Posted inInterviews

John Mangia: Bringing “The Queen’s Gambit” to life

The Queen’s Gambit (2020) is Netflix’s most watched miniseries to date. Perhaps an unlikely contender, it combines a tragic but feel-good story with a strong female protagonist and the centuries-old game of chess. Actress Ana-Taylor Joy has earned much critical acclaim for her role in the seven-part series, and the show as a whole has won more than twenty international awards. Yet it was John Mangia, supervising a team of over forty people, that brought the series to life.

John is a visual effects artist who has worked on a whole host of projects across the film and TV industry. From blockbuster hits such as The Amazing Spiderman (2012) to recent US dramas like The Code (2019) and The Society (2019) , he boasts more than fifteen years’ experience in the creative industry. Sometimes, his job consists of simple fixes – removing wires or other items necessary for filming in the post-production studio. But at times, he has to do more nuanced work, tweaking the shots so they are appropriate for the era in which the story is set. In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth Harmon’s inherited house was filmed not in fifties Lexington, Kentucky, but rather in modern day Ontario, Canada. Her neighbours’ properties were clad with modern accessories like satellite dishes and security cameras, which would have ruined an otherwise beautiful golden-age setting. It takes a skilled hand to remove the small, anachronistic things which wouldn’t be noticed by anything less than a keen eye.

Before: the shot of a Berlin hotel that John worked with
After: the Berlin hotel grounds turned into sixties Las Vegas

The seven hundred or so shots that John and his team worked on represented a new challenge for even this seasoned VFX artist. Much of the series was filmed in Germany, in part because of its proximity to France, the site of a later episode when Harmon is invited to compete in the Paris Invitational. In order to bring Teutonic guesthouses and manor buildings to life as American hotels and orphanages, layer upon layer of effects have to be applied. Snow, vintage cars, decorative plants, and just the right level of wear all have to be simulated – even down to the details of how the Las Vegas neon blurs in the distance. Berlin, with its eclectic mix of mid-century architecture, scenic suburban dwellings and Soviet-era public buildings was the perfect spot for the directors, but it took countless hours of fine-tuning by Mangia to make their vision ready for the screen.

John had to animate chess games as if they were taking place inside the mind [id: shot of chess pieces on a ceiling]

Mangia was somewhat of a stranger to chess before the series, but working under the helm of grandmaster Garry Kasparov he has picked up a thing or two. Small details like the bottom right hand corner of the board on your side being white, that would be picked up by any chess aficionado, had to be learned by John, as he animated scenes like the virtual games played out in Beth’s head on various bedroom and hotel ceilings. He had never created something which exists only in the mind before, and making it seem to have just the right balance between realism and hazy mental comprehension was an entirely new endeavour. Perhaps the most interesting point of the interview was when he talked about coordinating with the chess pros to plan out games. Not only did each sequence have to be impeccable – a believable progression of strong moves for the many talented players who would likely be part of the audience – but it also had to present an aesthetic appeal. Too repetitious, and it would bore the viewers. Too dense or intricate and it would hardly show up in the animation. The result was that John’s team had to work directly with people like Kasparov to ensure that each scene of virtual games was both theoretically strong and artistically beautiful.

Anya Taylor-Joy on a sidewalk in Russia. Most of this shot is artificially generated.

John Mangia started life, like many of us, watching superhero films and action movies. Pictures like The Abyss (1989) and Jurassic Park (1993) inspired him with their pioneering visual effects, setting the stage for a life-long wonder that befell him each time he saw magic be conjured out of thin air on camera. He had an equal fascination with art and technology, and the industry he is in today was a sufficient antidote to both. Working with computers using software like Houdini, Nuke, and Blender, he is able to deploy digital tools for creative ends. A project like this, which took around eighteen months, put his VFX work on screens across the world in a way that young John could only dream, providing joy and meaningful distraction to a number of rather dejected people during the pandemic.

Beth and her adoptive mother looking out from a balcony in Mexico.

The Queen’s Gambit is a fantastic series and one that tells the classic Netflix-produced story of struggles and ultimate triumph against adversity. Yet too often we take our entertainment at face value, and laud the most visible participants in the show or film without a regard to the countless people behind the scenes that make it happen. John is one of those people, and he is honestly one of the most humble individuals I’ve ever met.

Beth Harmon’s orphanage surrounded by digitally generated snow.

So next time you stream something, pay attention to the details: someone is out there, click by click, helping bring those scenes to life.

 To watch the full interview click here

This article was edited to reflect the fact that John worked with a ‘fantastic team, without which none of this would have been possible’!