April 29th, 2022

Behind the Scenes: Squid Game at Gulliver Studios

Squid Game, the South Korean survival drama that quickly became Netflix’s most watched Original series, tells the story of hundreds of cash-strapped players who accept a strange invitation to compete in children's games… with deadly high stakes.

To bring this gory, dystopian drama television series to life, Netlflix and creator Hwang Dong-hyuk teamed up with Gulliver Studios, one of South Korea’s leading VFX studios, to work on all 9 seasons and 1,960 VFX shots. 

We spoke to Squid Game Lighting Lead, Kiran ​​Kumar, to learn how Gulliver Studios built the unnerving world of Squid Game with Visual Effects (VFX), using Clarisse for look development, lighting and rendering of the entire series.

Can you tell us some background on Gulliver Studios, when the studio was created, how many people work there, and what kind of projects you do?

C-Jes Gulliver Studios is a VFX studio established in 2019. We have around 80 employees, 60 of which are artists, and 10 take care of the R&D. We work on a mix of long and short form projects including Korean and Chinese feature films, and a few TV dramas as well.

What is your name and role at Gulliver Studios?

My name is Kiran Kumar, and I’ve been working as a Lighting lead with Gulliver Studios since 2019. During my time at Gulliver Studios, I’ve had the pleasure of working on many film and TV productions, including: The Cursed: Deadman’s Prey, Collectors, The Yin-Yang Master: Dream of Eternity, Hometown, Stranger 2, Lost and of course Squid Game

What are the main reasons that led you to choose Clarisse for lookdev, lighting and rendering at Gulliver Studios, and how many artists are using it?

Around 14 artists use Clarisse at Gulliver Studios, and we choose Clarisse because of its ability to handle huge numbers of polygons. It’s also the most advanced layout tool we’ve seen, and supports third party applications like Speedtree and Yeti, which is really important to us. We’ve also found that Clarisse is really easy to learn for many different types of artists. Its file management handling is really user-friendly and we really like that it lets anyone quickly see a progressive render, even when working with huge asset data. 

How did you find the experience of integrating Clarisse into your studio and pipeline? 

Clarisse really lived up to its reputation of being made by artists for artists. This made integration into our pipeline and getting up and running using Clarisse straightforward and easy.  When we first got started, we found we needed to learn new concepts like how to make Light Path Expressions, how to handle displacement maps, and how to make scattered layouts. But thanks to the Clarisse forum and Discord community, and many video tutorials, we learned fast and had a smooth transition.

Now let’s talk about your recent project Squid Game. Can you tell us how many episodes and shots Gulliver Studios worked on for the show?

We handled the entire Squid Game show. In total, we worked on 9 episodes which involved around 1,960 VFX shots over a period of 1 year and 3 months. 

Can you tell us how this was split out across departments?

We have a fairly standard set-up. We have animation, FX, rigging, and all the typical CG pipeline departments. We have a matchmove/layout team that made the cameras for each shot. The rest is the same as a normal VFX pipeline. 

What were Gulliver Studios’ goals when starting work on Squid Game?

Squid Game was our first Netflix original series. So, our entire team was excited about the show, everyone wanted to make sure each shot was as beautiful as possible.

What challenges did you face as a studio on this project?

There were lots of CG shots on this show, so it was a huge challenge to handle the amount of data (images, references, notes, comments, updates, revisions, etc) in our pipeline, and to manage the transfer of the data between departments. But luckily, our production team is fantastic, and they handled it very well, without any issues. 

Another big challenge that we faced was how to work with so many shots in each sequence. We knew one artist couldn’t handle that many shots, so we needed to distribute them among a team of artists and ensure that the look and feel remained the same to match continuity. To solve this, we developed a dailies process for each department that fed approved shots to our CG and VFX supervisors, this helped us to make the work more streamlined and easier for our artists.  

And as artists, we faced different challenges, like matching the photography or different kinds of set lighting, and planning the shots to finish on deadline, as well as matching the look and feel in the sequence continuity.

Can you tell us about Gulliver Studios’ VFX pipeline for Squid Game?

Our pipeline for Squid Game was pretty typical for VFX studios. We used Maya for animation and layout, Golam for the crowd shots, Houdini for VFX shots, Yeti for fur (on our 1 shot of a rat), Clarisse for the lookdev, lighting and rendering, and Nuke for the compositing. Plus a few other specialist tools for matte painting and some 2D work.

Did software help you solve any of these challenges?

With our small team of TD’s, we made a few tools and scripts to make the process of getting data, including abc data, project file data and VDB data, from many different departments into Clarisse for lighting, easier. This included a shot based update texture and model tool, tools to send updates to the renderfarm and scripts for the compositing and lighting departments to automate the creation of precomp movies.

Can you tell us about any memorable shots and sequences that you used Clarisse on for this show, and how it helped you overcome any challenges you faced in creating these shots? 

The Maze, Dormitory, Tug of War, Circus, Two Field and Piggy Bank sequences are some of the highlights that were created and rendered using Clarisse. And the most challenging would have to be the Tug of War, Circus, Maze and Piggy Bank sequences, because they had such huge sets with many, many different kinds of light. 

For the Tug of War and Circus sequences, we had many shots to deliver but luckily our VFX and CG supervisors gave us crystal clear instructions as to how the director wanted to see the shots. We started by making light rigs in Clarisse, and using a few master shots from each sequence to show the output. We were lucky that the shots were approved in the first go with minimal changes. And once approved, we could start delivering the remaining shots using the already set up Clarisse light rigs. This saved us a lot of time.  

The Piggy Bank shots were not originally meant to be part of the CG work. But after the shoot, the director didn’t like how many scratches could be seen on the glass of the real piggy bank, so these shots became a job for CG. Lookdeving the piggy bank was really challenging because of the transparency, refractions and time to render time. But with the help of Clarisse’s standard material, some transparency and specular maps we were able to create a really nice glass material to match the plate, and deliver a really real looking piggy bank. 

The graphics in the breakdown look so photo-real, can you tell us how you did that with so much set extension work?

To make the set extension work look photo-real, we used all kinds of HDR maps, taken on set by our Set Supervisors. For the lighting we received almost 360 degree on-set photographs from our production and VFX supervisor. These images ensured our lighting leads and artists understood the lighting used across the whole set. This meant that once we understood the lighting requirement of each asset, we could match the on-set lights in 3D. 

To match the photography, we made sure our models and textures matched the set as closely as possible. Once we had that, it was easy to match the photography with lighting. 

For example, in the Tug of War sequence there was a huge set with many elevator lights, spotlights and road lights. We had to place more than 200 lights to match the real on-set lighting. And for the Circus sequence, there were more than 2,000 small bulbs, so we made an emission material to achieve the right look and feel. From there, we then worked more creatively to make the images more photorealistic and artistic. For our lighting team, it was a wonderful experience to work on many different kinds of sets with different kinds of lighting setup.

How did you deal with render noise? 

For Squid Game, all the renders were 4K EXR’s and we planned them out based on the environment each shot featured. The planning involved doing many test renders, using different quality, raytracer and material sample settings. We then examined the quality of each and finalized the Raytracer settings for each environment to ensure minimum noise. 

You chose to render the entire project in Clarisse, can you tell us about your overall experience of using Clarisse for rendering? 

It was an easy choice for us to adopt Clarisse for rendering as we were using it for our lookdev and lighting as well, and it didn’t disappoint. Clarisse delivered noise free renders, gave us easy to understand CNode batch commands, and rendered much quicker than other 3D applications we’ve used. Our overall rendering experience with Clarisse was fantastic. 

Is there anything else that wouldn’t have been possible without Clarisse?

Maintaining continuity would have been really hard without Clarisse, and we couldn’t have managed without Clarisse’s Light and UV baking workflow. It’s just amazing! 

For one really tricky sequence we used Light and UV baking to bake the entire set with lights and textures, and then used the render in camera projection. The fact that we could bake the asset with light and texture data once, then hand it off to the artists for further work without them needing to worry about noise or the continuity of the look and feel, made our collaborative shot work completely smooth and both hassel and error free. 

Also, managing changes across departments would have been really hard without Clarisse. Like with any show, in Squid Games we needed to make changes across textures, animation and lookdev throughout the course of production. Thankfully we had Clarisse, and its referencing system, that made management of these changes as quick and smooth as possible. We don’t think that would have been possible without Clarisse and that’s why our artists love it! 

Can you tell us a bit more about your Clarisse favorite features that were used on this show.

Our team has many favorite features in Clarisse. But if we had to choose, I’d say we enjoy using UV baking, LPEs for driving any channel or light, and the overscan render functionality, from which we rendered overscan images for camera projections in post.

And finally, how was your overall experience of using Clarisse for a TV show?

It was an amazing experience using Clarisse for TV work. So often with TV shows, you end up having many shots featuring the same environment, as was the case for Squid Game, and for work like this, Clarisse makes it really easy for the artist to work through shots. You just need to change your cameras and render. It’s even possible to make a script to do this for you! Clarisse has so many artist friendly features, I would highly recommend it to anyone to use in their CG pipeline.