Emmys Spotlight: ‘Squid Game’ Production Team on Creating the Show’s Unforgettable Visuals | Features

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Hwang Dong-hyuk, the director and creator of Korean drama sensation squid game, wanted to create spaces and visuals that had never been seen before in his home country. He and his team have realized his lofty creative ambitions, attracting not only millions of Koreans, but also fascinating audiences around the world. The show landed Netflix its biggest global hit, attracting 142 million subscribed households in its first month of streaming in 2021 and charting at number one in 94 countries, including the UK and US.

Hwang first boasted squid game in 2009, but had to wait nearly 10 years before Netflix’s interest was piqued as part of its commitment to grow its international programming.

The show revolves around a fictional competition in which 456 gamers, most of whom are in dire financial straits, risk their lives to play a series of deadly children’s games for the chance to win a cash prize of several billion won, many of whom die during the process. It deals with economic conflicts, class disparity in Korea, and capitalism, all through a uniquely Korean lens.

Production designer Chae Kyoung-sun said that when Hwang asked him to join the team, he promised the show would give him the opportunity to try something new.

“Production design in Korea is mostly centered around recreating existing spaces, but Hwang wanted to create spaces and visuals never seen before in Korean shows,” Chae explains.

Editor Nam Na-young said that Hwang wanted the game’s 456 participants to be the main characters. “He wanted to show how each contestant who survived each stage changed and what kind of facial expressions they did, so that’s the part I mainly focused on,” Nam explains.

Long shots of competitors entering games were used to ensure all were visible. “I refrained from using too many techniques to show the background story of each of the characters,” Nam explains. “I just tried to show their story as it is.”

Capturing the despondency and despair of contestants in the outside world was essential for cinematographer Lee Hyung-deok. “Low saturation colors, low contrast lighting, and creating the dull, grainy look and feel of a film camera – even though I was using a digital camera – were some of the things I had in mind,” he said.

The game seems like a fantasy as the characters begin to play. But then the horror reveals itself, calling for a change of approach. “I used very saturated colors with high contrast in the light [for the game sequences]”, says Lee. “I wanted to bring to the screen the wide range of emotions of the characters and their changes through betrayal and cunning in the most desperate moment of survival, rage and violence, selfishness and altruism.”

Real life inspiration

Squid Game Team

As the contest is based on children’s games that were played in Korea in the 1970s and 1980s, the show heavily references that era: the giant doll robot Younghee was inspired by illustrations in elementary school textbooks; the alleys in which competitors play marbles resemble common Korean neighborhoods of the time. From the start, Hwang told Chae that he was determined for the show to feature one of his most vivid childhood memories – of a sunset falling over the alleys where he played in his youth.

Another image that came to mind while reading the script became Chae’s main concept for the art design – a broken ladder leaning against high walls surrounding a man on the ground, staring helplessly at damaged equipment.

“The illustration had a fairy tale feel to it, but it was also sad – the man being outcast from society and the competition there seemed disturbing,” says Chae. “I thought it fit well with the uniquely Korean fairy tale fantasy that Hwang had in his head. Visually, we wanted to move away from the typical genre element of survival games and death games.

This mix of otherworldly horror, primary color settings, and contrast in worlds marks the show as different and underscores its Korean essence.

squid game landed amid a period of international audience appetite for Korean content; think of the current success of Korean television formats such as The Masked Singer and The Masked Dancerand success at the Feature Film Oscars Parasite, directed by Bong Joon Ho and co-written by Han Jin-won. That is to say that squid game streamed to a global audience without cuts, changes or adjustments.

“Experiencing foreign languages ​​and cultures has become much more common,” notes Chae. “Work on squid game, I was not aware of the cultural elements of different countries. I just wanted to create space for the characters written in the script.

Set challenges

squid game

squid game filmed over seven months in Korea’s fifth-largest city, Daejeon (where parts of 2016’s horror hit Train to Busan were shot) and the directing and production departments tried everything themselves, from squid game to glass springboards and tug of war.

The structure of the set was the first of its kind, which meant that Lee and Chae spent hours working on things. “We rented three to four large studios to build our own sets, one to two months before shooting,” Chae explains. “As the finished sets were used for filming, we continued to build other sets alongside them. We planned everything to maximize efficiency and ran simulations for all games.

For Nam, it was a new experience to take charge of a series, as his previous work had been in feature films.

“The challenge was that I not only had to consider the edit in a single episode, but also make sure it flowed organically with the whole series,” Nam explains. She allocated 10 days of editing for each episode and planned the work meticulously before starting.

Cinematographer Lee also comes from the film world. “Pull on something that is as long as squid game in a limited amount of time was indeed a challenge,” he says. “Changes to the filming schedule due to Covid-19 also disrupted the flow but the filming schedule was, on the whole, quite reasonable.”

The worldwide critical and commercial success of the show, as well as its presence in the awards discussions, is a testament to the collaborative effort that went into making it happen. Chae credits the countless encounters she and Lee had before filming with achieving the show’s visual and emotional balance.

“I wanted to understand and identify with these characters, and I hoped that would translate into the production design,” she notes. “This show made me realize that when you fully understand the characters and feel affection for them, you can invite everyone to resonate with it and go beyond the message the show is trying to convey.”

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