Chae Kyeongsun, the Production Designer of SQUID GAME, Completed the Desperate World of a Fairy Tale
- Writerby KIM Subin
“I pursue production design that permeates into the work by discarding my own color.”
Squid Game has become the best hit in Netflix's history. The production design, which drew attention from the trailer, is largely responsible for causing its phenomenal responses. Production Designer Chae Kyeongsun introduced a design that highlights the desperate competition for survival with a fairytale-like visual. Props such as robot dolls, dalgona, and sweatsuits made on her fingertips are also supported by the fans crazy about the series. We met Chae Kyeongsun, a production designer who completed the unique world of Squid Game, through a web meeting. (Spoilers are included)
- Squid Game is creating syndrome around the world. How do you feel as a creator?
= After working for films, it's my first time working for a Netflix project, and I poured out all of my heart into it. It was fun to try a new visual method. I am spending every day feeling rewarded for my hard work.
- I'm curious about the core concept of the production design of Squid Game.
= Our goal was to create a totally new visual world. It is a story of a game played in childhood in a cruel situation. I thought there would be synergy if I took exotic and conflicting visual images contrary to the concept.
- There are a lot of sets. It would have taken a long time to produce and shoot the series.
= We rented three or four big sites and made them into the sets a month or two before the filming. While filming in such the completed sites, I continued to build another set next to them. It took a month or two months for us to produce a set. From the beginning, we planned efficiently and proceeded.
We also conducted game simulations. The film director actually played the squid games, stepping stones, and tug-of-war with the directing and production teams in person. The same goes for the sugar honeycomb challenge. The director actually tried everything licking dalgona with his tongue, checking the possibility of the lines on it by reflecting it on the sun, and using a lighter to succeed in the game, etc. Since everything was confirmed to be possible, I was able to produce impactful and fun scenes.
- As there are many dynamic movements, safe designs would have been crucial when you designed the sets. How did you improve the completeness within the limited time?
= For safety, the objet was woven into iron frames. However, since it is 13m high, no matter how strong the set is, it can be cracked if you shoot on it for a long time, so the set was tied from above from the beginning. Safety issues also mattered when making a maze hallway set. The filming staff members had to pass through the narrow hallway, but they had to put equipment and rails there, too. But there was no room for that. So, I thought a lot about where to place the cameras to show the sense of space. I wanted to make the maze corridor built by floating it in the air, but the set team said it was very dangerous. In the end, it had a staircase structure that continued by adding one more objet. There had been so many failures but I tried to make the job as safely as possible by utilizing the know-how from the failures. Thanks to that, 456 participants were able to finish the shoot safely without getting hurt.
- Do all 456 participants appear in the scenes?
= That's right. There's a scene where those 456 participants were taken by the full shot when the game started. 456 people appear, including those sitting behind and sitting on the back with the extras. Then, only three of them are left at the end. I wanted to show the weight of death with a sense of space, saying, 'Human beings have all died like this.' The space was made on a real scale so that the audience can feel the contrast between the first part of the game and the last one.
- Circle, triangle, and square shapes are almost like the symbols of Squid Game. How did you come to adopt the idea of using those three symbols?
= Since the shapes of Squid Game are circles, triangles, and squares, so it was a simple approach to adopt them into the work. The symbols were created by actively taking a simple game into the form. Circles, triangles, and squares go into various places, including business cards. We planted them on purpose. The most active use of them is the mask. I thought a lot about the mask designs. Putting the shapes on a mask is one-dimensional, but it has the effect of looking bigger when taking simple logic. I think that happened with the shapes this time.
- You used colors actively when expressing space and character groups. How did you intend to use colors?
= I was asked a lot about the colors. Nowadays, colors are actively used in fashion, culture, and various fields, but the film industry seems to be conservative in using colors. So I wanted to actively use them this time. Instead of using conventional colors, I thought we should make our own rules for Squid Game. The first was the tone of the outfit. When the stylist suggested pink, the director readily responded. The color map was created after the pink was decided in the sense that it would be nice to give childhood feelings and infantile color to the watchdogs. Participants on the opposite side were decided to wear green color sweatsuits that would have been worn at sports events in the 1970s and 1980s. With the creation of a color map of the two character groups, it was easy to create a color map for space and art Mise-en-Scene.
In the case of the maze hallway, the participants wore green, so I wanted to give the vibe that they were suppressed by the surrounding space with the pink color. It went well with the pink color the masked men wore. To the game participants, the masked men are scary beings who take lives using guns. So, the space of oppression called the maze corridor was in pink, and yellow or sky blue colors, which could appear in fairy tales, were added as the sub-colors. At the same time, the masked men's accommodations were in the green color. To them, the place where the participants are located is a kind of workplace. What they do every day is to monitor them. The participants' green color was brought to the monitors' lodgings and corridors so that the two different places collide with each other. After passing through the maze hallway, the waiting room is in white. We don't know what game will happen next. It is a state of ignorance that you do not know who to pair and discuss with. I decided to use white as a color that feels chaotic and dreamy feeling. White is actually a scary color for a production designer. From the perspective of a production designer, using white, a blank slate, is a kind of challenge because I should fill up the space and create an empty space.
- I'm also curious about the colors and concepts used in the game stage.
= The concept of the space for the tug-of-war game is a 'person abandoned on the asphalt.' The concept of the road was brought to show the meaning of people on the road. The reason why I used yellow is that there are yellow points in things that require safety, including the median on the road. It is also a color that makes us uneasy. The stepping stone space is from a circus concept. In the 1970s and 1980s, we had the culture that circus troupes were going around local communities in Korea. The set was made from it, so the stepping stone space used various colorful lights.
Finally, as for the concept of the VIP room, VIPs are the people who use 456 participants as the pieces on a chessboard. In Squid Game, they are the creators who designed the game. When I thought about what kind of people they were and why they would enjoy playing such a game, animals came to my mind. The concept was to caricature the animal world with no reason but only emotions, instincts, pleasures, and desires. If you look closely at the VIP room, the surrounding area is made of grasslands, and jungles are also drawn in the background. The masks worn by the VIPs were also made based on the faces of powerful animals in the meadow. The VIPs are inhumane, cruel, and indiscriminately trampling on human dignity, looking at humans like objects. I hope you can see the objet in the VIP room as the device explaining these characters.
- I can feel your effort to save the details. Especially, in the alley where kids were playing marbles, you tried to express even the moss on stones and the time before sunset.
= When the director was young, while playing in the alley in Ssangmun-dong, it was exactly that time when his mother called him to come home and eat dinner. The director said he was eager to use this sunset background in the game room. It made it possible to feel the nostalgia that our mothers and fathers who are old or in their middle ages would feel when they entered the alley again through the vibe alone. The sunset is also a concept of chaos between the false and the real. In the alley, the characters are confused about their real feelings in the situation where they have to kill the ones close to them. So, like Truman Show, I wanted to give the feeling that the sunset was actually a fake thing. After printing the sunset scene on a banner, the lighting team shot the light to it to create a sunset. The sun looks real, but you can tell it's fake when you see it fluttering.
- Was it your purpose to create a similar effect by using images or illustrations printed like clouds in the fields that are the background of the ‘Mugunghwa flower has blossomed’ (‘Red light, Green light’) game or the playground for 'Dalgona Game?'
= That's right. When the 'Mugunghwa flower has blossomed' game begins, the space is blocked as the bird flies. It's a flare saying to the participants, 'This is actually a fake set. You have to kill each other and die here. You're in the game room.' Showing the space first, I tried to permeate the confusion of 'the real and the fake' continuously.
- In an interview, I saw you said the cremation space is referred from the Auschwitz concentration camp incinerator, and the maze staircase is an hommage to Escher's Infinite Staircase, a surrealist engraving artist. Can you give me some more interesting references?
= Escher is a favorite artist loved by many production designers. I wanted to make his masterpieces permeate well into my work, and I was happy to do so through Squid Game. I struggled a lot trying to avoid referencing videos or films for Squid Game production design. I intentionally didn't watch existing films or videos because I wanted to bring something more unique and new, my own Squid Game, and things that could make everybody amazed. Then, where did I get the ideas? Come to think of it now, I went to art exhibitions with the production design team a lot. I also read a lot of illustrations and fairy tales, focusing on colors and pictures.
Namhansanseong with Production Designer Chae Kyeongsun and Director Hwang Donghyuk.
- I wonder how you could work with Director Hwang Donghyuk.
= One of my colleagues in the production team of Silenced suggested a meeting. At that time, I was a newbie in the field. After reading the scenario and the book Silenced, I wrote a three-page report on the A4 paper. I was so nervous that I couldn't say a word confidently. On the report, I wrote what I felt while reading the original book of Silenced and how I wanted to plan a production design for it. The director said he was pleased with my report that I organized my opinions on the paper. That's how we started working together. I have a deep affection toward Silenced. It made me realize what role movies should play in society. The director wanted to do something fun after that, so we made Miss Granny and The Fortress, the masterpiece historical drama. That's how we've been connected. I sincerely respect Director Hwang Donghyuk. He is very humane but cool-headed. He always talks about what he wants to do when directing. He also actively accepts my opinions and ideas. Trust in each other is very important in collaborating.
- I wonder how you first became interested in production design for films.
= I studied stage art. I liked plays and musicals, so I made a theater stage in Daehangno, a theater district in Seoul, when I was in school. By the time I graduated, I worked with my friends who majored in films. That's how I learned what production design is. In the early 2000s, when the roles of production designers became important, I was lucky to study production design. I also took a lot of film classes before graduating, which was in time. Then, I completely turned my way toward production design for films. My parents are movie-goers, and they took me to the cinemas often since I was in the elementary school, and I think that must have influenced me a lot.
- What was the special charm in production design for films?
= Production design for films is all about embodying each scene, right? Besides an actor's acting, Mise-en-Scene seems to have the charm of leading characters or stories into divided spaces. I was fascinated by those things. A production designer is a person who infuses the soul into the screen. I think I'm in charge of leading the story. So I want to continue working on videos in the future.
= It feels like I studied history again while making movies, and it was so much fun. As I had to study various things for the historical research on architecture, Hanok, royal palaces, and props. Costume dramas tend to have a larger budget than modern dramas, and the sense of space looks different depending on the expression. The space looks slightly different depending on production designers. That's why I want to try the costume drama genre again. I have a desire to continue to create the visuals of historical dramas with different feelings.
- From the aesthetic point of view, Squid Game seems to be very different from reality-oriented works.
= Yes, so it was a challenge. My desire was burning to create visuals that I had never seen in Korea before. I realized what I had planned as much as I wanted. I think the director and the production company supported me a lot and that is why we could get a good result. In addition, it wouldn't have been possible without the production design team, the set team, and the prop team.
- Squid Game wasn't made for a large screen in the cinema. Do you think the fact affected production design?
= At first, I wished it would be nice to see the work on a large screen, but now our attitudes toward watching videos have changed a lot. Now, I appreciate that the audience from all over the world can see it all together. I think some people may have seen it on the large TV screen. I feel that I have experienced the changes in platforms. There was no difference between a movie version and an OTT version when I was working for it. I created it with the same craftsmanship, paying attention to the details.
- Is there any production design for movies you pursue?
= No matter what work I meet, I hope my color will be discarded and only the color of the work appears through me. I think that's what matters. Whenever you meet a movie that I make, I hope you can't tell it's Chae Kyeongsun's production design. What I mean is that I want to do art that permeates into the work. In a way, I hope I can be hidden by the work without revealing my color in it.