Sarofsky’s house of glass leads viewers into The Staircase
The Staircase was co-produced by Annapurna Television and written and executive produced by Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn, who also serve as showrunners. Campos directed six episodes and Leigh Janiak directed two episodes.
Cinematically introducing the series’ main credits, the narrative begins with blackness, as a white line traces a set of stairs. Switching scale with sleight of hand techniques, the line-work becomes a three-dimensional floor plan, rendered with photorealistic glass. Inside the see-through walls are human forms resembling Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) and his family members. Prowling on, glass furnishings and artefacts refract kaleidoscopically, varying between sharpness and abstraction, until light patterns resolve into darkened stairs. From a top-down view of the glass 3D house, cutaways juxtapose up with down, man with woman, and togetherness with isolation, finally withdrawing to fully view the series’ iconic setting, then soaring back in to find the simple white line of the notorious staircase, and the series’ title.
“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,” said Antonio Campos. “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.”
Preliminary discussions with the showrunners led the Sarofsky team to focus on a few specific angles: First, they wanted to explore the home both as an investigator, and as a place where a family was raised; second, as a complex story with varying theories contributing mystery and complexity at every turn; and finally, the fact that everything in Peterson’s life feeds the mystery around this staircase.
“Thematically, Antonio and Maggie were focused on the layering and complexity the show wrestles with,” said Sarofsky creative director Stefan Draht. “Aspects of this include the lack of clarity around the main plot, the importance of the characters’ varying perspectives, and family dynamics. The idea of using the staircase as a visual element was an open question, which prompted us to think about ways to avoid obvious solutions.”
Among the presented concepts, show executives immediately embraced a representation of the family home as a glass model.
People in glass houses
To humanise the concept without spoiling narrative or plot, Sarofsky’s creatives translated relationships and interactions into moods and abstractions. “Antonio and Maggie were great collaborators throughout the process,” said executive creative director Erin Sarofsky. “Antonio consistently pushed us to investigate even more surreal and Escher-like approaches, describing the goal as wanting viewers to sense the complex journey to come, while trusting that the show will lead them through.”
“Like many of our title sequences the concepts all began life in Adobe Photoshop and evolved outwards from six to nine concept frames, to approximately 40 frame boards,” added Draht. These detailed boards chronicled the broad arc, allowing show executives to pre-visualise the studio’s proposed solution. They were followed by hand-drawn storyboards to further specify content and better convey shot-to-shot transitions.
Sarofsky’s project credits also include producer Dylan Ptak, editor Tom Pastorelle, designer/animators Andrea Braga, Tricia Kleinot, Cat McCarthy, Dean Ripper, Nik Braatz, Oskar Fülöp, Jake Thomas, and Tanner Wickware, with final colour and finishing courtesy of Sarofsky’s VFX & finishing supervisor, Cory Davis. Many of the designer/animators were assigned to extensively investigate glass, with the goal of producing convincing results in 3D.
“The huge challenge with a material like glass is sheer render time: how long it’s going to take to produce a clean 4K frame,” Draht explained. “For this reason, we landed on using GPU-based rendering solutions, which was necessary to allow our artists to preview the materials during the look-development phase.”
After testing multiple renderers, the team opted for OTOY Octane Render, which Draht credits as being essential for meeting their delivery schedule. All 3D animation was created using Maxon Cinema 4D, with 2D animation and compositing handled in Adobe After Effects. Cory Davis performed final colour grading and finishing via Autodesk Flame.