Part Two STRANGER THINGS Viral Vecna: From Concept Art To Nightmarish Reality In The (Prosthetic) Flesh

Makeup artist Barrie Gower spills the Upside-Down secrets of bringing Vecna to life (with grisly photos and videos!)

By Noah Levine · @ZProductionz · June 20, 2022, 2:19 PM PDT
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Photos courtesy of Netflix.

Barrie Gower is no stranger to the world of horror. Growing up as a monster kid and eventually learning how to be a make-up effects artist, Gower has worked on films like 28 Days Later, Last Night in Soho, The Green Knight, A Cure for Wellness, No Time to Die, Shaun of the Dead, AVP: Alien vs. Predator, and so much more. On the television front, Gower and his company BGFX have contributed to the legendary series Game of Thrones, most notably designing the iconic Night King character.

BGFX has once again made waves in pop culture with their phenomenal work on the newest season of Stranger Things. This season’s big bad, Vecna, is all over TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter. The sleek, gruesome, terrifying creature's effectiveness is thanks to Barrie and his phenomenal effects team. In Part 2 of our conversation, Gower broke down the entire Vecna design process, touching on the team's first reaction to the concept art all the way to the daily multi-hour application process with Jamie Campbell Bower. In case you missed it, make sure to check out Part 1 of this interview here.

*This article contains spoilers for Stranger Things 4: Volume 1*


How much did the Duffer Brothers reveal to you about Vecna's origin? Did they withhold information from you?

The first contact we had with them, they said, 'We want this character to be fairly humanoid and human in shape, but he's obviously from the Upside Down in some shape or form.' And they were very clear that they wanted this character to be practical. They've got this history of fantastic creatures in Stranger Things. There's a lot of visual effects, there's a lot of CGI, but they were very keen to do this grounded '80s-inspired, practical character. So when we first got the concept art, we knew it was called Vecna. That's all we knew. And we were pretty much like everybody else after they'd seen the trailers for this season, we didn't really know his origin and backstory. But then, a few weeks after that, we started getting scripts about who this was. When we first saw the designs, we thought it was the character Billy.

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Did the design have to change once you learned about Jamie's casting and the origin story?

We had to make a few little changes and compromises to fit it over a human form. Because the original design is really similar. It's very sleek and beautifully stylized, but there are a few things once we had Jamie's body cast and his dimensions. So there are a few things we slightly pulled in and pulled out and changed here and there. Things like his left hand. They were saying, 'We think we're just going to completely augment his left hand, it's always going to be digital.' So he'd just have a green glove on. And we were like, 'Well, we could probably bring a practical version of this to the table.' And we built a glove with the finger extension, and then we had a foam latex sleeve over the top of that. There are a lot of shots where the hand has been replaced, because obviously, it penetrates skulls. But there are quite a few shots in the show where it's Jamie wearing our practical glove.

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What is he doing while you work on his makeup for all of these hours?

You know, the majority of makeups you do head, shoulders, and hands. So you have somebody reclined in a makeup chair, you'd start the process, and then you'd recline them at some point, and they just go to sleep for three or four hours while you are sticking the makeup on. With Jamie, it was full body, and there were four of us doing his makeup. It was like this orchestrated dance where we'd sit him down, prep his skin, get a bald cap on him, and he'd be seated while Duncan and I would start the process. And then we'd stand him up and stick another couple of bits on him. We had a massage table, and we'd lie him face down, glue his back on, flip him over, glue his chest on, stand him up, get his arms on, stand him up, get his legs on, sit him on a barstool, get him to put his arms up and down, and it got to a point where it was this well-oiled dance. Our makeup application time would usually consist of a lot of music, lots of heavy metal, and thrash metal. And Jamie would be getting into the zone, he'd be watching movies, documentaries, séances, all kinds of stuff we'd be watching. And it was just a really lovely little family.

What was more difficult to design, the Night King or Vecna?

I think both for different reasons. So we joined Game of Thrones in season four, and that was our first brief, to design the Night King. So we worked very closely with David [Benioff] and Dan [D.B. Weiss]. We obviously had the book descriptions from George R.R. Martin, and there was already a little bit of concept art and fan art that we looked at. But we worked closely with a concept designer here in the UK called Howard Swindell, who we worked with to design the Night King. It was actually quite a short design process that was really only over a few weeks, and we kind of nailed the design, sculpted the makeup and did a makeup test. The makeup test was super successful, with a few little nuances to change a couple of shades in the color. But that was the head, hands, and some arm pieces, so the coverage on the body wasn't anywhere near Vecna. So I think with Vecna, the design process was slightly easier because it was already established. [The Duffer Brothers] very clearly had an image in their mind of what they wanted. But I think the actual build, and the process of creating Vecna was far greater than the Night King because there were so many different stages.

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Nine times out of ten, if you're doing creature full body stuff, it's usually a suit. So it's a pullover, top, bottom, arms, legs, head, or whatever. But we made the decision quite early that this character was very slender, it was interacting an awful lot with the leads, it was gonna have dialogue. We wanted it to be super skin tight, so it was prosthetics or overlapping appliances rather than a rubber monster suit. Suppose about twenty-odd appliances that all overlapped each other, pre-glued to Jamie's skin with medical adhesive. So you start off with this whole body sculpture, and then you have to separate the sculpture up into lots of different pieces. And to do that, you need to do what's called floating sculpture.

We bought a children's paddling pool, and we put it into the workshop, and it took a day to fill. And then we submerged the Vecna body into the water and left it for two nights or something, and that water allows the clay to just kind of separate from the body. Then we just had this really long mold-making process, making all these molds headed by an amazing mold maker here called John Tooby, and he helped design them all. Then we have to run all the appliances and a few different materials in silicone and foam latex. Every day you film with a character like this, at the end of each shoot day, you're removing everything with mineral oil, and all the pieces get trashed, so you can't reuse anything, so we had duplicate sets. We made like twenty-six duplicate sets of appliances for Vecna. And because it takes so long to glue it all over his body, you have to have everything pre-artworked. So we had a painting team here who were pre-painting all these pieces, we had a full-size mannequin of Jamie's body, and we pre-glued a set of appliances to it. Our team here pre-artworked everything, so we had a master copy that we could use for the duplicate sets, it's really quite a laborious technical process.

Did you take any Vecna souvenirs home? Were you allowed?

We've got a complete set of appliances left over, which is a reference for [mysterious pause] whatever is to come. We've got his mechanical glove here. You know, I've got footage of my daughter at home wearing his glove, so we've got a few bits of memory.

What's something you wish more people understood about the makeup effects side of the industry?

People are unaware of the length of time it takes to get an actor into a makeup by veteran makeup artists. It's a super long process. And I think another thing that people are usually oblivious to is how long it takes to get somebody out of this at the end of the night as well because, I think a lot of people think it's like Mrs. Doubtfire; Pull it off, and that's it. It's done. This stuff is like medical adhesive, which if you try and rip off, you're going to take your skin with it as well. So it's a painstaking process at the end of the day, trying to remove all this stuff. When you've got a character like this that's covered from head to toe, you have to take into consideration that Jamie is gonna have to go to the loo at some point. We had to incorporate special bits and pieces into the makeup, so he had a special little midriff kind of contraption where we could unhook something from the back and kind of help him go to the loo. When you have a big science fiction show like Stranger Things, people often think that these sorts of characters are completely digital now. So it's been great seeing an awful lot of messages over the last couple of weeks with people saying, 'I didn't realize that was makeup,' it's very complimentary to think that our work might pass as digital effects. We had this reaction with The Green Knight as well, you know, quite often after that, people thought the Green Knight was CGI, rather than a guy in a makeup, which I was really surprised about. Then the director, David Lowery went online and said that it was practical effects.

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When Max rips off a piece of Vecna's neck, I assume that was digitally added?

We had a bit of a gag on the day where we pre-sliced one of Vecna's vines so it could be torn, but there was always going to be some kind of VFX or augmentation there. We had it so Sadie [Sink] could pull up and tear it like that, and it kind of broke, then we'd reset it. We did about three takes, I think. But it was always very much gonna be a VFX kind of break.

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Was your team also responsible for the grisly Vecna victims throughout the season?

We personally didn't. I think a lot of the bodies are done digitally, but there were some beautiful dummies made by this chap called Jason Hamer. I've seen some photos recently online of Jason and his team with really beautiful, stunning likeness dummies. There was quite a mix of teams who did practical effects on Stranger Things. Bill Corso and Andrew Clement were responsible for a couple of things. And I think AutonomousFX made some bits as well. Amy Forsythe has been the head of makeup and special makeup effects departments for the prior three seasons. We were really fortunate to be brought in to be responsible for this big character and for Robert's makeup as well. We did like a fat makeup on David Harbour as well to sort of fatten him up. It's a makeup effects dream, Stranger Things, it really is.

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Team Vecna
Prosthetic Makeup Designer :
Barrie Gower

Vecna Concept Art :
Michael Maher

Sculptors :
Duncan Jarman
Patt Foad

Mould Makers :
John Eldred-Tooby
Barry Best
Steve Byrne
Sierra Martin
Abi Harcourt-Smith

Silicone techs :
Mike Byrne
Ailsa Lawson
Harvey Smith

Art finishers / Painters :
Paula Eden
Amie Aspden
Joel Hall

Fabricators :
Becky Johnson
Paul Vincent

Mechanic (Vecna's finger extensions) :
Adam Keenan

Dentures :
Chris Lyons / Fangs FX

Contact lenses :
'Eyeworks for Film' and 'Eye Ink FX'

On-set application team
Department head :
Barrie Gower
Co-department head :
Duncan Jarman
Makeup effects artists :
Mike Mekash
Eric Garcia
Nix Herrera
Contact Lens Tech :
Nikia Mercandante