Awards Daily | Mike Schaeffer On Getting Lost in the Main Title Design of ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’

by Joey Moser
Press August 28, 2023

Imagine being so drawn to a beautiful cabinet that you can’t help but turn the key. Once the doors are flung open, you see detailed craftsmanship but the exhibits make you uneasy. The displays become more twisted and mysterious, and, before you know, you are lost with no exit in sight. For Main Title Design nominees Mike Schaeffer and Chet Hirsch, establishing the mysterious and dangerous tone for Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities was the most important thing on our tour of Guillermo del Toro’s series.

A main title sequence can really get you in the mood for what you are about to watch. Comedies might use short intro with bounce music, and a drama series could use serious images to get you in the mindset for what you are tuning into. This duo knew what was important to them in terms of creating a new sequence.

“One thing we talk a lot about is really setting the table and creating the right gateway into the experience,” Hirsch says. “The viewer has to give permission to the story to take them, so initiating the process and creating this gateway is the big lore for us.”

“When you watch a show for a long time and you are on season six or seven, do those opening titles stand the test of time,” Schaeffer asks. “[It’s] easy to see that in hindsight. For those who go more for style of substance you begin to wonder if you are going to want to spend a lot of time with it. Chet and I were really focused on creating something that would hold up but also be ambiguous enough to allow the show to travel too.”

While these artists are huge fans of del Toro’s marriage of romance and horror, they didn’t get too many direct instructions from the Oscar winner himself. del Toro gave them a lot of space, but Schaeffer and Hirsch knew they were looking to create something that would stand alongside the director’s other work.

“If anything, we built more of a universe, but he could point out the focus, and we could go from there,” Hirsch says.

“Being a superfan…knowing the title and knowing that’s the title of his book and how some episodes refer to classic horror–that’s all we knew,” Schaeffer admits. “But that is enough information to register and how we were participating in that line of work. It was super motivating even though everything was under wraps. Guillermo is so generous with everything in his world, so diving into it was very easy. As we got into it, we stayed very big with the concept, and he would tell us what to zero in on.”

With a series as lush as Cabinet, there had to be talks about what would go into the cabinet in the opening credits. Would we see a bottle of lotion from “The Outside” or a stuffed rat from “Graveyard Rats”? Instead of implicitly teasing us with items from specific episodes, Schaeffer and Hirsh opted to feature other things that we might see in a specific cabinet. It gives the cabinet itself an identity.

“We did discuss, initially, to have some teases from specific episodes, but we eventually thought that would be too on-the-nose,” Schaeffer says. “We wanted it to be a more meta version of a real cabinet of curiosities in order for it to live longer and give it more legs.”

“We were careful to have callouts to actual cabinets by having the red corral and the exploding skulls and some key things you would see in a historical cabinet,” Hirsch adds. “Guillermo was interested in including things that had resonance on a Jungian-archetypal level. Things like the key, in particular. We had different ways to call out the episodes or his filmography, but then it got way more subtle. You would know where a certain thing would be in a particular space, but then it became quite mysterious when we would juxtapose something with it. You had to set up a space and dwell on it to see if it worked.

Feeling disoriented is exactly what these artists were looking for. At one point, it feels like we are being pulled back as we stumble down a hallway before being hurled face first into a swirling whirlpool of bones and skulls. Schaeffer and Hirsh wanted us to feel a sense of helplessness as we navigate our way around. Are we trapped? Is something yanking us around? And, most importantly, will we ever get out?

“Everything in there is an inanimate object, so the camera’s movement is so important in how we told the story,” Hirsch says. “We got a huge boost from where the final score takes us. Those two things working together really work well. You enter the cabinet, and it’s immediately unclear how big you are anymore. In the next room, it feels like a big hallway, but if look closely you’ll see that hall is made up of pieces of the cabinet that we just approached. Scale is out the door. There are insects and masks that feel mammoth next to a big skeleton. It feels controlled because of how the camera moves. To convey that sense of powerlessness and losing the physics before we entered the cabinet. That was great camerawork by our art director, David Rowley. That was our key way to escalate it. It’s a collection that collects you–you don’t actually leave.”

Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is streaming now on Netflix.

See the article from Awards Daily here.