Spoiler alert: Don’t read if you haven’t watched “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab,” the seventh episode of “Strangers Things” Season 4, now streaming on Netflix.
The first three seasons of “Stranger Things” saw many memorable eldritch creatures terrorizing the citizens of Hawkins, Indiana, from the carnivorous Demogorgons to the colossal Mind-Flayer. But Season 4 introduces perhaps Vecna’s most terrifying foe yet, played by Jamie Campbell Bower as both the monster himself and his human form Henry Creel. A “dark wizard” who hunts down and murders teenagers struggling with depression and trauma, Vecna is the brainchild of BGFX, the prosthetic makeup company run by Barrie Gower.
Before joining Netflix’s smash hit, Gower won three Emmys for ‘Game of Thrones,’ which saw his company produce the prosthetics of the Night King, the icy leader of the White Walker hordes that threaten Westeros. When Gower got the call to work on ‘Stranger Things’ in 2019, he was approached because the show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers, were fans of his ‘Game of Thrones’ work and were looking to create a similar villain. for the next season of the show.
“With season four, they were looking for a big new iconic villain,” Gower says. “They decided they wanted their own version of the Night King, an iconic figure, and they were like, ‘Well, why not just contact the guys who created the Night King?'”
Vecna’s design was crafted by the show’s lead concept illustrator, Michael Maher Jr., who provided Gower and his team with the art on which to base the prosthetics. Vecna’s burnt, cadaverous look draws heavy inspiration from iconic “Nightmare on Elm Street” slasher Freddy Kruger, with the movies in general serving as a common thread for the season.
The design remained mostly consistent from the art to the practical effects stage, although there were some modifications to make the shape less elongated and fit a real human body. According to Gower, the Duffers were adamant that, unlike the Demogorgons or the Mind-Flayer of past seasons, the character is created almost entirely via practical effects, to create a more tangible human presence.
The BGFX team of approximately 15–20 people began the Vecna design process by casting a full body cast of Bower, then sculpting Vecna’s prosthetics with modeling clay. Although the process of creating Vecna was similar to that of the Night King, Vecna’s prosthetics were much more extensive: the Night King was mostly made up for the head, shoulders, and hands, while the team had to create a full human-sized body for Vecna. After spending a month sculpting the figure, the team had to submerge the base in water to activate a layer of soap between the clay and the paris body plaster, to help separate the prosthesis into different rooms. For the Night King and other characters, Gower’s team usually uses a water canister to overwhelm the creation. For Vecna, the company bought a three-meter square paddling pool, spent an entire day filling it with water, and left the Vecna sculpture overnight before it could be separated into separate parts.
“We’ve been running our business for about 10 years now and we’ve done pretty full makeup, but I think Vecna is definitely the most full prosthetic makeup we’ve ever done before,” Gower says. “It’s the same kind of process as the Night King but on a much larger scale.”
The costume ended up being separated into about 24 or 25 different pieces, made from foam latex or silicone rubber: a head top, a chin brace, a five-kilogram shoulder piece, braces for the chest and back, three separate devices for his right. arm, a foam latex right arm with large vines on it, a mechanical left hand created by animatronics designer Adam Kenan, three foam latex devices per leg, two foam latex shoes, and separate tendril parts glued to the body . Once designs for the various parts were approved, the crew also had to make 25 copies of each part, one for each day of filming, due to the way the prosthetics were applied to Bower each day.
“We approached this more as a full body prosthetic makeup rather than a guy in a creature suit,” Gower explains. “Because he was going to interact a lot and get closer to the cast, there would be a lot of movement. It was also a very painful role. Jamie did all of his own stunts, but we wanted the devices to be very form fitting due to the Vecna design, it’s very slim and sleek. And we didn’t want any buckling in the rubber or anything like that. So almost everything is glued to Jamie’s skin with a medical adhesive.
Many devices were deliberately designed to be very thin, especially his face coverings, to give Bower expressive facial movement. Gower’s team also avoided covering the armpits and other areas, to give him full limb movement. To ensure that Bower would be able to go to the bathroom every day while buried under the prosthetics, the suit was designed with landing gear that could be turned on and off, while his hand left was easy to put on and take off so that it could operate a toilet.
Once filming began, Gower worked with a crew of four, who would begin applying the prostheses to Bower at 2 or 3 a.m. each day. They timed themselves each day to try to complete the application as quickly as possible. The first day it took eight and a half hours to glue everything together and they finally managed to cut it down to around six hours and 20 minutes. The dentures were pre-painted, so once everything was in place, they were airbrushed and inked on the seams.
“Jamie was the fifth member of our team and he was so supportive and we gelled really well,” Gower said. “We had a great time during the application process. We would sit him in the chair, Jamie would throw a couple of tracks, it was usually thrash metal or heavy metal to get into Vecna mode. It was like that dance well orchestrated between the four of us and Jamie. The more we did the process, the more he knew where he had to be at any given time.
Before Bower began filming, the makeup team spent 10-15 minutes covering the prosthetics with a gloss gel, to give Vecna a shiny finish reminiscent of the other Upside Down creatures. After filming was complete, the visual effects team used CGI to animate the movement of veins and vines along Vecna’s body, removed Bower’s nose, and removed his pupils from the shots, resulting in the finished look seen in the show.
The majority of Gower and his team’s work was on Vecna, but they did additional prosthetics for two other characters. The first was Hopper (David Harbour), who wore prosthetics for flashback scenes before his character lost weight in the prison he was held captive in. The second is Victor Creel, Henry’s traumatized father, played in a meta-cast by the iconic Freddy Kruger performer himself, Robert Englund. Victor is a tragic man who saved himself from being murdered by Vecna by gouging out his eyes, so Gower’s team designed the scarred eyelid prostheses for the scene character where Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Robin (Maya Hawke) meet him in the asylum where he is being held.
As an ’80s kid who grew up watching the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies, Gower was a huge Freddy Kruger fan and wanted to become an artist who created horror movie monsters. For him and many on his team, working with Englund was a fanboy fantasy come true. While filming in November 2020, Gower and his team spent two hours a day applying the prostheses to Englund, who was a seasoned prosthetics professional.
“He’s an actor who probably had more prosthetics stuck to him than anybody else,” Gower says. “We couldn’t get away with it because he knew all the tricks, he knew everything. But we just sat there and he gave us all these anecdotes and all these stories about his career, and we were like kids in a candy store. It was a dream come true.”