Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Demigorgon is in the Details

Or, Dean really needs to learn how to use video editing software

One of the best follows on Twitter, if you like film, is Todd Vaziri. He is a visual effects artist who has work on the likes of Star Wars and Trek, Transformers, Mission Impossible and more. You may not know him, but you know his work:

One of the things I love about following him is the attention he has taught me to pay to films. He often does breakdowns of how things were shot, blocked or achieved. More than that, while I have always been a detailed movie watcher, I now pay a lot more attention to the how and why of those details.

I recently finished watching Stranger Things 2, upon which there has been a ton of praise heaped, and deservedly so. And while some of the things it does, like relying too much on nostalgia, it is fantastic storytelling. One of those reasons is the details, and I want to take the time to talk about my favorite one.

***Spoilers and crappy screencaps from Stranger Things 2 follow***

So here's my favorite detail. It's in E7 at about 15:20, although it pops up a couple times:

Let's talk about this set design. Set design is an art to itself. When done well, it communicates much about the characters who occupy it. For example, let's say you have a mob boss who fancies himself a king:

On the nose? Perhaps; but you learn everything you need to know about his drive and goals without a word being spoken. Can you use a chair to communicate a character, an environment? You bet. Or, as in the case of The Lost Sister, you need to communicate they are rebels, living outside of society, what do you do? Put them in a decrepit warehouse covered in graffiti, of course.

Good set design is separated from bad by serving the story. Great set design does more than that, and Stranger Things has great set design. So, let's look at that still again - what's the detail?

Everything about it screams rebel and outcast, right? But our protagonists aren't just outcasts - they have mental powers which have driven them outside of society. How do you communicate that?

Webster defines bedlam thusly:
a place, scene, or state of uproar and confusion

Sorry, that's definition three. Let's look at two:
an asylum for the mentally ill

Sorry, sorry, the graffiti says O'Bedlam. Why? The word Bedlam comes from the Bethlem Mental Hospital - fitting enough for our girls, but let's dig deeper. The O'Bedlam graffiti is a reference to the poem Tom O'Bedlam, which became a term for beggars and vagrants who had or pretended to have a mental illness, released from Bethlem. In fact, in King Lear, Edgar disguises himself as a mad beggar - Tom O'Bedlam.

In fact, Eight's lair is littered with clues about her character, as well as her relationship with Eleven, and their relationship with the outside world.

King Mob was a radical group in the 60's and 70's, violent and celebrated killers. King Mob was later the name of a character in The Inivisbles, and this isn't the only reference to it:

Wikipedia describes it this way:

Barbelith is the name of the "placenta" for humanity; a satellite-like object located on the dark side of the moon. It recurs throughout the story as a supernatural moon seeming both intelligent and benign. Barbelith's role is like that of a placenta in that it connects the hologram of our subjective reality to the realm outside of our space-time, the domain of the magic mirror, and helps humans to realize their true nature beyond the subjective concept of "self".
Prior to contact with Barbelith, most characters undergo some sort of trauma.
 This is the graffiti that appears prominently as Eleven enters the warehouse; very appropriate, given her trauma, and trying to find her true self - exactly what lead her there. This plays even more as the episode progresses; in two conversations following her introduction to the gang, Eight and Eleven have a series of conversations. They are shot like this, as Eight explains that this is where she and Eleven belong:

A series of shot/reverse shot, medium depth, over the shoulder. Notice the location and set- first on the roof, as Eight shows her the butterfly, with nothing around them, in the open air, implying freedom. Then in Eleven's bedroom; it's very maternal. She's made comfortable as Eight talks to her, with no clutter, no legible graffiti, but bookshelves and light, and the background is mostly out of focus.

But this all occurs before the exchange at the 15 minute mark, before we learn anything sinister about the gang - and the O'Bedlam and King Mob graffiti is apparent and in focus. Eleven then meets the gang- "properly this time" - and learns what they really do. Eleven and Eight don't have a one-on-one until almost the 33 minute mark. This is how it's presented:

The background is in evidence; Eleven feels removed from her surroundings. And a neon sign blares SPIRITUAL ADVISOR; except the sign is only part lit, as Eight is an incomplete guide.
It switches back to a over the shoulder shot/reverse, but this time the positons are reversed - Eleven is in the chair, seated higher than Eight. Eight is at home; Eleven is not. Eleven has the power this time, not Eight. Eleven welcomed the conversation, and the background was blurred the first time; now:

Where there was no graffiti visible in the first conversation; now it blares a warning. The palmist's sign was not seen in the first exchange; but as the conversation progresses and Eight moves from pleading to trickery, the glow of the light shines on both of them, reminding us Eight is not an adequate adviser.

Eight is completely transformed from loving sister to sinister manipulator. I could break this episode down a million different ways; it is brilliant from top to bottom. But what it does so, so well is build on itself - not just the writing and the story, but the layers that support it. The set design, the blocking and the shooting are so brilliant, so subtle, you don't even realize all the information you're being provided with.

So, shout outs to Paula Kramer, Candace Kualii, Victor Giarrusso, Jess Royal, A.J. Bruno, Meghan Gillenwater, Molly Johnson and whoever else was involved in some brilliant set design.


Dean is the author of the 3024AD series of science fiction stories (which should be on YOUR summer reading list). You can read his other ramblings and musings on a variety of topics (mostly writing) on his blog. When not holed up in his office
tweeting obnoxiously writing, he can be found watching or playing sports, or in his natural habitat of a bookstore.