The Queen’s Gambit is one of the best gifts of 2020. Like the intense chess tournaments showcased within, the drama continued to engross its viewers until we found ourselves sitting across from the final checkmate seven episodes later. For almost a month now, the Netflix show has continued to dominate conversations and has even recently sparked a surge in chess set sales, which not ever streaming series can boast about. One of the most lasting and iconic images from the season is the chess board on the ceiling that Anya Taylor-Joy’s Beth Harmon references throughout The Queen’s Gambit.
CinemaBlend spoke to The Queen’s Gambit’s VFX Producer and Head Production at Chicken Bone FX Arissa Blasingame, who discussed the process behind adding the ceiling chessboard elements to the hit series. As she explained:
Every chess move that’s happening on the ceiling is an actual chess game that could be played. When they first appear in episode one, Beth is replaying a game that she actually played with Mr. Shaibel and all of the moves are true to what was actually played. And then when we see them glitch back into place, she’s testing out other possibilities and combinations and those were all accurate as well. We worked with a couple of chess consultants, some grand masters who gave us really extensive games that we could plot out and move around. There were a lot of different factors that went into it.
The Queen’s Gambit is not what one might imagine would be your typical visual effects-heavy project, since that's a distinction usually set aside for action and sci-fi projects. But as you can see above in Chicken Bone FX’s visual effects reel for The Queen’s Gambit, a whole lot of work went into bringing the ‘60s-set show to life. In terms of the ceiling chess games that Beth imagines, each time they come up, that means the VFX team had to recreate actual chess games using both the footage of Beth playing with other chess champs, as well as looking back to real grand masters to plan out winning moves. Arissa Blasingame continued, telling me:
She has a game she has lost, like the first game she lost to Mr. Shaibel; we take that board and the setup of the pieces on that board, replicate it on the ceiling, so the color she’s playing is hanging towards her and all of the moves are accurate and what she does in her mind is replay the game she lost, then you see the pieces reset to their starting position per the game board. We called it a ‘decision tree’... we would show it of her trying multiple things until she figured out how to win. And the games got more complicated.
It’s quite amazing when you think about it. Not only is The Queen’s Gambit a show about chess, the filmmakers really had to walk the walk and create multiple scenarios of how a genius chess player might think when trying to orchestrate moves before a tournament. After having this interview, I definitely want to go back for a rewatch of the series now specifically so I can track the game she’s playing with the VFX sequences.
Along with the ceiling chess games being an integral part of Beth’s strategy, Arissa Blasingame also told me how the design of the pieces itself ties into the character.
We knew the pieces were meant to be an extension of Beth’s mind. They were meant to be comforting to her, so we had to figure out how to make these huge statement pieces that still resonated with Beth in a way that the audience could see had a really strong connection. We explored different ways to shape the pieces and have them appear and what we ended up landing on was making the pieces replicas of the pieces she learned to play with in the basement with Mr. Shaibel. What felt the most natural there, is whenever Beth needs to call on these pieces in a moment of frustration or dissonance, or whatever she’s experiencing outside of the game itself… Those were the pieces in her mind as her comfort blanket and happy place. So we created those, they were the same pieces all throughout [the series] no matter what.
A ton of thought went into the VFX chess pieces in The Queen’s Gambit, which Arissa Blasingame explained as “otherworldly,” while still keeping everything grounded in coming out of the shadows of the orphanage room in the first episode of the series. The series adaptation, based on a book of the same name by Walter Tevis, has long been in the works, previously as a movie that might have starred Ellen Page and been directed by Heath Ledger but The Dark Knight actor tragically passed before that could happen.