If you’ve been a fan of Stranger Things from the very beginning, something you will immediately recognize is the rich texture of the show’s audio landscape that immerses you in the world of Hawkins and its supernatural events. Sound supervisor Craig Henighan has been crafting that world alongside the Duffer Brothers since the very first episode. Henighan describes how much of the sound framework for the show even in its most recent season which expanded in scope and scale came from the ideas laid down in the very first episodes.
Henighan describes his process behind some of the show’s most iconic sounds in its most recent season from Vecna’s voice to the grandfather clock motif to the iconic demogorgon battles. In a world filled by creatures from the upside down, Henighan and his team must get creative to craft the otherworldly atmosphere.
Read our full conversation with sound supervisor of Stranger Things Craig Henighan below.
Hi, this is Danny Jarabek here with Awards Radar and I’m joined by Craig Henighan. He is a sound designer, re-recording mixer, and sound supervisor for Stranger Things seasons one through four. Craig, thank you so much for joining me today. I’m super excited to be talking about this show as I said to you off air, this is my favorite show of all time and so I can’t wait to hear a little bit behind the scenes and what you do for it.
Henighan: Oh, that’s awesome. Thank you so much, Danny. I’m super excited to be here. And it’s always awesome to hear that everyone’s a huge fan.
So, you’ve been a part of this show since season one, correct?
Henighan: Yes! Season one way back in late 2015 is when I was first contacted about it. I got into it through Shawn Levy, who’s a director and producer of the series, as well as obviously with the Duffer’s and their producer, Rand Geiger. Basically, it was a lot of Shawn’s people from his films who imported over to the first season and I was one of them. I met with Matt and Ross and really hit it off. Here we are now, four seasons later.
The show has continued to just grow and expand over time. But I’m curious, just bringing it back to the beginning of what were some of the early conversations, early collaborations you had with the Duffer’s in building an identity and vision for this show before it had reached the level that it has today?
Henighan: It’s interesting because if you watch and listen to season one, things are smaller and things are more contained. They’re a little bit quieter. That was where I worked really hard with Dean Zimmerman, our picture editor to make sure that a lot of the established sounds and a lot of the DNA of what Stranger Things is, is actually in that first episode. There’s always sounds in every other episode that sort of touchstone to those first two or three episodes from season one, even as something as simple as how quiet it is in the hallway with the lights flickering to when we first go into the Hawkins lab and the scientists come running down the hallway. He gets into that elevator and you don’t see the Demogorgon, but it’s an implied sound so all that framework was really there from the beginning. It really set me up for success, honestly. When you have a series like that, that has all that space, to be able to create sounds it takes time. The scenes have time in them for sounds to evolve and make an audience member lean in a little bit and go, “Oh, what is that? What is that we’re hearing? Is it a monster? Is it just an animal? Is it a combination of that?” Those were some of the tricks early on asking, “What does the Demogorgon sound like and how to give him character to make sure he’s familiar. I wanted that sound to be something that when you heard it, you didn’t have to really see it, you knew that it was a Demogorgon. That was season one, and then you cut to now and everything, every season has been slowly ratcheted it up. The tension, the pacing, the rhythm, the size, the amount of adventures that the gang goes on, so sound basically just follows that. If we’re going to Russia and have a giant Demogorgon battle with Hopper, then that’s where we’re gonna go with the sound as well. Myself and my team were really down for it. We were all really into the show, and really into making it sound the best we can. It’s always just been a joy and a pleasure to work on every single episode.
The most recent season four is when things get dialed up a whole other notch again, and we’ve got movie length episodes. So how did you and your team handle the increase in scope and increase in size, the increase in environments that you were dealing with and had to build sound for?
Henighan: Thankfully, I didn’t have any mutiny. There were a few times where people were like, “What is going on? Why is it so long and blah, blah, blah, you know.” They’re long because the Duffer’s have stories to tell and they like the format. They like that eight or nine chapter format. Even before we started this season, I usually get little clips or little early things to work on. I worked on Vecna’s voice really early on and they would send me little sequences and say, “Hey, we need to polish this up, can you give it a shot?” While they were doing that, they’d be like, “You better be ready, it’s going to be big.” You think, “Yeah, I get it, I get it, it’ll be a little bit over an hour.” I didn’t really anticipate the last episode was going to be two and a half hours. What’s really great about the last episode of the last chapter of season four was that I was able to take a lot of sounds that I had created in the other seasons because we’re in the upside down for a lot longer and because the Demogorgon is fighting Hopper in a Russian prison. I was able to give the team Angelo [Palazzo] and Katie [Halliday] and Lee [Gilmore], I was able to give them the framework of sounds from the first three seasons. Now take it and do it to another level. Angelo would call the Demogorgon fight in the prison Demogorgon 2.0. I was really inspired by that because it’s always fun to see how other other editors will take stuff that you’ve done, and sort of reinterpret, add their own flavor to it. But honestly, it’s about conquering and dividing and looking at what needs to get done, how to get it done, what new things need to be worked on. A lot of my chores this season were figuring out the clock, figuring out Vecna’s voice, and then I would give certain things to either Angelo or Lee. Lee Gilmore worked on some really early versions of the demo-bats. That’s how you knock it out, man, you just have to chip away at it. It’s not a feature length schedule, by any means. But the guys and Rand Geiger, specifically, help with the schedule and understand how much time it takes to put the shows together. But it’s a hustle, I won’t lie. It’s a hustle and it’s weekends and nights and all that.
You mentioned one of the elements that was one of your big chores for this season was the clock and it’s really one of the kind of iconic components of season four and intrinsic to the mood and atmosphere of how this season develops. How did you work on that sound?
Henighan: It’s funny because Matt and Ross joke about the clock and how much of a thing it became in the episodes and and they would be like, “In the scripts, it basically just says tick tock tick tock.” That’s how they describe it. Honestly, Danny, I just wanted the clock to be a clock that’s familiar to everybody in the world. But it needed to be stranger-ized a little bit. So how do you accomplish the Stranger Things version of what a grandfather clock should be? Well start with a regular grandfather clock. I had the pendulum swing. The scene I worked on the most with it was with Chrissy the first two scenes. Then in the forest was one of the first scenes where I actually had a long enough chunk of the clock that I could invent something that made it familiar, yet scary, and repetitive of that relentless nature of how it would shine back and forth. Now, sonically, the elements are like starting with a standard grandfather clock. Then the pendulum swing was basically, “How do I make that pendulum swing sound old and creaky?” So I ended up using, if you take a cello, and you mute the strings, and you take a bow, and you just strike it, you can kind of get this creaky nature out of it because it’s not really making a note or a musical note, but it’s giving you this old almost like old wooden type feel. So I happened upon that for the pendulum. Then, the gong was basically a regular pendulum, a regular clock, gong sound, and then I pitched it down a version. I did another version with what’s called the pitch envelope where it slows down as if it’s a gong, but it’s got that sloping slow down to it. That was timed out so that once it slowed down right to the very end of it, the next gong would happen. That right there gave me the framework between the rhythmic nature of the pendulum and the brothers really liked that. But then they found a higher gong like a higher sounding clock sound that they wanted me to put together as well. It ends up a combination of my stuff, and something that they really liked from the stuff that they found because Matt and Ross are really into sounds, and so if they have something or they’ve happened upon something that they really like, quite often I’ll interpret that and do my own version of it, or in this case, I used it because it’s got this weird distortion sound to it, and it adds a good thing to the clock I’ve already built. Honestly because it’s in the series so often, it’s able to have its own life as a character. It’s not a one and done situation, you’re able to have a clock that’s in a hallway with Max, and then it’s with Chrissy and then in the last chapter, it’s part of the whole of Hawkins being destroyed. So, again, that’s just a tip of the hat to Matt and Ross and the writers to have it in the storyline enough. That’s how a lot of iconic sounds in any movie or TV show survive is because they are given a chance to grow and be part of the fabric of the story.
What is that collaboration between you and your team and the Duffers? You said that they are very sound driven? Is that something that is being pulled straight from a script, and then you’re figuring out sonically how that’s going to be brought to life? Or is it something else?
Henighan: It’s a bit of all those things, honestly. I do read the scripts. I constantly have notebooks around with little adjectives and little ideas and stuff, maybe to record or to track down or to research. Matt and Ross love sounds, even from our first meetings it was just talking about all the different types of movies they loved. I went away from my first meeting with them not really knowing if I had the gig or not, but on a gut feeling, I came home and I just made a few things that I thought would maybe work I hadn’t seen any imagery of what the Demogorgon was going to be, but I sent them some things. They were shooting by this time in Atlanta, and I sent them some mp3’s, just as ideas saying this is maybe an atmosphere for Hawkins and it’s stuff like taking insects and pitching them down or taking baby crying and really manipulating it and slowing it down and making it creepy and otherworldly. I did a little mp3 kit for them and sent it off. Quite often as things happen, you never hear back. Then about three or four weeks later, I got an email from them saying, “Oh my God, we love this idea you have for the Demogorgon it sounds great, we just finished a day of shooting and we’re just hanging out having a drink. The lights are dim, and we play this and it’s this crazy Demogorgon sound.” That’s how things can work. It’s looking for that opportunity. Matt and Ross are incredibly open to at any point emailing them, or calling them about ideas. We do spotting sessions together, where we all sit and spot the episode together. They do a lot of sound work with Dean and everybody in the picture department, they do a lot of early sound work to make sure things are working. That makes my job easier as well. Because if they’ve worked on the sound, along with the picture on it, then rhythmically things are going to fit in and work. But honestly, Danny, it’s all those things you mentioned. It’s a lot of back and forth and ideas. Sometimes I just try things. I did a version of the clock that was super crazy distorted, and actually you can hear it at the end of episode three of season four, I believe. It’s the one where Max is in the hallway and it cuts to black. You hear the clock chime and you hear the clock for a little while if you listen to it all the way through the credits. About halfway through it starts turning into this really distorted manipulated sort of thing. That was my first idea for the clock, it was so crazy. The guys were like, “This is cool, but can we just have a normal sounding clock?” That’s the fun nature of what we do in sound design for this show. They allow me and my team a lot of leeway to experiment. If you don’t experiment, you’re never going to happen upon these cool things. That’s the inspiring thing of working with Matt and Ross.
I have to ask, especially from season three and going into season four, the capacity for gore has really increased in the show relative to the first couple of seasons. What is your process for building gore?
Henighan: It’s funny you mentioned that because Matt specifically for season three said, “Think gore, we’re gonna make it gory.” Honestly dude it’s everything from hitting the grocery store and grabbing watermelons and ripping pieces of raw meats. We had a few seasons ago out in my backyard, it was raining and little mud sections showed up. So I got out there and recorded mud goofing around and all those sorts of things. Then Angelo and everybody else on the team would go and record their own things as well. A lot of the gore is about just the right amount at the right time. Gore can be how you cut it, and where you cut it, if you want to get forensic about it like where you put the gore versus where the stab is so that an audience member can hear it and experience the tonality of it. I can’t believe we’re talking about gore this way, but the tonality of gore and what frequencies it hits when you go and record a bunch of things, you bring that all in, you put it back into your computer workstation, then you start cutting stuff up and you start seeing a greatest hits of what gore works and what doesn’t work and how many different layers that needs.
I love to hear it. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate getting to hear a little bit behind the curtain on the sound of Stranger Things. Like I said, I just absolutely adored this show, and it continues to grow and grow. I can’t wait to see how this all comes together at the end. So thank you so much for chatting with me and I really appreciate it.
Henighan: Awesome, thank you so much, Danny. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.