‘Stranger Things’ Editors Reveal VFX Secrets Behind the Show

Stranger Things” is one of the most visual effects heavy show on television — the recent season 4 finale featured more VFX shots than the entire third season combined. While some of those VFX shots are obvious — the ground splitting open into lava, a horde of demonic bats attacking the heroes — others are designed to be hidden from the audience.

For example, one of the most memorable scenes of the season featured a return appearance by Dacre Montgomery, whose character Billy died last season, as a vision torturing his stepsister Max (Sadie Sink). However, Montgomery was unable to physically return to shoot the season due to COVID-19; the season shot beginning in 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, and Australia’s strict lockdown rules prevented Montgomery from leaving his home country. In order to circumnavigate the issue, series editor Dean Zimmerman said the team used editing and digital engineering tricks to insert Montgomery into the scenes with Max.

“We actually had to shoot the Max side of the cemetery in Atlanta, then digitally track the plates, then send them to Austrailia to set up a kind of stage that he would walk onto, and we edited those together with Max,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman spoke on a panel with fellow “Stranger Things” editors Katheryn Naranjo and Casey Cichocki at a Microsoft Production Summit in Burbank, Calif. on July. On the panel, moderated by Raymond Thompson of Avid Technology, the three spoke about their work on the series, the technology they used for editing the series and discussed some behind the scenes secrets that went into the show.

During the panel, Zimmerman also spoke about the challenges of editing the series during Season 4, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Zimmerman, production went eight weeks over schedule for Season 4, but the release date went unchanged, causing the editors to lose eight weeks in their schedule. In addition, one of the editors had to drop out of working on the season, forcing Zimmerman to take on his episodes as well as the ones he was already assigned to work on.

“Having to catch up to 300 days of shooting in a matter of weeks was very challenging and difficult, because I definitely pride myself on working and being such a perfectionist to a fault, that’s one of those things where it’s just how it was taught and I don’t really know any other way,” Zimmerman said. “It was a very challenging season, but the reward of it was so worth it.”

Zimmerman also said that the VFX editors of the show faced even worse crunch during the season, due to the sheer amount of work required by them for the visual-effects heavy show. According to him, the work for the show was so demanding that Netflix had some visual effects editors stop working on other shows they produced to devote more resources to “Stranger Things.”

“Netflix was creating a lot of stress and anxiety with just, ‘How are we going to get the shots finished to release the show?’” Zimmerman said.

And even with the season out for three weeks, the editors’ work still isn’t done; according to Zimmerman, the editors are still uploading new shots to the episodes out on Netflix with updated VFX, as the series creators the Duffer Brothers want the show to be as perfect as possible.

“There are some shots that were fine, you wouldn’t notice the issues, but the Duffer Brothers, just for archive purposes, want to replace them. So we’re still uploading shots,” Zimmerman said. “It’s all about the details for them.”

“Stranger Things” Season 4 is currently streaming on Netflix.