How did Kathleen Peterson die? Over twenty years later, this question still fascinates the public. A story with so many ambiguities and angles, all open to interpretation. This story inspired an intriguing drama series that eschews true-crime tropes in favor of internal narratives and character building. And it sets the table for our equally creative, genre neutral title sequence.
Showrunners Antonio Campos (director) and Maggie Cohn (executive producer/writer) set out to create something different, something unique. The show does not want to be another true-crime murder mystery or straight dramatization of an existing docuseries. Instead the focus is placed on bringing the audience into the world rather than having them observe at a distance.
The initial brief from Antonio and Maggie focused on emphasizing the Peterson house as setting and the character relationships therein. For all of us that meant using the house as a dominant element in the sequence. A solution like that would work in two ways. It would provide the audience with a practical overview of the space as well as establish the house as a character and a metaphor.
“It was always our hope that the main title sequence would help establish the complicated family dynamics at play while capturing the show’s themes. The sequence does that, but more importantly, by presenting these Escher like impossible spaces and portraying the interior of the house as a maze–which is constructed and then deconstructed over the course of the sequence–it really presents a lens through which the audience can view the series in a visually exciting way.”
— Antonio Campos
Glass is a metaphorically rich material. It can be mercurial and hard to nail down. Not only does it reveal and allow one to look through but it can also hide and obscure. It can be clean, crisp and transparent but it can also distort, alter, and mislead.
It is these ambiguous qualities that we were thinking about while creating a concept rooted in a transparent Peterson house. It is a concept about peering into someone’s life but not always seeing things clearly.
Antonio and Maggie felt that this concept had both a uniqueness that speaks to many of the themes in the show and importantly it evoked a feeling of uncertainty. That uncertain, or disorienting feeling is captured in the surreal and illusory parts of the sequence. Illusionists like M.C. Escher inspired those moments of dislocation and surprise in which we use the structures and building elements themselves in abstract or startling ways. This all serves to articulate the feeling that things are not as they seem.
Optical illusions can be challenging to imagine and pull off in illustrations, but can be doubly hard to build when they need to exist in a “real” space.
Since we were working with glass in CG we had to identify the boundaries for how far we could push reality before the image broke. When working in CG there is infinite freedom in one sense, but that freedom exists in tension with the viewer’s expectations.
In our world glass can grow and extrude, it can form to create enclosed spaces that exist in a void and inside these spaces we can set up vignettes or scenes. Within those, we can tell small stories or play with scale, depth, and perspective.
What we found was that the “rooms” provided a grounding for the viewer that allowed us to arrange those spaces in more abstract and surprising ways. We could show the viewer a room within a house in one moment and with a shift of perspective imply that they were actually looking at a small part of a labyrinthine structure. And then, return them to a sense of room-within-a-house only moments later.
This world has uncertainty baked into its foundation. It all depends on where you stand and how you look at it.
“… They had this great idea of forced perspectives, and it was just a really wonderful collaboration where they came with their initial idea, we came with our idea, and then we started to kind of brainstorm and found something that was really original and speaks to so many of the themes in the show…”
In order to visualize the narrative and optical illusions we began the process with illustrated and collaged storyboards. This allowed us to iterate quickly and imagine moments without burdening the CG team to mock up every single idea.
When designing a title sequence we always focus a lot of attention on the typography. In this case, the type design needed to avoid specific genre references, feel contemporary and also allow us to make subtle, unsettling alterations. (hint: look very closely at the names throughout the sequence)
At the same time as we were exploring the narrative and typography the CG artists were undertaking the challenges that glass surfaces inherently impose. Glass is one of those things that is just hard in CG. There are a million details that need to be right in order for the surfaces to read as believable. So nailing those details and then still reserving the ability to make creative decisions about composition and art direct the substance was a huge endeavor.
Creatively rich projects like this also tend to push into new techniques, new solutions, and new ways of working. In this case it meant revisiting how we thought about rendering and led us to explore the various cutting edge options available. While all of the popular rendering solutions can provide high production value results and optimization, they don’t necessarily tackle certain problems in the same way.
This specifically held true when it came to the large amounts of refractive surfaces in our approach. We absolutely needed to find a renderer that would create a high quality image super fast. Even a 2-5% difference in relative speed would add up when rendering the 2,000+ frames at 4k.
With light being such an important part of the concept, both metaphorically and technically, we chose to use an ACES workflow through the entire pipeline. This gave us great exposure and color latitude in compositing. It also provided a color model for more natural looking highlights and shadow fall-offs. We wanted to maintain that strong, high-contrast architectural feel throughout the sequence while avoiding a monochromatic look or losing the subtle prismatic effects of glass and chromatin lens artifacts of a “camera.”
“Early on in the process Antonio said ‘the audience knows the name of the show already’ we can show them something besides a staircase… And that we did.”
Swipe for before and after.
Our north star when designing a title sequence is always ‘is it appropriate?’ Does the design solution truly fit the show or the film? It’s our belief that placing this principle first is what leads to the best result for the audience and what completes the feeling of an experience. To create a sequence that feels both appropriate and also uniquely arresting in its visuals is a testament to the collaboration with Antonio and Maggie.
They say that a film is never really done but that at some point you need to stop working on it. The same principle applies to title sequences. We were brainstorming and tweaking with Antonio right up until the end and it was this collaboration combined with the trust placed in the creativity of team Sarofsky that led to something really special.
“It’s truly satisfying when a close collaboration results in something that feels simultaneously unique and appropriate.”
Executive Creative DirectorErin Sarofsky
Executive ProducerSteven Anderson
Creative DirectorStefan Draht
3D AnimationNik Braatz
Concept DevelopmentAndrea Braga
Storyboard ArtistTricia Kleinot
Show RunnersAntonio Campos
ProducerChristina M. Fitzgerald