Creating the Award-Winning Look of The Queens Gambit
August 26th, 2021

Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, written and directed by Academy Award-nominee Scott Frank, continues its reign over the 2021 awards season with 18 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Limited Series. One of those nominations is for cinematographer Steven Meizler, whose artful depiction of the story of a young orphan who develops an astonishing talent for chess while becoming dependent on drugs, has already garnered recognition from the American Society of Cinematographers and British Society of Cinematographers.

Frank and Meizler previously collaborated on Godless. “I think that experience helped us on this show because of the shorthand we had created, and the trust that we have for each other,” noted Meizler.

Based on the novel by Walter Tevis, The Queen’s Gambit begins in the late 1950s in a Kentucky orphanage where a young Beth Harmon (Isla Johnston) discovers her chess acumen while developing an addiction to tranquilizers provided by the state. Haunted by personal demons and burdened with the gift of genius, the audience follows Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) as she evolves into an impressively skilled and glamorous outcast. Her determination to conquer the traditional boundaries of the male-dominated world of competitive chess adds another layer to her complex character.

Frank says Meizler has taught him a lot about shooting in natural light. “Steven is good at shaping very little light and natural light, and finding spots that create their own drama. I was casting about for a look for the series and Steven took a photograph on a scout of a chessboard. In the background, he caught this girl in this yellow dress walking by. It’s a gorgeous photograph. He took it with the RED camera because he brings the actual camera we shoot with on all our scouts. That picture became everything for me and the colors in it became the palette of the show.”

Meizler confirms he has a particular process for scouts. “I like to bring the actual camera, which is one of the reasons I like the RED DSMC2. I use it as if it were a still camera—with two GDU (Global Dynamics United) wood handles from Jarred’s (Land) company and a 7-inch monitor on top,” Meizler told Film and Digital Times. “I bring all the lenses with me to each location when we’re scouting. Then, I go to Light Iron and start setting up a look with the colorist. To even go further, sometimes I’ll go to location and since I know REDCINE-X PRO, I’ll start grading it myself at night.

“I feel that every second of production time should be spent on production and filming the actors rather than sitting in a DIT tent and grading because all that can be done later. It’s like knowing your film stock. I’m treating the files as a film negative; I know where my information is, and I know the camera. That’s part of the craft.

“Of course, you need to have the trust of the director,” added Meizler. “And this was a great collaboration with Scott Frank. He can really concentrate on the performances, and he knows that I’m going to have his back when it comes to keeping the visual language consistent.”

Filming took place primarily in Berlin with the exteriors for the Kentucky suburbs shot in Toronto. Meizler’s primary camera was a RED RANGER with the MONSTRO 8K VV sensor. He shot in 8K REDCODE RAW 5:1 and finished in 4K HDR. A RED DSMC2 (also with a MONSTRO 8K VV sensor) was used for Steadicam and handheld work. Meizler chose ZEISS Supreme Primes for the full frame format of the series with a Tiffen Black Satin 1 diffusion filter in front.

“I actually had never used the RANGER before,” relayed Meizler to Film and Digital Times. “I had always used the DSMC2 as a main camera. I knew that the RANGER was a little bit quieter. I used it for sound reasons. … I think the RANGER may be a little easier for assistants, especially attaching accessories. Having been an assistant myself I know how important that is.”

In addition to Frank, Meizler collaborated on setting the look with production designer Uli Hanisch, costume designer Gabriele Binder and head of hair and makeup Daniel Parker.

“The cinematography, the costumes, the production design, they're all part of the same thing for me,” explained Frank when discussing the approach for designing of The Queen’s Gambit. “We all talk about it, come up with a palette and we stick to it. We keep it pretty rigorous if we can.”

Meizler noted the team was influenced by their locations. “German Expressionism was an inspiration, especially in the first episode at the orphanage.”

In Episode 2, as Beth is adopted, the filmmakers pivoted to a style that referenced the plight of American suburban households in the 1950s. “I really liked the contrast from the first episode, where it is so muted, and then we explode into all that color,” said Meizler.

In later episodes, Beth is seen in extravagant hotels as she progresses through an elite chess tournament. The opulent interiors helped make the competition compelling to watch but the lighting and camerawork take those scenes to the next level.

Meizler noted, “Scott is a very inspiring person, and his stories are always amazing when it comes to helping me shape the visual style.”

The 2021 Emmy Winners will be announced at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards and 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards ceremonies in September.