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(EDITOR'S NOTE: A version of this interview first appeared on the SYFY WIRE website in 2018; Castle Rock was officially canceled by Hulu in 2020 after two seasons.)
How do you condense nearly 50 years of Stephen King novels, short stories, and novellas into the span of about 30 seconds? That was the monumental challenge facing the Imaginary Forces designers behind the opening titles for Hulu's Castle Rock.
Set in the fictional Maine hamlet that appears in Cujo, The Dark Half, Needful Things, and more, the series (co-created by Dustin Thomason and Sam Shaw, and executive produced by J.J. Abrams) is a hybridized love letter to the spine-tingling literary mythos King has carefully crafted over the decades. Much like the Dark Tower, the town of Castle Rock — at least within the context of the show — is the epicenter of all King creation. We'd say that he rested on the seventh day, but that just isn't true. The guy published a new book as recently as 2021.
"From our initial conversation with Sam and Dustin, they explained Castle Rock as taking place in the rooms and spaces off camera, or to the side of the Castle Rock that Stephen King had created. Also, the town has a sense of doom — it is a rundown, forgotten place and is as much a character as the actors," designer Max Strizich tells SYFY WIRE. "It was important that the look of the title sequence was visually distinct from the show, but captured the tone and hinted at the Stephen King universe."
"We had researched and worked with Sam and Dustin to come up with a spreadsheet of every story that had taken place in the town [of] Castle Rock," adds fellow designer Henry Chang. "We would keep going back to the same list to pick the ones we thought were interesting to work into our spot."
Meant to resemble the turning pages of a book, the opening titles sequence contains a plethora of references to the author's most iconic works like The Green Mile, The Shining, It, 'Salem's Lot, Misery, and The Shawshank Redemption. The goal, Chang explains, was "to first use common references to draw peoples’ eyes, knowing once the viewer realized those writings on the paper actually had meaning, they would pause and pay more attention to other clues in the piece."
Earlier in the process, however, the team pitched what Strizich calls "a rollercoaster [ride] through Castle Rock, transitioning through its spaces in a single camera move. We worked in references from Stephen King — for example, Georgie’s yellow raincoat hanging on a hook in a doorway — to be scattered throughout."
Chang reveals that it was an "uncanny journey through some of the important scenes in the show. You traveled through the house, the school, the jail, the cage of The Kid [played by Pennywise alum Bill Skarsgård], the sinking car, to the flooding bathroom. These scenes were built in a way that you could sense there were violent events that happened, but you didn’t see any human figures. That gave us the chance to see the town and its 'evil' without the presence of people. Through the constantly pushing back of the camera, it almost feels like you were being sucked out of those places and finally ended up on a bird's eye view of the town."
This concept made it all the way to the pre-visualization stage before it was scrapped due to the fact that it "felt too removed from King's source material," Strizich admits.
He continues: "At this point, we went back to the source material, his writing. In looking at the paperback King books, there was a sense of nostalgia. Notes in margins, dog-eared pages, all the wear-and-tear found in a well-read book. Based on this, we developed a system to showcase King's references to Castle Rock, the town, using an exploded view of the Castle Rock title as the vehicle. To get the ball moving, we ordered as many used paperback Stephen King books as we could. This was an exciting part of the process and as we scanned and photographed elements to be used in the sequence, the look really began to take shape."
The end result was an almost scrapbook — or better yet — ransom note-style collage of torn (and annotated) excerpts, maps, and cover illustrations that subtly drive home these interconnected stories and characters who revolve around the town of Castle Rock in some way.
"We did not want the Easter egg aspect of the concept being carried away by the colorful and visually interesting cover art," Chang says. "That's why, in the finished piece, you can barely recognize most of the covers. It ended up to be more of an atmospheric element that gives you the dated print feel of the paperbacks. Then there was also the question of what covers to use. What paperback artwork of King’s were the most iconic ones? It was amazing to see how a simple idea just keeps evolving and perfecting itself throughout the team’s hands and minds."
He likens the creative process to "what a detective would do when solving a case... A huge part of this title is to tease that someone is collecting all the text and trying to piece together what is happening in this town. In the title sequence, you can see many notes being taken and many questions being written down in pieces on the paper. Seeing our team squeezing their brains, trying to come up with those notes, was probably the most fun part. We even hid an Easter egg in there for ourselves (the team), which you can’t really see unless we blow it up ten times bigger."
Despite the long and winding road that led to the finalized version of the introductory titles, the idea to include little nods to King's rich Macroverse (shoutout to the great Turtle and vomiter of our very existence, Maturin) was always on the agenda from the very beginning.
“I think we were all super excited knowing that hidden messages can be a huge thing in this particular title sequence,” Chang explains. “Castle Rock is the perfect show to do this because of the town’s importance in other of King’s stories. Looking back, it feels like the thinking of the final design was already living in our minds even way back then."
Both seasons of Castle Rock are streaming on Hulu.
Click here for the full list of individuals who worked on the show's opening titles.