A version of this story about “Squid Game” first appeared in the Comedy & Drama issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Netflix’s blockbuster series “Squid Game” struck a chord last fall with its unflinching look at a dystopian society in which everyday debt-owing citizens (led by Lee Jung-jae’s empathetic Seong Gi-hun) compete in deadly children’s games for an ever-growing sum of cash that appears to get farther and farther out of reach. But what makes the series scary is how all of the program’s bloodshed and mayhem play against a kid-pleasing, Jordan almond-colored backdrop.
“We wanted to use a wider range of colors breaking away from the existing norm typically used for a grim series,” production designer Chae Kyoung-sun said via an interpreter, adding that fairy-tale illustrations and textbooks used by Korean children in the 1970s and 1980s were the inspiration for many of the visual cues. “And when the costume designer (Jo Sang-gyeong) suggested giving a vivid and strong pink color to the mask managers (who operate as overseers and executioners), that was actually a starting point for all of the color palettes. With that in mind, we were able to further develop the color contrast for the space and characters and create the mood of the show.”
Chae first met “Squid Game” creator-writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk while working on his 2011 film “Silenced”, which was based upon a real-life case involving a sexual abuse scandal at a school for the deaf. Hwang’s “Squid Game” was already being shopped around with little fanfare, making the series’ worldwide explosion a decade later even more astounding. But it’s how the duo brought this story to visual life that helped create such a phenomenon.
The oft-practical sets caused so much anxiety among the performers that some of them didn’t have to ply their dramatic craft too hard—Chae said that the actors and crew members stationed in the top bunks of the several-stories-high dormitory scenes were “terrified and definitely required more break time.” And in the game sequence in which the contestants glide across square glass panes that are only occasionally sturdy enough to contain their weight, even Chae was afraid to walk on them, even though she knew they were only 1.5 meters off the ground.
“Some things have been created based on computer graphics, but for that scene we created something quite realistic,” Chae said. “They were all wired and safe, but the actors told me they were still scared.” The same goes for one of the most discussed nail-biters of the series, a tug-of-war marathon played on platforms high in the air, in which the losing team plummets to the ground. “For that game, they are playing on asphalt that is very close to what you’d see on a Korean road. We wanted that slippery feeling to increase the tension.”
But it is the way “Squid Game” taps into childhood playground games (often played on a literal oversized playground) that is uniquely unsettling—particularly the show’s depictions of staples like red light, green light, with its frightening oversized doll lording over the competitors, or the less familiar dalgona game in which the participants must carve a perfect shape etched in honeycomb candy without so much as a crack or chip. Fail and they instantly meet their maker.
“I actually approached a lot of my work from the characters’ perspectives,” Chae said. “For instance, a playground when you visit it as child looks much bigger than revisiting it as an adult, and that sense of scale is something I really played around with. We wanted to create this sense of distortion around these people who are very familiar with these objects. We weren’t trying to make anything too futuristic.”
Speaking of the future, “Squid Game” has proven such a force that a Season 2 is already being planned, hopefully to air by the end of 2024. But Chae said she will wait until it’s further underway before committing to designing the follow-up. “Hwang is still writing, but I did ask if he can give me a hint of what games that he will be putting into Season 2, and he said it’s a secret,” she said with a smile. “But if I were to do it, there will be pressure because this season was such a huge hit. I want to be free from that burden. But I’d want to focus on the story, and the intrinsic intention behind the games, just like I did in Season 1. I do have some ideas but can’t share them right now.”
Read more from the Comedy & Drama issue here.