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November 23, 2023
Peter Calder

The Production of The Queen’s Gambit (2 minute read)

The world shut down in early 2020 due to the initial COVID-19 pandemic; this caused people to watch more films and TV in far larger quantities than usual due to being in lockdown at home.  Many companies and networks benefited from this, including Netflix.  

A massive international hit that came out later in 2020 was The Queen’s Gambit, which launched everyone into a chess frenzy.  One chess board manufacturing company reported that its sales increased over 1000%  during the show’s initial success.  The series follows an orphan who navigates addiction and personal obstacles while competing to become the best chess player in the world.  We see the world through Beth’s eyes, transported to when she was a young child to a  worldwide professional chess player.  

The production of this particular series stuck out to me, not just from an editing, camera, sound and lighting standpoint but also from the set design and wardrobe.  Following Beth Harmon’s life from just eight years old to when she is 17, the series elapses in the 1950s and  1960s.  In each era, Beth’s character’s state changes dramatically, going up and down.  

Each of these eras depicted in her life can be seen through her wardrobe.  When Beth attends her first chess match, she has not won a competition yet and feels isolated and out of place in the room with everyone else.  For this scene, she is wearing a very ordinary, plain outfit consisting of a  standard white button-up with a dark blue overall dress.  Her hair is straight down with short bangs and minimal makeup, and she wears a light blue cardigan overtop.  This wardrobe choice is dramatically contrasted by her other stages in the series.  

When her life spirals out of control, she can be seen wearing a yellow mustard top, a black overcoat and a mint green beanie hat.  She also wears the same mint green in a dress during a prior chess match, when she loses against Borgov.  This costume also sticks out with the Edie Sedgwick-inspired eye makeup.  

This is contrasted by her final iconic costume of the series.  After her last chess match against  Borgov, she wears a stunning fleecy white coat with matching pants, leather shoes and gloves.  Perhaps the most notable piece is her hat; the entire costume is to resemble a queen chess piece but also reflects the end of her character arc.  She is happy and composed and leaves us with a satisfying close to the story.  

In a world of CGI and green screens, The Queen’s Gambit could utilize very little VFX/ green screen work, not that there were too many huge landscapes with action stunts, etc.  Almost all of the sets were made practically, so when the actors were in them, they were actually in the environment seen on screen.  Many of these sets are tremendously vivid, and you can tell on screen when the story is in a great environment because it’s immersive and gives you the feeling of this whole world that the characters are living in.  From the detailed,  vibrant living rooms of Beth’s teenage home to the dark, colourless walls of her orphanage and then massive grand beaming halls of chess competition rooms and hotel lobbies, countless sets to catch your eye throughout her world.  I was pleasantly surprised by the innovative techniques used regarding the camera work.  Given it’s a dramatic period piece on a person pursuing their life of competing in chess, I would’ve thought the camera work would be more traditional and basic: simple static shots and little movement.

On the contrary, it was the opposite.  Many angles were fiercely high and fiercely low; this provided the audience with seeing and feeling how Beth was.  After one of her days of losing control due to addiction, we see a full-body shot of her from a highly high angle, showing the unease and chaotic nature of her mind.  As for the low angles seen throughout the series, they not only showed us a more robust and confident viewing of Beth but also displayed what she saw in her mind: a chess board on the ceiling.  This simple idea of us going into Beth’s mind and seeing what she imagines, a large chess board on the ceiling, allows her to see moves ahead and gives us a glimpse and a visual of her excellence and astonishingly impressive mind for the game of chess.

Overall, the production was elegant and used little to do more regarding the camera, set design and wardrobe; it was a very engaging watch.