Emmys: How the 'Stranger Things' VFX team brought Sean Astin's bloody death to life
It’s the moment that had Stranger Things fans screaming: adorkable Radio Shack manager Bob Newby (played by geek icon Sean Astin) uses his technical savvy to save the day, only to become chow for the monstrous Demodogs. Bob’s shocking death scene is arguably the biggest highlight of the show’s second season, replacing #JusticeForBarb with #JusticeForBob as a trending Twitter topic. It also provides some of the best evidence of the show’s Emmyworthy special effects, overseen up by husband-and-wife F/X team of Paul and Christina Graff.
The Graffs founded Crazy Horse Effects — which has previously worked on such buzzy TV shows as Game of Thrones and The Pacific, as well as movies such as The Wolf of Wall Street and Inherent Vice — and joined Stranger Things in its sophomore year as the show prepared to expand its world(s) and menagerie of creatures. “We got a phone call out of nowhere,” Paul Graff remembers. “We didn’t even know what Stranger Things was when we got the call! We had to catch up and were really floored when we saw it. We felt like this was the best thing we’d seen in a long time and couldn’t believe somebody asked us to work on it.” (Watch our video interview with the Graffs above.)
The Graffs were equally floored when they received an outline of the season’s eighth episode, “The Mind Flayer,” on which it was revealed that poor Bob was destined for the graveyard. “He was actually supposed to die earlier,” Paul Graff reveals. “But he was such an asset that the Duffers [series masterminds Matt and Ross Duffer] kept him alive for as long as possible. I think they always wanted to have a person that really means something die, just to underline the seriousness of the situation.” Adds Christina Graff: “Bob is so endearing and such a sweetheart throughout the entire season. It was really a disaster for us to think about even killing him! It needed to be a heroic death because he’s such an important man.”
Bob’s last stand takes place in the darkened, Demodog-infested Hawkins National Laboratory, where he’s trying to protect his girlfriend, Joyce (Winona Ryder), and her troubled son, Will (Noah Schnapp — whose Season 2 performance also deserves Emmys attention). With his Radio Shack know-how, Bob brings the lab’s power back online so the others can get to safety. Just as he’s going to join them, his scent is picked up by the demonic canines, forcing him to literally run for his life.
It’s a chase scene that’s reminiscent of James Cameron’s classic action sequel in Aliens — thanks in no small part to Paul Reiser’s presence as lab director Sam Owens — although the Graffs say they didn’t refer to that film during preproduction. “We were taking a few reference cues here and there from other movies or shows, but it was really all about Bob’s experience and creating as much tension and fright as possible for that scene,” Christina Graff explains. “What poses will we put those Demodogs in to look as menacing as possible? How do we make those creatures come alive, chase him, and kill him?”
One of the first choices the couple made was to model the Demodogs’ appearance, in part, after greyhounds. And as the scene clearly shows, they definitely possess that breed’s speed. “It was clear that these things are going to be very fast, and they’re going to gallop,” Paul Graff points out. “On set, we did the runs with a stand-in or dragged something on a line through the frame.” Of course, the dogs’ speed doesn’t always work to their advantage in the lab’s narrow corridors, with one of them slamming into a wall as it pursues its retreating prey. “If you have a lot of high speed, as well as a floor that’s really shiny and slick, you’re going to have to do something like that to really show the energy,” Paul Graff points out.
While Bob is able to evade the beasts for a little while, inevitably they corner their prey and pounce with extreme prejudice. Far from bemoaning his fate, Astin proved to be an enthusiastic victim. “His death is heroic and satisfying for me as a performer,” the actor told Yahoo Entertainment last year. “Bob doesn’t need justice — he just needs a nice salute for a soldier doing his job.”
Astin also revealed that one of the show’s writers, Kate Trefry, stood in for the Demodog that delivers the killing blow on set, and the Graffs confirmed that fact. “I talked to Sean about it, and he explained that when they were shooting Lord of the Rings and he had all of these scenes with Gollum, they would shoot it with a stand-in,” Paul Graff says. “I felt like we were going to need a stand-in for this, so one of the writers, Kate, said, ‘Can I be the stand-in? I’m really strong and dexterous.’ So that’s what happened on the day.” As Christina Graff explains, having Astin wrestle a real person in the scene — albeit one who was replaced in postproduction work — also heightened the sense of realism. “We needed to make sure that there’s real resistance upon impact. If he’s being shaken around or a Demogorgon’s claw is piercing his stomach, it all needed to feel real.”
Both artists remember Bob’s death being as effective on the set as it is in the finished episode. “We were watching in video village, and we really knew we had some amazing shots out of his fight. There were slow-motion shots of him spitting blood and being attacked, and we could see the hands shining with the blood on his chest. Sometimes when you’re on set, people really get the sense, ‘This is special,’ you know? Killing Bob was definitely one of them.”
Stranger Things is currently streaming on Netflix.
Watch: Noah Schnapp on how he survived Stranger Things‘ intense possession scene:
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