‘Glass Onion’: How the Opening Sequence Puzzle Boxes Foreshadowed the Mystery’s Layers

The murder mystery became cool again with the 2019 release of “Knives Out,” Rian Johnson’s whodunnit that introduced the world to gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). When it came time to crafting another, editor Bob Ducsay and production designer Rick Heinrichs had a big task in setting the scene for “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” now streaming on Netflix.

Welcoming viewers back to the world of Benoit Blanc meant creating the perfect opening sequence.

The film begins with a knock at the door as Kathryn Hahn’s Claire Debella receives a special delivery: a box she doesn’t have time to open.

“It’s a really fun cinematic sequence,” Ducsay says fondly. “Most people like puzzles, and it’s a really elaborate puzzle. But at the same time, you learn so much about these characters that we’re going to spend a couple of hours with, and I think that’s just a wonderful way to open a movie.”

Heinrichs describes the opening as “an overture to the film itself.” It was important to get the scene right because, “it was the way of introducing these characters so that when they do come together in Greece, you feel like you know who they are already.”

In addition to Claire, the sequence introduces all of our main characters with the exception of Miles Bron, the tech billionaire played by Edward Norton.

It is the early days of the pandemic and Claire jumps onto a conference call with Duke (Dave Bautista), Birdie (Kate Hudson), and Lionel (Leslie Odom, Jr.), plus the various friends and family with whom they are quarantining. Apart but together, the group collaborates on opening and solving their identical puzzle boxes.

When opened, the puzzle boxes open to reveal an invite to Bron’s private island. Bron wants his friends to join him on his private island for a murder-mystery weekend.

The idea for the boxes came directly from Johnson’s script.

They were each to be the size of four medium pizza boxes stacked, and with an unfolding element. Heinrichs says, “This concept of unfolding, and layers and transparency and obscurity, that’s all very much a part of any murder mystery, but also specifically one that Rian would do based on what we know now from the first ‘Knives Out.’”

The script called for eight puzzles, though Heinrichs says the specific designs of each were left to him and his team of concept artists. They created an animation of the entire unfolding box, revealing each layer’s look and movement. It started with the opening, which involves a stereogram – a visual game that reveals a hidden 3D image when looked at the correct way. To figure out how to make accomplish this, they contacted the Magic Eye Company which popularized stereograms in the 1990s. Heinrichs spoke with the owner of the company and, “went through the whole rigmarole of understanding what was involved.” The idea was to use the Magic Eye technique on overlapped wood textures. But, as Heinrichs details, “It’s a binocular effect and film is notoriously monocular.” To bring it all together, the team worked with the visual effects department so that it could come across properly on the screen. “It really worked beautifully.”

Tying the sequence together, Ducsay knew they needed to incorporate what he refers to as an “old-timey” technique: the split screen. It’s a really wonderful technique because you can really move time around,” Ducsay expounds. “You can also show multiple things happening at the same time, and get to see everyone, which I think is critical because it’s a group of people working over the phone to solve a puzzle.”

This created another layer of storytelling. “The split screen itself becomes kind of a puzzle, the way things move in and move out, and the shapes change. It becomes extremely coherent, all the various ideas that are in that sequence, and how the characters introduce the puzzle, and then the cinematic and editorial design.”

Ducsay found the scene a “fantastic challenge for an editor,” one he likens to assembling “a perfect meal, all the right spices and flavors, all in the right amount.”

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