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What Made the VFX in Stranger Things Believable?

What Made the VFX in Stranger Things Believable?

Netflix’s 2016 debut of Stranger Things took the TV world by storm, dazzling both critics and fans with its captivating storyline, terrifying scenarios, and epic visual effects.

Television has changed dramatically through the years, with a shift to a more cinematic style of story-telling, and Netflix has been a forerunner in leading this charge of big-budget shows that hold up to a Hollywood caliber film.

The deliciously mysterious show about a group of boys and their unusual friend, Eleven, not only left us scared to be alone in a room with a lightbulb, but with every episode, we felt the imminent threat of the danger the characters were subjected to.

So it is worth asking the question, how did they do it? After all, other shows and movies have creatures, monsters, and creepy environments, but Stranger Things made every VFX shot enticingly believable.

Their secret really isn’t a secret at all, but merely an extremely well planned and well executed use of filmmaking techniques.

Location Shooting

Much of the show was shot on location and in real environments that we are familiar with (i.e. neighborhood, school, woods, etc.) This allowed for an immediate sense of real life, and you never looked twice at a prop or landmark and wondered if it was fake, even if it really was.

So when the monster first appears in these environments, you automatically believe it is a living and breathing creature because your mind has already mentally accepted everything else as real.

You Were Rarely Expecting an Effects Shot

Unlike many creature movies today where the creature is front and center the entire movie, this show held the suspense. We rarely saw the creature in the first few episodes, and when we did, it was very quick.

Our mind didn’t have time to analyze whether or not it was real, so we again just accept it. This is similar to the technique used by Steven Spielberg (who greatly inspired the show’s directors, Matt and Ross Duffer) in making us believe Jaws wasn’t a puppet but a menacing shark.

The Perfect Blend with Practical Effects

Obviously this show has some breathtaking CGI elements and environments. The stunning VFX work by COSA is on par with any blockbuster film, but the makers of Stranger Things made a point to incorporate practical effects whenever possible. 

This blending of real life props and prosthetics with computer-generated elements created the perfect storm of visual goodness that is immediately believable.

The Story Created The Suspense, Not The Effects

Perhaps more than anything, what made the visual effects in Stranger Things so believable is that they were not relied upon for the suspense of the series.

When you get right down to it, this show is well written. The story drove everything. The VFX weren’t added to create suspense. They were added to increase the suspense.

How many movies have just thrown an awkwardly animated creature or object and insist that we be amazed, scared, or happy by what we see? When VFX are done this way, they do very little to aid the story and appear out of place and tacky.

The exact opposite was true of Stranger Things, and the creators used well-timed visual effects that supplemented the plot.

The makers of this masterful show created a world that was so real and believable through sets, script, and actors. By the time they added the visual effects, the effects weren’t the star of the show; the story was, making the effects stunning and believable. This is the perfect marriage of VFX and cinema: VFX enhance, not drive, the story.

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