The eight-episode Max Original limited series “The Staircase” debuted Thursday, May 5 on HBO Max. Based on a true story, “The Staircase” explores the life of Michael Peterson (Colin Firth), his sprawling North Carolina family, and the suspicious death of his wife, Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette). Created by Antonio Campos who also directs six episodes, “The Staircase” is co-produced by Annapurna Television, and written and produced by co-showrunners Campos and Maggie Cohn. For the series’ captivating main title sequence, Campos, Cohn and their colleagues turned to unique cross-media production company Sarofsky.
Cinematically introducing the series’ main credits, the narrative begins in black, as a white line traces a staircase. Changing scale with sleight of hand techniques, the line drawing becomes a three-dimensional floor plan, rendered with photorealistic glass. Inside the transparent walls are human forms resembling Michael and his family members. Prowling voyeuristically, glass furniture and artifacts kaleidoscopically refract, shifting between starkness and abstraction, until luminous patterns resolve into dark staircases. From a top-down view of the 3D Glass House, the cutaways juxtapose top-down, male-to-female, and togetherness in seclusion, eventually receding to fully view the iconic setting of the series, then arrowing back to find the single white line of the notorious staircase and the title of the series.
In Campos’ words, “We always hoped the main title sequence would help establish the complicated family dynamics at play while capturing the themes of the series. The sequence does that, but more importantly, by presenting these Eschers as impossible spaces and depicting the interior of the house as a labyrinth – 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.
Working closely with Campos and Cohn, this project was another tantalizing assignment for Executive Creative Director Erin Sarofsky, Creative Director Stefan Draht, General Manager/Executive Producer Steven Anderson and the Sarofsky team. According to Sarofsky’s account, preliminary discussions with the showrunners led them to focus on a few specific angles: first, they wanted to explore the house both as an investigator and as a place where a family was raised; second, as a complex story with varying theories bringing mystery and complexity at every turn; and finally, the fact that everything in Michael’s life fuels the mystery around that staircase.
“Thematically, Antonio and Maggie focused on the layering and complexity that the show struggles with,” Draht began. “Aspects of this include the lack of clarity around the main plot, the importance of different character perspectives, and family dynamics. The idea of using the staircase as a visual element was an open question, which we prompted people to think about ways to avoid the obvious solutions.
Among the concepts presented, the leaders of the show immediately adopted a representation of the family home in the form of a glass model. To humanize the concept without spoiling the narrative or plot, Sarofsky’s creatives diligently translated relationships and interactions into moods and abstractions. “Antonio and Maggie have been great collaborators throughout the process,” Sarofsky added. “Antonio constantly pushed us to explore even more surreal and Escher-like approaches, describing the goal as wanting viewers to feel the complex journey ahead, while being confident that the show will take them through. “
In a glass house
Draht led a detailed presentation of Sarofsky’s production process behind this sequence. “Like many of our title sequences,” he said, “the concepts all started in Adobe Photoshop and evolved from six to nine concept frames, to about 40 framesets.” Apparently, these detailed charts chronicle the broad arc, allowing show executives to preview the studio’s proposed solution. This is followed by hand-drawn storyboards to further refine content and better convey transitions from shot to shot.
Sarofsky’s project credits also include producer Dylan Ptak, editor Tom Pastorelle, designers/animators Andrea Braga, Tricia Kleinot, Cat McCarthy, Dean Ripper, Nik Braatz, Oskar Fülöp, Jake Thomas and Tanner Wickware, along with color finale and finish courtesy of Sarofsky’s VFX. & finishing supervisor, Cory Davis. Many designers/animators were tasked with studying the glass in depth, with the goal of producing compelling 3D results.
“The huge challenge with a material like glass is rendering time: how long it will take to produce a clean 4K image,” Draht continued. “For this reason, we opted for GPU-based rendering solutions, which was necessary to allow our artists to preview materials during the look development phase.”
After testing several renderers, the team settled on OTOY Octane Render, which Draht considers essential to meet its delivery schedule. All 3D animations were created using Maxon Cinema4D, with 2D animation and compositing handled in Adobe After Effects. Davis did the final color grading and finishing through Autodesk Flame.
According to Sarofsky, “Working on a master title sequence for HBO Max is the absolute ambition of any master title designer and studio. We were touched by this opportunity and now we are impressed with the result. HBO Max is truly a place which supports creating amazing content.
“It’s an ambitious creative direction to take with a title sequence, and we’re thrilled with the support Antonio, Maggie, and HBO Max have provided to continue pushing the concept,” Anderson concluded.
“The Staircase” is co-produced by Annapurna Television and written and produced by Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn, who also serve as showrunners. Campos directed six episodes and Leigh Janiak directed two episodes.
To learn more about “The Staircase”, please see Sarofsky’s case study at https://www.sarofsky.com and https://www.hbomax.com.
Director, creative director and designer Erin Sarofsky started Sarofsky in 2009 and has nurtured an extraordinarily talented group of creators who have served leaders in the advertising and entertainment industries around the world. Today, Sarofsky creators use animation, visual effects, motion design, and live action to collaborate with clients from concept to delivery, producing visceral, innovative, and diverse work. With an artistry that encompasses in-house long-form, sublime commercials, branded films, title sequences and more, Sarofsky’s reputation for groundbreaking design, proven multimedia production expertise and fabulously designed studio by Olson Kundig in Chicago’s West Loop are all key elements of the attraction. Learn more at https://www.sarofsky.com.