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Netflix Streams That 1980s Movie You Missed: Creating the Visual Language of ‘Stranger Things’ Season 2

"Expectations were really high going in, but they seem to have met the challenge, keeping the same great characters and delivering some even scarier and more exciting events," says Tim Ives.

Stranger Things proved to be one of last year’s biggest hits for Netflix. Dedicated fans feasted repeatedly on what has been described as a love letter to the films of the 1980s. The show depicts shadowy goings-on in small-town America and introduced audiences to the Upside Down, a dark reality adjacent to our own universe.

When their friend disappears, a quartet of adolescent misfits—aided by the town sheriff (David Harbour), the missing boy’s mother (Winona Ryder) and a young girl with amazing telekinetic powers (Millie Bobby Brown)—find themselves pitted against both government forces and a malevolent entity from the other side of here.

Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Will (Noah Schnapp)
Photo by Jackson Davis/Netflix

Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer—aka the Duffer Brothers, a writer/director team responsible for 2015’s ingenious low-budget feature thriller Hidden as well as Stranger Things—selected Tim Ives as their principal director of photography for Stranger Things‘ first season—he shot six of the eight episodes—and have since reteamed with him for another half-dozen episodes of the second season, which debuted in time for Halloween. In a relatively short period of time, Ives has amassed credits that include House of Cards for Netflix and the Mr. Robot pilot for USA Network, along with 45 episodes of HBO’s Girls.

“First season was a kind of proof of concept for the Duffer Brothers’ vision,” recalls Ives. “This time out, expectations were really high going in, but they seem to have met the challenge, keeping the same great characters and delivering some even scarier and more exciting events.”

This year, Ives elected to continue the first season’s template of digital acquisition with RED cameras and Leica Summilux-C lenses provided through Sim. “Last year we were on the [RED] Dragon, but this time out we moved up to the [RED] Weapon,” he reports. “The new [Helium] sensor looked clearer and cleaner, and after testing the look versus the old camera, [Technicolor colorist] Skip Kimball and I definitely preferred it. Structurally, capture at 4K would be quite similar, but the look and quality of the image was superior when shooting 8K and going down to 6K for mastering, then down-resing to 4K for streaming. There are more extensive and challenging VFX sequences on the second season, so we felt giving the VFX vendors the biggest and best possible image to work with was going to help their end of things.”

Mike (Finn Wolfhard)

Ives set most of the show’s look in-camera. “We used a LUT this season that allowed for a bit more color in the image but was really changed only slightly from what we used previously,” he notes. “The images seen on set through the OLED monitors give us a look on playback that is 90 percent of the way to our final look, which is very important for this particular show. Part of Stranger Things’ success, I believe, owes to the mood and the tone of the imagery, and the Brothers and I have to make sure during shooting that the scary look is coming through, and coming through at the right level of intensity.”

Much of that scary look involves the use of atmospherics that evoke the look of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, along with something of the moody mystery of Alien. Ives also cites the “heightened reality” seen in the work of still photographer Gregory Crewdson (@crewdsonstudio) as inspiration. “The Brothers and I still believe that some of the time a certain level of obscurity will be beneficial,” Ives maintains. “It may be scarier when you can’t quite see something than when you see everything. That idea goes back to the shark not working right on the original Jaws, which they wound up turning to their benefit.”

Noah Schnapp, who plays Will Byers, checks out the framing on a scene.
Photo by Jackson Davis/Netflix

Ives remains at pains to avoid giving away any plot points of the new season, but he readily agrees with the assessment that it is a bigger and more ambitious production. “Even so, we weren’t looking to reinvent the show,” he says. “Our fans have certain expectations, so there needs to be a certain visual familiarity.”

That principle extends to the visual rhythms. On Stranger Things, the team has eschewed contemporary quick-cut approaches. “The kids are all trained actors, pros, some of them Broadway performers, so the Brothers are able to get the whole scene in-camera without cutting around a problem. That fits with the way the guys seem to favor classic storytelling in that they don’t want to overcut and don’t feel any need to resort to superfast cutting.”

The cinematographer likens shooting the series to shooting a feature film. “With the exception of big action scenes, this was pretty much a single-camera show, though we always carried two cameras,” he relates. “It takes a couple extra days to do each of these shows owing to the kind of coverage needed to tell the story. We will cross-shoot at times, usually for performance reasons in very emotional scenes. That can be very satisfying, getting to see the actors working off one another with a continuity of responses. However, if the light does not work for both angles, that’s not going to happen, because we do have this established high standard for the imagery.

Police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) take stock.

“With more intimate scenes, we tend to keep the camera still,” Ives continues, “perhaps limiting movement to a slow push in on the dolly. Or we’d have a slide-and-glide to achieve lateral movement, just for that perspective change or to get a better look into someone’s eyes as the scene unfolds. Other more dynamic sequences do involve us moving the camera a lot. Owing to our being a first-year show before, we didn’t have access to some tools that we wanted, but now, in addition to the 50-foot Technocrane, we have drones. We use these to provide a sense of location and cover the action, which often involves sneaking around the characters as they are themselves sneaking around trying to figure things out.”

There is nearly as much continuity behind the camera as in front of it. “Pretty much my whole team was back for this season,” says Ives. “While the show involves some long hours, we all try to stay kind while looking out for one another.” Returnees include gaffer Dan Murphy, B-camera operator Jeff Crumbley and key grip Ray Brown. “Plus there’s A-camera operator Bob Gorelick—the famous Bob Gorelick, who’s like a brother to me—and dolly grip Chris Chapman, who should be in Local 600 [International Cinematographers Guild] because the guy can move a camera mount like nobody else. Whether it is a Technocrane or dolly, he has got mad skills.”

Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and a portal to the Upside Down

Ives acknowledges that the second season leans a bit more heavily on VFX to produce the story’s ambitious visuals. “We did a lot of the Upside Down practically last season, with all sorts of strange particulate atmosphere generated live and blown around on set. We turned our color sensor on the camera down to 2200 to make things go blue and underexposed a bit to make the look work, and then VFX enhanced that. This year we carried the look of that environment through, but we had to use more greenscreen and VFX with the expanded creature issues.”

Practical effects were still employed often this season. “We use practical gunshots in-camera, without VFX enhancement, but then when you need to see the flash of a gun without seeing the muzzle, that was done with lighting. Spielberg used that kind of effect often in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is another 1980s touchstone for the series, so it made sense to include it in our wheelhouse of tools. You just need to have a strong dimmer package and dimmer board operator to make that look credible.”

Max (Sadie Sink), a new character in season 2

The biggest evolution in the camera department’s toolset was the move to LED fixtures. “We invested heavily, especially on interiors,” Ives acknowledges. “We bounced them and used them directly. It was exciting to see how fast the tech has changed and how much they have improved it in just a short while. We still used tungsten units for certain types of looks, like when simulating hot daylight coming through windows on stage sets. We gelled them back a bit, cooled to give a slight contrast in color from the interior practicals.”

Ives’ involvement on the digital intermediate for season 2 was achieved primarily long distance. “I live in New York and was working on the final season of Girls for HBO,” he explains. “But that didn’t really present any issues, and in fact it shows how the Brothers’ insistence on getting the look right while shooting paid off, since the dailies had us locked in very close to the ideal look. And Skip Kimball, who is also Jim Cameron’s colorist and will next be doing the Avatar sequels, is someone I’ve worked with and trust. [Kimball’s work on season 1 included adding a layer of scanned film grain from period film stock to add an extra dose of 1980s texture.] And of course I have faith in the Brothers’ taste and judgment, so we’re in good hands there.”

Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) at season 2’s Snow Ball

Ives got positive feedback from his daughter about the show’s first season during a phone call, but he won’t have to rely on long distance this time out. “I’m really looking forward to seeing this season at home with my family. I just know it’s going to be an exciting show.” 

Color and Sound Set the Tone of Stranger Things
Matt and Ross Duffer discuss the collaborative nature of a project with the scope of Stranger Things and the impact that color artists like Skip Kimball, Technicolor senior digital intermediate colorist, have on creating the show’s visual identity.

“It’s been incredible working with Skip,” Ross Duffer says. “He really is a magician with these tools and what he’s able to bring out in the footage. I mean, he’s able to take what’s there and really elevate it. I remember when we first met him, we were talking about how we wanted the show to feel like one of these classic ’80s films. He won us over immediately because he started talking in a very detailed way about all the different grain that he has. He developed this whole system to emulate the look we wanted to achieve.”

Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer
Photo by Steve Dietl

“It’s not ’emulate.’ I think he scanned real grain,” Matt Duffer corrects.

“It’s something that’s very specific to Skip and Technicolor, that he has this technology,” continues Ross. “The minute we saw it applied to some test footage that we shot, it just blew us away.”

Matt explains how they were able to maintain connection to these critical processes. “We were mixing and coloring right next door, so many times we would go look at the visuals, and then we’d walk 10 feet to the audio mixing room and listen to it.”

This close collaboration is important as the vision for the show evolves, characters develop and the story takes control. “I remember in season 1 how the color changed over the course of several months as we were working on it. And the sound, our sound developed,” says Matt. “We’ve all found the voice of the show—it’s that language that we’ve developed with Technicolor specifically.”

Download the December 2017 issue of Digital Video magazine