Lensing and Making Music For "Squid Game"
Lee Jung-jae (center), flanked by Park Hae-soo (r) and Oh Yeong-su (l) in a scene from the “Squid Game.” Both Hae-Soo and Yeong-Su were nominated for an Emmy Award for best supporting actor in a drama series. Jung-jae was nominated for lead actor in a drama series. (photo courtesy of Netflix)
Insights from cinematographer Hyung-deok Lee and composer Jung Jae-il into historic Emmy-nominated series

Earning historic distinction as the first non-English language series to be nominated for the Outstanding Drama Series Emmy, the dystopian Korean thriller Squid Game (Netflix) centers on people who are so desperate for money that they consent to compete in a series of schoolyard games which carry potentially deadly consequences. 

And now the show with competition in its DNA finds itself vying for honors on the biggest industry stage, having garnered 14 Emmy nominations in its first season. Squid Game’s Emmy nods also include best directing and writing for a drama series (both for Hwang Dong-hyuk), lead actor (Lee Jung-jae), supporting actor (individual nominations for Park Hae-soo and Oh Yeong-su), supporting actress (Hoyeon), VFX in a single episode (VFX supervisor Jai-hoon Cheong), single-camera picture editing (Nam Na-young), production design (Chae Kyoung-sun), cinematography (Hyung-deok Lee) and original main title theme music (Jung Jae-il).

SHOOT caught up with the latter two nominees--with the help of English-language interpretors--for the final installment of this season’s Road To Emmy Series.

Cinematographer Lee shared that his first career Emmy nomination “came as a complete surprise, and I am excited and honored to be nominated for the world-renowned Emmy Awards. It is even more meaningful that this is the first time for a Korean series to be nominated for an awards ceremony in the English-speaking world. So far, the primary audience of my work has been the Korean audience, but Squid Game expanded the horizon to the whole world, and I am deeply happy about it.”

Squid Game marked the DP’s first foray into television, his experience and reputation having been shaped in the feature film world. He explained, “By the time Squid Game came along, the Korean market landscape was going through a dramatic shift towards over-the-top media content. I was thinking I wanted to work on a series in a new environment when the script of Squid Game was offered to me, so I joined the project. I also had trust in director Hwang Dong-hyuk from his previous works, which was another reason why I got on board. Having a meeting with him indeed added to the trust because he looked confident about this show that he wrote himself.”

The series posed varied challenges, according to Lee who related. “Director Hwang preferred having clear plans to shooting spontaneously, so there was no particular difficulty on set. The biggest challenge came from having to shoot in a constrained environment when COVID-19 struck Korea. Another challenge was the sheer amount of filming that had to be done in a limited time, which was new to me because it was nothing like shooting for a film.

“The most difficult scene to shoot was the riot,” continued Lee. “The scene squarely exposed the cruelty of humans. I intended to capture the moments of utter cruelty through intermittent flashing effect in the pitch-black darkness, but it was tricky to find the exact right amount of time for the lighting; when not done right, the scene only added confusion rather than conveying the story. So we had to do a lot of tests, make changes during the shoot, and pay extra attention in postproduction.”

Lee’s choice of camera for Squid Game was the RED Weapon Monstro 8K. “RED Monstro was chosen because it is light in weight, delivers high resolution, and is versatile in different settings. Many scenes had to incorporate computer graphics because the show is heavy with make-believe spaces and games, and the camera allowed us to work on computer graphics while maintaining the resolution of 4K and above.”  He added that the Panasonic GH4 and Phantom 4K high-speed cameras were also used in some scenes. The mix of lens sets deployed included: a Master prime lens set; Alura lwt zoom 15.5-45mm; Alura lwt zoom 30-80mm; and Alura studio zoom 45-250mm.

As for his biggest takeaway from his Squid Game experience, Lee said, “I am glad that I had a chance to work on an amazing series that is extremely hard to come by. Thanks to this experience, I feel like I have a much wider range of options for my future work. I am ready to take on new challenges, being open to more diverse types of work without limiting myself to the cultural boundaries or language barriers.”

Jung Jae-il
Jae-il’s first career Emmy nomination came for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music. The Squid Game composer said that the recognition from TV Academy voters reflects the power of the streaming dynamic, noting that he usually works “locally but thanks to Netflix everyone around the world can listen to my work--and this was a dream of mine when I started my career at a very early age. It’s amazing and I can’t believe this is happening.”

Drawing him initially to Squid Game was the chance to work with writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk. Jae-il has been a self-described “big fan” of the director, recalling that he watched his movie The Fortress five times. Squid Game, noted the composer, was written by Dong-hyuk some 10 years ago but didn’t come to fruition. The writer-director told him he was going to try again and gave Jae-il the scripts for all nine episodes, which the composer read in one sitting. Jae-il said the work was creatively inspired, different from The Fortress yet just as engrossing--”so unique, so bizarre, so interesting.”

Director Dong-hyuk afforded Jae-il creative freedom on Squid Game. The composer observed that generally speaking there are two types of directors--one who has a full master plan for the score, and a second who leaves much of the responsibility to the composer. Jae-il said that Dong-hyuk was the latter type.

A prime challenge for Jae-il was the running time. Accustomed to working on films two or so hours in duration, he was now taking on some nine hours of storytelling for Squid Game. As for the main title music, Jae-il shared that the opening piece is quite important, setting a tone for the series. He created six or seven samples to present to the director who made it clear what he wanted--described by Jae-il as music that was “unique and not too Hollywood cliche,” something not too conventional and without too much grandeur. Jae-il said that Dong-hyuk understood that music that was “simple, minimal and unique would work best for Squid Game.”

Professionally, Squid Game taught Jae-il how to deal with episodic work, underscoring the importance of collaboration. Personally, the story of Squid Game carried the profound lesson that “we should try our best to cling onto human dignity despite harsh conditions that we face.” The series, Jae-il affirmed, gave him “a lot of food for thought.”

This is the final installment of a 16-part weekly The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories exploring the field of Emmy contenders and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, costume design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy Series will be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 3 (Saturday) and 4 (Sunday), and then the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on Monday, September 12.

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