Netflix’s latest show, “Squid Game”, is taking the world by storm. After holding out for a while, I gave it a chance, and what a show! For all you living under a rock here is the briefest summary: poor people are rounded up to play a deadly game to win a large cash prize. The surreal, dystopian fantastical world it is set in juxtaposes the drama in such a jarring way. To be completely honest, the story is good, but the visual design is EVERYTHING! The creative director of Squid Game is my new girl crush. There! I'm putting it out there. Let’s go through some of the set designs and review them.
*Attention: there might be some spoilers, you are forewarned.*
Actor Lee Jung-jae (Seong Gi-hun) in a Netflix interview on Youtube likens the sets to “modern art”, and I couldn’t agree more. Although, it is a thriller/drama show you would not know this from the set designs. The ‘survival games’ that the contestants play are typical Korean children's games set in a gory recreation of childhood scenes. Scenes that are made up with colors often associated with children and innocence, such as: bubblegum pink, bright and vivid pastels. Other innocent fairy-tale-like accents (such as giant dolls and sweetly wrapped coffins ) help add to the unsettling atmosphere of sweetness, contracting the brutal acts that play out. The overall ‘vibe’ created by the creative director (Chae Kyung-sun) did an excellent job of bringing the entire series to life in such a disturbing way, helping create the ‘tension’ by unsettling viewers' expectations.
The now iconic set of the ‘maze’ (walkway staircase), is synonymous with the show. The very first glimpse of portending sinisterness is introduced with bright cheerful pastels. The complete juxtaposition makes the ensuing scenes all the more jarring. The stair is first seen bustling with people as contestants and moderators both occupy the entire space, leaving very little room for maneuvering. Towards the end, it becomes a slow climb as players dwindle down and the image present highlights the daunting reality that most players will soon be led to another deadly game resulting in their death.
Staircase going every which way with its kitschy vibe stimulates the nostalgic currently popular on social media. Chae Kyung-sun freely admits the colors chosen were because of its frequent association with fairytales. The repetitive simplistic, almost sterile, structure was a true architecture in helping to confuse and disorientate the viewers and the actors both. Unlike most architectural designs this ‘maze’ primary function is akin to that of a ‘labyrinth’. Chae Kyung-sun in a Netflix interview said; “It was built like a maze, so we had to break down walls sometimes because of operational issues” as well as think about “where and how to install the cameras”. This makes me appreciate the attention to detail of the set design a whole lot more.
It is hard not to draw a parallel between Squid games maze structure to that of Eschere’s (Dutch graphic artist 1898-1972) famous engravings. Escher’s works often feature mathematical operations: visually portray exploration of infinity, symmetry, impossible objects, plays on perspective, reflection and hyperbolic geometry. Escher’s trippy artworks , of disorientating staircases and defying gravity surrealism, was a clear inspiration for the creative director and director (Hwang Dong-hyuk).
Another artist that I could not help but see inspiration from is Ricardo Bofill’s Red Wall project (La Muralla Roja). His work is also a maze-like staircase in shades of vibrant pastels. Much like the structure in Squid Game, it too is a vertical hallway made up of stairs connecting viewers (and players) to different levels leading to mysterious cavernous spaces.
A typical scene in many childhood memories- a playground. Or so you might think, but think again. This is the very first game that contestants play. It is one of revelation. Although it is a familiar scene that should make the players at ease, it is also the scene where players are faced with the brutal realities of the game. It is life-less, as is the tree behind the creepy robotic doll. It is a set that defies reality and fiction.
The tug-of-war set was one I was a little skeptical about. It at first reminds me so much of an escape room. Chae Kyung-sun admitted that the design process for this scene was one of the most difficult for her and the team. There were apparently many reiterations; one being that the game would be between the roof of two elementary school buildings. I almost like this idea more, it would definitely fit in better with the reoccurring ‘children’ theme. But it was deemed too “freaky to play a life-or-death game on top of schools”.
Arguably the most heart wrenching scene takes place in an old Korean neighborhood of small houses and alleyways. The director’s desire to recreate the alleys from his childhood to elicit nostalgia and a sense of familiarity birthed the design for this scene. It was a place of life, survival, and death. It is a place many can connect with (and judging by the success of the show not only poor Koreans but the poor world wide).
From a bird’s eye view, one can see that the scene is in fact made up of smaller 2D sets (often used in theater plays), to create the entire 3D set we see on film. Doors that lead to nowhere and alleys with dead ends, symbolises the player's repetitiveness of their inability to escape their situation (much like in reality for many).
The devil is in the details. Truth be told, I did not notice many of the details I’m about to mention. It was only while researching this article did I come across these hidden aspects of the design. Chae Kyung-sun fabricated many small details that are not even noticeable on camera; such as, the details on the window sill, glass panels of the windows, the lighting on the front porch, tiles and bricks pattern for each ‘building’, and even small weeds planted in between cracks in the walls/floors.
There were even easter eggs hidden in the scene that you may not have noticed. During the conversion between two players Ji-yeong (Player 240) and Kang Sae-byeok (Player 067), they were seated next to flower pots- one with dead flowers and the other a live one. This was a small design hidden in plain sight to foretell which of the character will live in this episode, go re-watch it if you don't believe me. These small details were also done for other characters as well.
"Since modern society is in constant competition to climb the ladder, we thought about portraying that in the bed design.", said Chae Kyung-sun when asked about the design of the dormitory in an interview with Netflix Korea (yes I binged watched all of her interviews online, I told you I was obsessed with her). The bed forms a ladder and pyramid configuration, a sad yet accurate metaphor for modern life.
The beds are stacked like shelves, and the contestants are placed like objects in a warehouse. That’s pretty much in line with how the players are seen and treated in the show. Behind the stacked beds are murals of the games. Stick figure drawings, an ominous recreation of the events, the viewers aren't privy too until the players are whittled down and their beds were removed.
My one and only disappointment comes from the VIP room set. I don't understand the artistic choices here. It seems obvious and very 2000s (in all the wrong ways). Painted human furniture when was this ever associated with anything other than ‘tacky’? It is simply not up to par with the rest of the sets. I don’t want to talk about it anymore, or it’ll ruin my good vibes going here.
Conclusion (what made it so great)
This was clearly a very successful collaboration between the director and the creative director, and the proof is in the pudding -as we say. Director when asked about his involvement with the creative design aspect, said “the work isn’t really strictly divided, but rather we worked hand-in-hand toward the same goal”. While the creative director commented “Director Hwang let me stretch my imagination to its extent, and I would tell him my ideas. It was all about being honest with each other and thorough communication.” I truly believe that is what made this show so successful, the collaboration of talented individuals helping each other achieve a common goal. What do you think of the creative direction of Squid Game? Did you like the set designs? Let me know.