The latest season of Stranger Things has brought more monsters into Hawkins from the Upside Down, but none have had such an impact as Vecna – the creature taking over the minds of the young people of Hawkins and drudging up their darkest memories.
We spoke to Barrie Gower, Makeup Effects Department Head about creating Vecna’s look…
How did you begin in makeup effects?
When I was growing up my dad was a manager of the Odeon Cinema and he used to take me to press screenings for films. I got to meet Ray Harryhausen when I was about six years old, so I was being nurtured into filmmaking at an early age!
In my early teens, I got into Fangoria magazine and into all the monster making and got really interested in makeup effects. I was very arty and into building things and had my own little amateur makeup box at home that I used to stick latex and stuff! While my friends would be outside playing football I’ll be covering myself in Latex and all kinds of rubbish [haha].
I went to art school and I knew I wanted to pursue this as a career but I was a local boy in the Midlands and was wondering how on earth would I get into this. Then I just stumbled across the prospectus for a course at the London College of Fashion who did Theatre, TV and film makeup. It was makeup and hair, but they had a prosthetics module on the course as well. So I got in to do that as two-year course and got taught by several industry professionals. When I graduated from that course I went to work at the BBC.
There was a visual effects department back in the day – this is sort of mid-90s – and I was working on a whole range of projects, from Red Dwarf to Silent Witness. I got to work for a few of the other prosthetic designers at the time. It’s a tiny little community in London. There’s probably a handful of companies that do what we do.
Then I worked for an incredible creature designer called Nick Dudman on the Harry Potter series, and spent about ten years working for Nick as well as other productions. Then towards the end of that I started doing my own projects. I had a little studio in my back garden and started doing a few projects for makeup designers and producers. I worked with a makeup designer called Jane Walker on The World’s End and a few months after that she was approached about joining Game of Thrones.
At the time, I was just doing odds and sods in my garage and my wife Sarah and I we were like ‘let’s just go for it’ and I went for the interview and somehow accidentally landed the gig!
We didn’t really have a workshop or a company. We started from the ground up and hired a workshop and built all the benches, hired all the equipment and pulled together a little team. This was halfway through Game of Thrones, in season four we joined, and that was it really. That was our first main project and it’s just taken off since then, so we’ve been really fortunate.
What was it like working on Game Of Thrones?
We were lucky because we were given the responsibility to design a lot of the creatures from scratch. I think the Night King was the first character we designed and then the following season there were loads of zombie characters. It was a really big undertaking.
I think it was season six that was a bit of a highlight for us because we created the prosthetics for some characters called The Children of the Forest. They were these sort of imp-like, foresty, female characters. They were just covered in prosthetics from head to toe, so they were pretty full-on makeups.
We had, I think, five characters, and we had five teams of four or five female prosthetic artists working on these characters each day, and their makeups took about seven or eight hours to apply in the morning. So we were starting around 1am and getting them ready for about 8am. Then we’d go on set, film with them all day, and finish about 6/7pm on the evening, then take them all out of the makeups and start again the following day.
So they were quite hardcore, full-on days. But they were probably the more memorable characters on Game of Thrones for us, but we were very lucky. There was a really wide range of characters and quite a good mix on the show for us.
How did you first get involved with Stranger Things?
We got approached by the Duffer brothers and one of the producers Iain Paterson. They approached us, I think, primarily because they were fans of our work on Game of Thrones and HBO’s Chernobyl had just come out as well. I think they were big fans of the radiation burn victims that we did on that, that we created with the makeup designer, Daniel Parker.
With the concept and the idea of Vecna, I think the overall feel had a similar feel and look to the textures and finishes of these radiation burns, as well. They approached us and they already had some concept work, some illustrations already designed by a wonderful concept artist Michael Mayer, so we already had blueprints.
They didn’t have an actor in mind at the time but they shared the concept with us and we had a lot of discussions about whether we would be approaching it from a purely prosthetic makeup point of view, or if it’d be a man in a rubber suit – they’d had a few experiences in the past with doing those sorts of things which weren’t necessarily that successful.
They cast Jamie Campbell Bower, I think it was in January 2020 and we did a full body life cast of Jamie and then we worked closely with Michael’s concept artist and augmented the design a little bit to fit over Jamie’s form. Then we sculpted Vecna’s makeup in modelling clay, and had to separate the sculpture up into lots of many different pieces. We created moulds for those which we then injected silicone rubbers and foam latex rubbers into. It was like a jigsaw puzzle, like a patchwork quilt of prosthetics and it’s about 25 pieces in total which all overlap each other.
We then did a couple of makeup tests, we did one in the UK with Jamie, and we had all the appliances which weren’t fully artworked, but we just glued everything onto him for him to get a feel for the weight and the process it was going to involve. And for us to make sure that everything conformed and fitted him correctly as well.
We had his mechanical hand built as well which had long aluminium finger extensions, which was all built into a glove that went onto his hand. Then had a foam latex sleeve which went over the top of that.
So it was the logistics of figuring out the time it was going to take to get all this glued on to Jamie. The process and figuring out a pattern with our team of who was going to be responsible for applying what where. It’s almost like an orchestrated dance that you do with this little team to try and fit your way around Jamie to get it all done in the quickest possible way!
Then we had a final makeup test and camera tests with him in the November of that year and we started building in January. Then we obviously all went into lockdown in the March, so we closed down for three months, and came back to the studio in June, and continued with Stranger Things. We had a couple of other projects on at the same time but Stranger Things was the first project we came back with. We had a full camera test in the November of 2020 and we went out to Atlanta to do the test. About three or four days later was our first shoot day with Jamie and that was for the sequence at the end of Episode Two, where Vecna kills Fred, the guy in the grave. That was the first scene we ever shot with Vecna.
How long did it take to put on the Vecna makeup?
The first makeup test was about eight and a half hours to get it all on him, figuring everything out with a team of four people. Then eventually as we got into the application day after day after day, we got it down to about six hours 20 was our quickest time but it averaged about seven hours.
I think we put Jamie in the makeup on maybe about 20 occasion all in all but the production was fantastic. We worked very closely with one of the producers who was also first AD, Tudor Jones who did the global schedule for Stranger Things and he scheduled it very well knowing the hours that Jamie and ourselves would be doing. So we never shot two days back to back. It would always be a day on, day off, day on… To be honest that’s rare. It was very well paced throughout the shoot, they were very very clever with that.
It was a four-man team and it became super slick in the end that we all had to be in the right place at the right time. Jamie always had his arm up at the right time. We started with him standing up, then sitting down, lying on his front, lying on his back. It was a well-oiled machine in the end!
Stranger Things Season 4 Vol. 2 is on Netflix now.