Netflix's most popular series to date, "Squid Game," isn't just a creepy thriller about a survival competition. In its nightmarish carnival of the economically struggling wagering their lives for the amusement of wealthy voyeurs, creator, writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk unleashes a blistering critique of the system that makes such a story seem not impossible. He and his collaborators use sly cinematic language with coded meanings in elements such as numbers, set design, colors and paintings.
Through an interpreter, Hwang says, "I was totally financially deprived" around 2008, when he conceived the story "and wanted to depict the society I was living in. Why do the haves continue to accumulate wealth? And why do the have-nots continue to lose [what little] they have? I wanted to make some allegory of how this widening gap is unfolding."
During his years of financial struggle, Hwang says he "spent a lot of time reading comic books," including ones involving survival games. He wondered if he could become desperate enough to compete in them, and whether he could survive them. Thus, the larva of "Squid Game" was hatched.
"I wanted this to feel like a story that [really] could happen somehow, so I wanted to make sure the boundaries between real and fake are well felt in the production design. When I was studying in the States, I went to Las Vegas once. I went to these casinos in the Paris and the Venetian hotels, and I was startled. People were playing games in the completely fake Paris and completely fake Venice.
Hwang says he added Rene Magritte's "Empire of Light" to the room where the Front Man, who oversees the deadly games, watches. In the painting, Hwang says, "night and day would be coexisting ... I wanted the players as well as the viewers to feel that surreal feeling I had when I first went into those casinos."
In the series' first contest — Red Light, Green Light — hundreds of people die in a matter of minutes. But the giant set is clean and fanciful, like a park for kids: "You see the point where the fake sky touches the real sky."
"It's the first game," says visual effects coordinator Cheong Jai-hoon. "While we wanted it to be unique, we didn't want it to look too unfamiliar. We wanted it to be like a buffer zone to go from real to unreal. I told director Hwang it could be like 'The Truman Show.'"
Production designer Chae Kyoung-sun confirms all the scenes in cities were shot on location for tactile realism, as opposed to the meticulously executed sets on the island of deadly contests.
Still, says Hwang, "There's almost no scene where the VFX wasn't used, but it was so well done that people didn't really notice. Making sure everything looked real and hiding its existence; that was the key mission of the VFX team, and they did a remarkable job.
"In the game of 'Marbles,'" he says, "it's a set that looks like a village but [actually], it's just walls" with nothing behind.