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December 08
2020

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Chicken Bone VFX Is Above Board On THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT

By TREVOR HOGG

In recent years there have been no shortage of movies featuring chess, whether it be The Dark Horse (2014), Pawn Sacrifice (2014), Queen of Katwe (2016), The Coldest Game (2019) or Critical Thinking (2020). The overriding challenge is to take what is essentially a mental sport and make it a visceral and dynamic cinematic experience. Such was the case for filmmaker Scott Frank (A Walk Among the Tombstones) and screenwriter Allan Scott (Don’t Look Now) when adapting The Queen’s Gambit, penned by novelist Walter Tevis, into a miniseries for Netflix. A female chess prodigy has to overcome personal trauma, drug addiction, alcoholism and sexual discrimination in order to fulfill her ambition of becoming a world champion. 

Anya Taylor-Joy portrays chess prodigy Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Based in New York and Los Angeles, Chicken Bone VFX was the sole visual effects vendor, with the work being overseen by Head of Production Arissa Blasingame and Visual Effects Supervisor John Mangia. Unlike other productions, there was no virtual workflow transition as the workforce was working remotely on The Queen’s Gambit prior to the COVID-19 lockdown. What did impact the schedule was the series going from six to seven episodes causing the visual effects shot count to increase from 600 to 700. “This was an ideal-size show to be the sole vendor,” states Blasingame. “We had the CG component, set extensions and clean-up and greenscreen comps. There were different enough needs that we could tailor them to match the skill set of our artists.”

 

Environmental work was extensive as accurate period recreations had to be made of Mexico City, Las Vegas, Paris, New York, Moscow, Lexington and Cincinnati. “What made it more interesting is that we only filmed the show in Berlin and Toronto with neither of them being places that we go to in the show,” reveals Mangia. “We had fantastic locations that served as a base for everything. Believe it or not, there is a small section of Berlin that if you change a bunch of stuff in the background then you’re like, ‘This is Paris.’ Also, there is a section of Berlin that is heavy in terms of Soviet-era architecture because of when East and West Berlin were divided.”

Forty-two layers needed to be rendered for a complete chessboard. (Image courtesy of Netflix and Chicken Bone VFX)

The chess pieces and board had to be incorporated into the setting. (Images courtesy of Netflix and Chicken Bone VFX)

The most extensive research was conducted when reconstructing Las Vegas in 1963. (Images courtesy of Netflix and Chicken Bone VFX)

“This was an ideal-size show to be the sole vendor. We had the CG component, set extensions and clean-up and greenscreen comps. There were different enough needs that we could tailor them to match the skill set of our artists.”

—Arissa Blasingame, Head of Production

 

The story takes place in the 1950s and 1960s. “We had to know what would have been there, what were the iconic things that you would definitely see from this location, and how do we turn this building that mimics some of the Russian architecture into something which screams that they’re in Moscow,” explains Blasingame. “We extensively researched Las Vegas because of the signage and being accurate of where the hotels and casinos were located in relation to each other. What was really going on there in 1963?”

 

Period-accurate CG vehicles and airplanes needed to be produced. “We did have several practical picture cars that were used in various scenes,” states Mangia. “Those were scanned and used as a base. Sometimes we were able to use them as 2D elements and tuck them in the background in a few shots, but in most cases we had to do 3D build-ups of cars. In look development, we had a total of over 50 assets on the show. We built a Russian jetliner from scratch to land in one shot. There aren’t a lot of great photos of a Tupolev Tu-104, so we had to deep dive through the Internet to find everything that we could to hand over to the CG team.”

 

Requiring a lot less digital augmentation was the pivotal car crash that causes the protagonist to become an orphan. “They did a lot of that practically on set with a car, and we did some lead-up with speeds of the car and the background to heighten the tension,” remarks Blasingame. “Our effects matched with the sound effects. Then you see the aftermath of it. We did not do a CG car to car.”

The biggest challenge was conveying the internal strategizing and struggle that Beth Harmon goes through as an adolescent (Isla Johnston) and teenager/young adult (Anya Taylor-Joy) leading up to and during chess matches. “Going into The Queen’s Gambit, we knew that it wouldn’t be nailed down until almost the end,” states Blasingame. “It was so abstract, which meant that we would have to explore so much.” 

 

The chess pieces morph on the ceiling and descend downwards. “The look of the pieces was a modified version of the first chess pieces that Beth ever comes upon in the story,” remarks Mangia. “There was a lot of trying different things and finding references of what people visualize on certain kinds of substances and drugs. How can we incorporate that into the look of these things? And how do they move? We thought of it as your brain trying to hold form of something that is abstract,” notes Blasingame. “The chess pieces are volumetric but not solid.” 

 

A full CG version of Russian jetliner Tupolev Tu-104 needed to be created from a minimal amount of photo references. (Images courtesy of Netflix and Chicken Bone VFX)

There were numerous greenscreen and bluescreen plates, such as when Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) looks out from a hotel balcony with her adoptive mother Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller). (Images courtesy of Netflix and Chicken Bone VFX)

“What made it more interesting is that we only filmed the show in Berlin and Toronto with neither of them being places that we go to in the show [such as Mexico City, Las Vegas, Paris, New York, Moscow, Lexington and Cincinnati].  We had fantastic locations that served as a base for everything. Believe it or not, there is a small section of Berlin that if you change a bunch of stuff in the background then you’re like, ‘This is Paris.’ Also, there is a section of Berlin that is heavy in terms of Soviet-era architecture because of when East and West Berlin were divided.”  

—John Mangia. Visual Effects Supervisor

 

Chess pieces absorb one another over the course of a game. “We had a lot of conversations about, ‘What happens when a piece takes another piece? Is it like a separate effect or would that be too confusing?’” notes Mangia. “You have all of this movement happening on the board and sometimes the games are moving quite quickly. Does this extra element become a distraction to the general logic of the game? One of the things that we noticed when looking up what people experience on hallucinogenic drugs is that there is a lot of fluidity and motion trails, the kinds of things that you might get from slowing down the shutter on a camera.”

The Soviet-era architecture in Berlin was enhanced to make the city look like Moscow. (Images courtesy of Netflix and Chicken Bone VFX)

 

“Going into The Queen’s Gambit, we knew that it wouldn’t be nailed down until almost the end. It was so abstract, which meant that we would have to explore so much.” 

—Arissa Blasingame, Head of Production

 

A plate of the orphanage shot in the fall is transformed into a wintry setting (Images courtesy of Netflix and Chicken Bone VFX)

 

“There was a lot of trying different things and finding references of what people visualize on certain kinds of substances and drugs. How can we incorporate that into the look of these things? And how do they move? We thought of it as your brain trying to hold form of something that is abstract. The chess pieces are volumetric but not solid.” 

—John Mangia. Visual Effects Supervisor

 

Texturing was accomplished by hand and procedurally. “We ended up with 21 different render passes for each different color on either side of the board,” states Mangia. “A full chessboard render had 42 different layers.”

 

The animation of the chess pieces was not random, he adds.  “The show’s chess advisor, Bruce Pandolfini, is a chess grandmaster and gave us a list of moves to make. All of those games are accurate and follow the arc of Beth’s skill level over the course of the story.” 

 

Watch a breakdown of Chicken Bone VFX’s work on The Queen’s Gambit here: 

CBFX “The Queen’s Gambit” Reel

A major part of the set extensions involved creating period-accurate vehicles. (Images courtesy of Netflix and Chicken Bone VFX)

 

The bluescreen is replaced by a Moscow cityscape for the scene when the crowd eagerly awaits the arrival of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy). (Images courtesy of Netflix and Chicken Bone VFX)

 

Arissa Blasingame, Head of Production, Chicken Bone VFX

 

John Mangia, Visual Effects Supervisor, Chicken Bone VFX


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