Awards Daily TV talks to Stranger Things visual effects supervisor Marc Kolbe about the inspirations for his creations on the hit Netflix series.
Stranger Things took the TV world by storm when it arrived on Netflix last year, dragging us back to the 1980s where eerie events are afoot in small town America. We’re gleefully reminded memories of films by the likes of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter as Stranger Things feeds our longing for scares and nostalgia. Marc Kolbe served as visual effect supervisor on the series and brought array of special effects experience to tackle the Netflix project.
I talked to Marc Kolbe about how he helped create the era look of Stranger Things, his influences, as well as how he continues to learn with each new project.
Marc Kolbe, you have worked on a number of things in various different roles – Independence Day, Cloud Atlas, Where the Wild Things Are. What part did you play in those projects? How did they change the arc of your career?
Everything I do I learn something new. The day I stop learning is the day I quit the business. Every project has its own set of challenges. Where the Wild Things Are was creating the faces, creating the animation, and figuring out how to make these creatures look alive. Cloud Atlas was more of a visual effects producing role. I oversaw two separate units at the same time. They all have their unique set of challenges. You take what you learn, and apply it to the next project.
A learning curve.
Yeah. So when I went onto Stranger Things, I had worked a lot with animatronics and guys in suits. You bring that experience and knowledge to this project.
What sort of films and TV inspired you as a kid, and now, that influences you to work in this field? Back in the 80’s perhaps.
I am a seventies kid so I grew up watching The Rockford Files, Magnum P.I., McCloud – a lot of old school TV shows. My dad was a director for television for many years as well. When I started, digital effects didn’t really exist, the special effects were practical. It was a brand new world to grow up in.
So on Stranger Things, I think you are aware it is doing very well. I think it took people by surprise, a show set in the 80′s. Congratulations on the huge part you played. Are you a fan of science fiction and horror?
I dabbled in everything. I never really had one genre. Horror scared me. That was probably my least favorite, but I loved the more mentally scary movies.
Were you involved in the actual look of the show? The film footage is almost like it was made in the 80’s. Was that part of your role?
I was involved in the visual effects side, the monster animating and designing the visual effects. The overall look was all of us, the DP, Chris [Trujillo] our set designer – everybody had a little bit to say. We got everybody together to really talk about it. The visual effects crew were great too. We got to learn what we could do digitally and what we could do practically and how we could piece things together.
You mention the monster in the final chapter. Did you use computer imagery, digital, costumes, make-up, practical effect – all different techniques?
We started with the guy in the suit and animatronics parts, then based a digital model on that. There were limitations with it. They could not run or jump or cut through ceilings or walls. We went back and forth between digital and practical. We were hoping it was enough so that the audience really didn’t know what was what.
No they didn’t, definitely not.
And that was a key thing we wanted to do. Do as much practical and then enhance it with the digital side, so we have a nice balance.
Yeah, the visual effects are quite seamless. We do see quite a lot of visual effects on television now, but we are used to seeing it more at the movies, on the big screen. In Stranger Things when I saw quite a bit of background on it I was like “Oh I didn’t know that was visual effects.” There was a lot of stuff. Any you could mention? Parts you are proud of that audiences would perhaps not recognize as visual effects?
There is a lot what we call invisible effects. The house when it was snowing. We didn’t have snow in Atlanta, so we ended up putting it in digitally. The military lab. We did not have all the locations. We ended up added the lab in different situations. For example, when the sheriff is driving up to the gate, we added the lab. When we get into the Upside Down, we try to do some set design where the actors were walking. But we couldn’t take over the whole town and added the rest digitally. Because it was a period piece, there were many times there were things, like newer cars in the background, we could remove them. Or change the signs.
That’s the stuff we would not notice at home. I know there are people that sit and look for these mistakes.
How much creative freedom do you have in your role then?
Quite a bit. It is really nice working with the [Duffer] brothers. They let me work. We talk it over, discuss the ideas, make suggestions. “What about this? What about that?” I go off and come back and ask “What do you think?” They may say, “A bit more this or a bit more that.” So, it’s very collaborative.
What do you hope to achieve next in the show? And are there any other ventures in the future that you have perhaps not achieved yet in the field?
Every show is a new challenge. For me it is getting onto another challenging project. Something that tests the type of work I’m doing.
It is a really good show. The visual effects side of it. It has The Goonies friendship feel. The exciting elements from the 80’s we loved as kids. And the buzz is building. What is it like now with all that buzz? Do you hear people talk about it? What do family and friends think of the show?
Oh, they love it. You hear a lot more about the project, how they love it, what it reminds them of, that sort of impact. That it why it was so successful. It brought back an era that everyone hadn’t really seen in a while. Reminded them of their childhood. The kids on the show are amazing. They really bring a lot to the project. A really great cast. And great achievements from the crew to put all this together.
So you got to work with the young actors a lot?
Yeah. Especially with the demogorgon at the end. They’re launching rocks at it which was great for the kids as there was nothing there. We gave them a visual. They brought their acting up a notch. It is hard to act when there is nothing to act with.
Kids have a good imagination though.
Yeah, very good imagination.