When we talk about the look of Stranger Things, what we often talk about is the treasure trove of 1980s pop-culture easter eggs that series creators the Duffer Brothers built into what seems like every frame. What can sometimes be overlooked, however, is just how visually rich the show is beyond its references.
We spoke with cinematographer Lachlan Milne, who shot half the season’s episodes (including the last two), about how the third season differs from the others, how he approaches his work, and what went into three key visual moments. (Note: Minor spoilers follow.)
Defining the Look of Season 3
Milne wasn’t involved in the first two seasons of Stranger Things, but while the show already had an established visual aesthetic he would need to work with when coming on board, the third season also offered new visual territory in two notable ways. “It’s set during the summer, whereas the previous shows haven’t been. With that comes a particular quality of light that is a little harder to control,” Milne says. “There’s also a lot of exterior day work, where there hasn’t necessarily been as much in previous episodes.”
“There was also a real interest in using color wherever we could,” he continues, because in 1985, when the season is set, everything was “peak neon” as Milne puts it. He evoked that by going for a mixture of 1980s-style color contrasts. “Sometimes you had dirty, green-blue, cool-white fluorescent shoes that didn’t really work very well. Then you had incandescent tungsten bulbs, because it was all pre-LED at that time.” He especially wanted to build the resulting colors into the set and let that guide the lighting of scenes.
Cary Elwes in ‘Stranger Things’
Which is why, for example, he leaned toward yellow for the fairground sequences, and the cool colors of the mall. “I wanted to try and use the locations to light themselves as much as possible. So when you talk about the fairgrounds and the mall itself, I really wanted those locations to govern the look of those things,” he says. “We worked really closely with Jess Royal, who was in charge of a lot of the practical work there, around trying to get period-specific bulbs and using the rides to light the environment as much as possible, because I think that looks better. I wanted the environment to feel as real as we could make a set of that size feel.”
Shooting the Sauna Test
Making something look real was also a goal for one of the three sequences we asked Milne about: starting the sauna fight between Billy and Eleven in the fourth episode. One of Milne’s favorite shots is when the camera pans along with a barbell Eleven uses to pin Billy to a wall. “I loved that shot because, for me, it feels like you’re actually watching it happen. You’re not necessarily using filmmaking tropes to cut around that quite so much. You’re trying to just say, ‘This is physically what’s happening in the space.’ And obviously it’s not, because there’s wire work and there’s a bunch of other things going on,” he says. “But when it comes to stunts, I’m a big fan of trying to combine them in one shot if possible, to make it feel more honest and more realistic.”
That philosophy guided much of the sequence, especially in capturing its violence in a way that would feel palpable to an audience. “With the lighting and the frenetic nature of the strobing in that environment, we wanted it to be a bit disorienting, because essentially, they’re fighting within a box,” he says. “It’s very, very hard to do master coverage of action scenes, because, a lot of times, you’re swapping stunt doubles. You’re doing wire work. You’ve got breakaway walls. We also rehearsed the sauna scene for a bit, as well. We did it with second teamers, with our stand-ins, and videoed that with our stunt coordinator and with Shawn, the director.”
Entering the Void
A visual staple of Stranger Things is when Eleven uses her power to travel into the Void. It’s always one of the most visually striking sequences, which look like they could be green-screened, but they’re not. “It’s pretty much all in-camera,” Milne explains. “It’s all on a sound stage. There’s a bit of VFX clean-up work, but we try and do most of that in-camera.”
To do that, they create a small, square pool of three-inch-deep water, then drape black material around the outside of it. They top-light it, and shoot it with a telescope and a crane to avoid the crew making ripples that would interfere with the shot. Given how deep black and light can interact, that has to be carefully approached as well.
“The biggest thing is to try and keep light off it, because it’s easy enough to pull the blacks into the grays. You have to pull the blacks down, but it affects the overall contrast of the scene,” he says. “If there happens to be a little bit of light that bleeds through on the background, it turns what should be black into a mild gray. The real key is to keep as much light off the background as you can, and make sure that you fill out your foreground with enough detail so that when you actually put more contrast in the final image, you don’t lose the detail or your foreground to contrasting.”
Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp and ‘Stranger Things’ Crew
The Battle of Starcourt
Stranger Things has a big cast. It’s not often that they’re all together on screen, or in a single location, but it is inevitable when, say, they’re heading into a season’s climax. For a cinematographer, the challenge can become finding a way to fit over a dozen characters within the frame. “There’s a lot of everybody, and everybody’s got a line. The blocking of that stuff can be hard,” Milne says.
Breaking the characters off into pairs or groups can alleviate that. “We spent a lot of time in the morning on those scenes. We’d normally do those first — going through the script and working out positioning, who says what at what point, and who it’s best to pair up with,” Milne says. “If you take Lucas and Max, because they’ve got a few lines and they talk to each other, you can cover it in a two-shot, rather than just giving everybody their own single shot.”
Not that singles aren’t called for. In fact, some of Milne’s favorite work on the season was shooting wide shots of Billy facing off against the monster, wrestling with the scale, the tone, and the wiring.
Gaten Matarazzo, Joe Keery, and Maya Hawke in ‘Stranger Things’
Whichever scene Milne is shooting, he always thinks editorially about cinematography. “Some people put more of their emphasis on lighting. I try and spread myself across a little bit more. The editorial and the tone and the pacing of the project is always really important for me. That dictates the coverage, and can have such a visual influence on what you’re filming,” he says.
“One of the things that I write on the front page of my scripts to remind myself all the time is, ‘Whose scene is it?’” he continues. “What’s important to me is to work out who it’s really about with coverage. That can really dictate whether you’re interested in listening to somebody off camera who’s looking at somebody else, rather than just watching somebody talk, because there’s a more cinematically effective way of conveying that part of the story.”
He keeps that in mind when shooting, too. “I’m always trying to edit the scene in my head when I’m shooting, based on the performance, based on the location, based on the arc of the story, and based on whose scene it is,” he says. “It’s whatever serves the story, and is the most effective way of delivering that. That’s always the most interesting part of filmmaking for me.”
Top Image: Noah Schnapp, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Sadie Sink, Caleb McLaughlin in ‘Stranger Things.’ All photos courtesy of Netflix.