Netflix’s award-winning sci-fi mega hit Stranger Things returns to the Emmy Awards in full force, receiving a total of 13 nominations which includes the coveted outstanding drama series.
After his very first Emmy nomination for season one, production designer Chris Trujillo is especially thrilled to be returning to the race this year with the show’s fourth season, as it was the most challenging and complex one that his team has faced. “It was a very complicated season, taking the better part of two years to prep it and then shoot,” says the two-time Emmy nominee.
With a background in fine arts, Trujillo has worked on a number of buzz-worthy projects from Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture to M. Nigh Shyamalan’s Glass. However, nothing has quite come close to the enormous success of Stranger Things, the runaway hit show created by the Duffer Brothers about a group of young friends unraveling a series of extraordinary mysteries in the 1980s.
Having been with the production from the very beginning, Trujillo admits that this is definitely his favorite season so far. “At the time we were making season three, it felt like it can’t get any broader and wilder than what we were doing. Then, all of a sudden, we were going to really explore the world beyond Hawkins,” shares Trujillo.
Set in March 1986, this season of Stranger Things is darker and more mature in tone, finding its vast ensemble cast split between different storylines, expanding beyond Hawkins to California as well as a Russian prison and the warped mind of Vecna (a new take on the classic haunted house).
The production found a decommissioned prison in Eastern Europe which informed how they built the gladiator-style battle pit where Hopper fights the Demogorgon. “The Demogorgon pit is the jewel of the whole set piece,” says Trujillo. “We knew we needed to have this grand space, to introduce the Demogorgon and see it fight.”
See can see more of Chris’ work via Netflix’s Spotlight here:
Trujillo spoke to Awards Focus about drawing inspiration from a real prison in Lithuania, returning to the Snow Ball school dance in Max Mayfield’s mind, and his favorite part about creating multiple iterations of the Creel House (including the mind version that is infused with both physical design and CGI).
Awards Focus: Season four really expanded its artistry into new heights. Both in terms of storytelling and set pieces. It seems everything that was stepped up in every capacity. Did it feel that way heading into this new season?
Chris Trujillo: There has been increasing complexity and exponential growth from season to season. At the time we were making season three, it felt like it can’t get any broader and wilder than what we were doing. Then all of a sudden, we were going to really explore the world beyond Hawkins.
I think for this season, the Duffer Brothers’ ambition was to show viewers a wider world and a variety in setting and tone. Year after year, it has always been heading in this direction incrementally. Now, we are really in a place where the whole mythology has opened up.
AF: Could you take us behind the scenes of the Russian prison and that gladiator-style battle in a pit. What were the early designs like? How did you approach building it?
Trujillo: We knew coming into the season that it was going to be one of the centerpieces. We knew we wanted to find Hopper in this Siberian gulag with bleak military installation flavors. As the story took form, we realized how complex that series of corridors and rooms was, it turned into this giant interconnected maze, with underground elements to the Russian prison.
The Demogorgon pit itself is the jewel of the whole set piece. We knew we needed to have this grand space, to introduce the Demogorgon and see it fight. We’ve never seen Demogorgons move this way before. To really see what it is fully capable of physically. We needed a special space that could really show that off.
We were lucky enough to find this incredible decommissioned prison in Vilnius, Lithuania. A tsarist era prison called Lukiškės Prison right in the center of the capital. It had only been decommissioned a few years prior and it had this heaviness of a real nightmarish prison interior.
We took inspiration right from the real prison. It was invaluable in terms of creating a real, textural and layered vibe to the whole structure. It was an intersection of our invented fantasy and the reality of that prison we found.
AF: The Creel House is such a central part of this season. Could you talk about building all these different versions of it? How much of that whole process was practical and how much was done with CGI?
Trujillo: Again, we knew the Creel House was going to be one of the centerpieces and in a way, it’s kind of the dark heart of this season. The search for a practical location was the first step in the process.
We knew we wanted to do a Stranger Things interpretation of a classic movie-style haunted house. We ended up finding this incredible place, the interior of this 100-year-old house was fairly well intact. It became our jumping off point as we knew we’re going to see this house in many different iterations.
We ended up building the interior, first floor, second floor, and attic all on a stage. We were pretty true to the geography of the existing location’s first floor space because it was incredible. Then we invented the second floor and the attic to suit our cinematic needs.
That was our focus on stage, creating a true to life home that’s been empty and slowly falling apart for thirty or forty years. And then we had to infect it with our Upside Down look which is all practical.
And then of course seeing it in its pristine state when the family is moving in in the 1950s. It was fun to see these three progressions.
For me the most fun, was creating Vecna’s Mindscape. You can see the exploded architectural elements of the Creel House in the foundation for Vecna’s Mind Lair. The house was at the center of a number of different elements of the show this season.
AF: This season you returned to the school dance named the Snow Ball. What was it like going back and putting another spin on it?
Trujillo: It was one of my crew’s favorite sets from season two. Returning to it, we knew we didn’t want to make any fundamental changes. We were all so happy with the Snow Ball. It was really fun to have to degrade it as you all of a sudden feel Vecna’s corrupting presence in this happy memory.
For the most part, we worked within the palette of the initial Snow Ball dance and came up with these nightmare beats within the original space.
AF: Looking ahead to the next season, what challenges lie ahead now that the gate to the Upside Down has been opened? Have there already been discussions on how that blended world might come together?
Trujillo: We have been anticipating that final ordeal that Hawkins will go through. We have been building to how the Upside Down fully affecting the reality mode would look like.
This season has been the biggest challenge – the amplifications and the scale of what we were doing and the size of the sets, the extension of the wider world around Hawkins. This is the most we’ve ever seen of the Upside Down. Everyone is excited and we will at some point probably be fully Upside Down. It’s an exciting challenge for us.