While superheroes and thrilling action are more popular than ever, millions tuned in to watch a different kind of battle in 2020: the battle of brains in the intense world of competitive chess. “The Queen’s Gambit”, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, became a smash hit for Netflix in 2020.
Millions of viewers watched the seven-episode series chronicling a young chess prodigy’s rise to the top of the ranks in the 1950s and 60s. Critics hailed the show for its incredible performances and strong writing, earning the series two Golden Globes for Best Limited Series and Best Actress.
For the Emmy Awards, “The Queen’s Gambit” received several more well-deserved nods, including one for Outstanding Main Title Design. Designed by Saskia Marka, the mesmerizing title sequence uses geometric shapes created by animator David Whyte that dance across the screen in hypnotic patterns. The focus on monotone colors and simple square or circular shapes reminds the viewer of pieces moving across a chess board.
We sat down with Marka to get a little more insight into how she created her Emmy-nominated design.
How did you first get into motion design?
It was back in the nineties. I studied communication design and figured print can’t be all there is. As a movie fan I saw all these new title designs from movies like “Seven”, “Gattaca”, and “Enemy of the State”. I saw the impact that a great introduction had on these films. That was what drew me to it. There was not even the term “motion design” at that time in Germany and Adobe After Effects was a very young tool.
What was the inspiration behind your title sequence?
It’s an end title sequence and plays only once after the very last episode. I wanted to continue the feeling of the last scene with an abstract visualization of playing and enjoying chess and turn it into a celebration of overcoming yourself. It’s supposed to build a bridge between logic and emotion.
How did you begin this project?
I wanted to give the concept a modern approach. That’s why I created a 25-second mock up with processed gif animations by David Whyte, which I showed to series co-creator Scott Frank and his team. He loved it and from that point I had total freedom of what was going on behind the credits.
The look of the sequence is 1920s with a warm fuzziness, but the credits are very modern in style and typography. My intent was to create opposites on different levels.
What’s your favorite part of the title sequence?
I enjoyed animating these gifs to dance along with the music. My favorite part is when the music gets flowery and the squares pop up like flowers blooming in a meadow.
What were some specific challenges you faced in making this sequence?
The animations in the background were so high in contrast that it was hard to read the credits in the beginning and I knew I had to come up with a solution. At some point I put the credits over solid bars and switched the colors with every page of the credits. This gave the sequence an even more graphic and distinctive look.
What Adobe tools did you use on this project and why did you originally choose them?
For the main title logo layouts, I used Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. The title sequence is set up as a 2D project in Adobe After Effects, including all credits. After Effects gives me the most freedom and flexibility because I like to mix things up to see what happens. I’m also editing with it. For feedback rounds I love Adobe Media Encoder, because it’s so fast.
Where do you find creative inspiration?
Pinterest. It’s the most creative tool for me, because you can always dig deeper into all directions, find links to new options that never get boring, or find similar pictures. I’m also inspired by nature, abstract art and design, typography, and photography.
What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to face in your career?
Watching people steal my ideas and being successful with them over and over again. And lawyers telling me that ideas cannot be protected.
You have to just keep going and eventually hard work pays off. I still have to process that my title sequence won the Jury Award for Excellence in Title Design at SXSW!
What advice do you have for people aspiring to get into the motion design space?
You should have fun with what you are doing and be as playful as you can be. Even if you might be working with a tight style guide that doesn’t leave many options – try out new things, use filters for what they are not made for, mess things up. Draw outside the lines. Even if you might not use your results now, you might need it later for something else or you get new inspiration out of it for yourself. Don’t plan everything, let things happen. Don’t try to reach perfection, but always give more than your client expects you to. That’s how it works for me at least.
In 2020, many of us are changing how and where we work. What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your workspace?
It’s weird, but my favorite thing is my hot water bottle. I always have it around, and I use it in every season. It helps me concentrate!
Read about how Adobe Creative Cloud was used to help create the title sequence for “Birds of Prey”.