“Now, this is a story all about how my life just flipped, turned Upside Down!” Wouldn’t we love to hear this narration from the Fresh Prince of Hawkins, Will Byers? Poor thing. One minute he was playing Dungeons and Dragons in Mike’s basement, and the next, just owing to one minor biking mishap, he ended up in the haunting alternate reality of the Upside Down. Do you think Stranger Things would be just as terrifying and gut-wrenching for a viewer if the distinction between the real world and the netherworld of Hawkins weren’t so stark and authentic?
Contrary to popular belief, while CGI and VFX are an integral part of the show, most of the bones of world-building that define the aesthetics of Stranger Things are the good old physical sets. And who better than production designer Chris Trujillo to give us a deeper understanding of this ominous world preserved in an 80s Time Capsule and its darker counterpart?
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Hawkins: A Stranger Things homage to the 80s
A suburban utopia. Pretty country houses with winding driveways, cul-de-sacs, a big school, and the downtown. Everything looks right out of a small-town America postcard. The quainter the place, the greater the possibility of something sinister going on. Think, The Good Place. Having said that, conceptualizing a time period that is not contemporary can look like a Hodge-Podge of a stereotypical mess if not treated right.
In an interview with Netflix Tudum, Production designer Chris Trujillo revealed what it takes to “furnish an ’80s multiverse.” “It’s always about finding the most period-correct, authentic elements,” says Trujillo. Apparently, he and his team recreated the setting of the fictional town of Hawkins in a neighborhood in Atlanta that have “houses that haven’t changed much since the ’70s or ’80s… including all the knickknack[s] and bric-a-brac.” This allowed them to get the layers of 70s and 80s life accurately. The team also chased down government auctions to procure equipment for school, the sheriff’s station, and even the lab.
The fourth season even saw a change in location with California into the mix. The team shot in New Mexico as they found the perfect house for the Byers and Eleven. According to Trullijo, the town they found “was a straight-up untouched, un-remodeled time capsule. The lighting fixtures and the hardware that existed in the space were exactly what we wanted.” Apart from a few finishing touches like the wallpaper or the carpet, “the architectural bones of it were just quintessential,” added Chris.
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The contrasting Macabre of the Upside Down
Let’s talk about the Dark side of the Moon AKA the Upside Down. It’s basically the imagery of the picture-perfect Hawkins left to rot with pests and monsters infesting every nook and cranny. Instant heebie-jeebies. The Stranger Things production team basically filmed Hawkins part of the script first and then transformed the same sets for the Upside Down. They had a “pretty specific idea” for the aesthetics, which was “spreading disease and this set of tentacles and spores.”
Before the visual effects take over, the sets get a new dressing with “rubbers, foams, plastics, all kinds of different paints.” These fabricated the ever-growing “crazy vines” contributing to the eerie, slimy display of this alternate dimension. To show the yang to the yin of the Buyers’ house or Mike’s basement, they would “float different kinds of organic material in the air.” Some sort of “organic pussy willow fluff” among others was used to create “an Upside Down tentacle-building factory.”
Another addition to the spooky world this season was the Creel House and the even spookier Grandfather Clock. Trujillo illustrated, “I find grandfather clocks inherently creepy. Just by their nature, they tend to loom and surprise you with their timing.” They found the perfect one for season 4, probably “in an estate sale or from an antique vendor.” The clock was “meant to be a focal point… a physical metaphor for the dark realization of power.“ And boy, did it deliver!
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We tend to forget how much work goes into creating even the smallest of sets. To create two versions of the same, we tip our hat to the entire production team for the sensational world of Stranger Things. What did you think of these production designs in the show?