually like to ask them about how, invariably, some fans will find their creation to be hot. The Stranger Things Netflix account had a fun time retweeting Vecna thirst tweets the weekend of release. Did you get to see any of those? How do you feel about sexy Vecna?
I think it’s down to Jamie Campbell Bower. I mean, he’s a sex icon. He’s an absolute stud. You know, we’re very lucky to work with Michael Mayer and design this character. Vecna is a very stealthy, streamlined, sleek-looking monster. He’s got a slender form to him. But I think it’s not only the design and finish of the character, it’s the performance.
It’s rare that you’re given the opportunity to design the look of a character like Vecna. And it’s super rare to get to work with an actor like Jamie. He really, really embraced the character from day one. He was so passionate about it and he was super respectful of our work. We’re just fortunate that it’s this overwhelmingly incredible package: from the design to the prosthetics to Jamie as an actor. He’s got so much charisma as that character.
We’ve been overwhelmed at the public’s response to Vecna. We couldn’t have asked for anything better. There’s been so many memes out there and I’ve gotten so many messages of people already recreating this characters’ makeup. I think it’s going to be a very interesting Halloween.
Stranger Things season 4 volume 2 is available to stream on Netflix now.