Visualizing a Checkmate
In today’s golden era of television, it’s difficult for a show’s title sequence to make much of an impression. And yet The Queen’s Gambit’s captivates, at once evoking the chessboard, the movement of the chess pieces, and the complex mental patterns of Beth’s mind we see projected on the ceiling throughout the series. We owe this fascinating sequence to 15-year industry veteran Saskia Marka.
Marka’s work on the 2017 seriesBabylon Berlin,of which director Scott Frank was a fan, put her on the map in the industry.Babylon Berlin’s title sequence captured the tonality of post-WWI Berlin, the epicenter of political and social change in the Golden Twenties, which Frank was keen to capture in The Queen’s Gambit.Marka’s directive was to imbue that same tonality into the title sequence, while also looking to the visual language of German Expressionism. She turned to her heaps of research from Babylon Berlin as well as fresh sources of inspiration in Walter Ruttmann’s Lichtspiel Opus I-IV (1920s) and Oskar Fischinger’s An Optical Poem (1938). The real challenge was merging these influences to find a cohesive and modernized approach for The Queen’s Gambit that felt true to the series and aligned with the time period of Beth Harmon’s world.
Marka dove into her process and explored numerous still compositions of the logo for the main title sequence of The Queen’s Gambit. Initial explorations evoked an opulent style combining embellished blackletter fonts, hand-lettered cursive treatments, and both traditional serifs and more contemporary sans serifs to balance the various directions. After watching the first scenes of the show, however, Marka realized that the title treatment needed to provide a contrast to the extravagant sceneries in the series rather than attempt to complement them. Marka turned back to an idea that came to her while reading through the screenplays and scenes where Beth plays chess on the ceiling: a modern take on German Expressionism through the artform known as “Processing.”
Processing is a form of design in which code and mathematical equations are leveraged to generate hypnotic pieces of geometric digital art. Marka reached out to Processing mastermind David Whyte, a designer who has been well-known in this niche sector since 2012. Whyte began his foray into the world of Processing while pursuing a PhD in physics; at the time, he was using the plotting functionality of scientific software to output striking monochromatic geometric animations. Whyte’s work quickly became some of the most shared GIFs on Tumblr and led him to a full-time career in this captivating generative art form. Whyte’s animations build on the aesthetics of Expressionist master M.C. Escher — especially Whyte’s work that highlights tessellations and illusions — as well as the Op Art movement, particularly the contrasting geometric shapes of Bridget Riley.
Marka began sifting through Whyte’s substantial archives and selected pieces which evoked a chessboard pattern or were starkly monochrome and minimalist. Whyte then recreated some of these very small archival GIFs as higher resolution formats for The Queen’s Gambit title sequence. From there, Marka transformed these crystal-clear animations into a very physical and realistic sequence by introducing depth of field effects, glowing lighting, and film grain. “It made the original animations look almost sterile in comparison,” remarks Whyte.
The transformative treatment that Marka applied to Whyte’s work is, thankfully, given its own moment to truly sing in the series due to a strategic decision from co-creator Scott Frank: The Queen’s Gambit’s main title sequence only appears once, at the end of the final episode. One may recall that the “SKIP INTRO” button never pops up in The Queen’s Gambit, and each episode is introduced in minimal graphic frames featuring a very unpretentious, straight font reading, “The Queen’s Gambit,” and subsequently, “A Netflix Original Series.” In a sense, these graphic frames mimic Beth’s favorite opening move, “the queen’s gambit” — confident, decisive. To then be presented with Marka and Whyte's fantastical sequence at the conclusion of the series, as we see Beth triumphantly regaining control of her life and relationship to the chess board, is the graphical embodiment of a checkmate.