Behind the scenes of Black Mirror
Here at CR we've been enjoying Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror on Channel 4. We caught up with Joel Collins of Painting Practice, responsible for the production design, motion graphics, visual effects and the title sequence on the series...
Painting Practice was formed after production designer Collins and VFX art director Daniel May had led the early VFX team inside the art department of Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy back in 2004. "What we've tried to do is grab the zeitgeist of film and everything that it now encompasses - vfx ,gaming and media - and put it all in one pot - which we call 'The digital art department'," explains Collins. "Rather than the creative work of the art department, graphics and vfx being split up, we do all of this interactivy and live playing as one company and make it work. Our work on the Black Mirror series is a great example of what we as a company are trying to achieve."
In case you missed episode two, 15 Million Merits, which screened on Sunday night, the film showed a world where everyone has to live a life of drudgery and relentless screen-based entertainment and advertising unless they can save up to audition for the Hot Shot talent show and impress the three judges. Here is the main character, Bing (played by Daniel Kaluuya) waking up in his box-like, screen covered bedroom to be greeted by his own avatar:
"Actually taking on so much of a project was slightly unusual for us," says Collins of the Black Mirror series. "Barney Reisz the producer approached me before any directors were involved to see if I could get involved with the series. As a designer I was eager to come aboard for the whole series. However I was adamant that a project this complex would need more than a normal art department so I introduced Barney to the team at Painting Practice. As a company we were eager to do everything from set design, motion graphics, vfx matte paintings to the title sequence. Our aim was to ensure the series maintained quality throughout. With our most recent partner, matte painter and vfx supervisor Justin Atkinson, we were also able to offer a solid level of visual effects."
Printing Practice designed the sets meticulously, as these set designs and renders clearly show. Above, is a design image showing the bedroom. Below is a set design image for the bathroom:
"Episode 2 was the only script ready to go when we first started on Black Mirror at the start of 2011," says Collins, "and one thing you notice if you read the script is that every scene could be a visual effects shot. But the way we did it, everything you see with Daniel (the actor) well about 95 percent of what you see, was filmed live. So when he swipes his hand to interface with the screens in his bedroom room or in the bike chamber, someone behind the scenes presses a button syncing his action to the screen in front of him."
The reason for doing it this way is because we wanted it to feel as real as possible. The weird thing is that in the finished film it looks almost like post production because it's so effective. But the bedroom really was a room made of screens with camera's set up above to look down into the room. The walls were made out of the latest LCD screens. They're the best quality you can get. In terms of the graphics we generated, we wanted them to be a little bit like Angry Birds. We felt this would get over the idea that he's living in an iPhone. This idea that even when we're talking, we stop to look at our iPhones (even though it's quite rude). In episode two the claustrophobic screen bedroom is a bit like that - a bit like you're living inside media."
Above is Painting Practice's visualisation of the pedal room. And here's how it looked on set:
As well as designing the sets, Painting Practice also designed all the onscreen visuals and motion graphics, including each character's onscreen avatar. "Every cast member had their own avatar which appeared among the hundreds of avatars that appear in the talent show audience," explains Collins. "We had a character illustrator work with us on the origination of the avatars and then a team of animators in our studio working away generating their every move."
The filming of Black Mirror took place in a disused university campus in Buckingham. Just as for the scenes involving screen interaction, the audience of avatars appeared on a giant screen behind the three judges. "For filming, we had a host of audience responses that we could trigger at the appropriate moments in the script," says Collins. This enabled the audience to 'react' to what the actors were saying or doing.
The third and final episode of Black Mirror will screen on Channel 4 this Sunday night, entitled The Entire History of You, which is again, Collins explains, "set in the not too distant future where everyone can record their personal experiences and download them for viewing at a later date - basically Sky Plus for the brain." Watch the trailer at Channel 4 here
Find out more about Painting Practice and its work at paintingpractice.com
To watch 15 Million Merits, visit 4OD at channel4.com/programmes/4od
CR in Print
If you only read CR online, you're missing out. The January issue of Creative Review is a music special with features on festivals, the future of the music video and much much more. Plus it comes with its very own soundtrack for you to listen to while reading the magazine.
If you would like to buy this issue and are based in the UK, you can search for your nearest stockist here. Based outside the UK? Simply call +44(0)207 292 3703 to find your nearest stockist. Better yet, subscribe to CR for a year here and save yourself almost 30% on the printed magazine.
I really liked Black Mirror - especially the design of the living and work spaces. The creepiness of the ever present screens and aggressive advertising was great. What I thought was missing though was a certain grimness. I thought that everything that wasn't the technology (clothes, food, blankets etc) should have been shabbier, like much less thought had gone into its production. I also thought the ending with the hero looking out over a beautiful, lush landscape was a let down too. A bit too hopeful. I was expecting the image to flicker or something, to show us that it was all an illusion.
Maybe that would have been veering too close to 1984 style cliche though. Just a thought.
You want the answers given to you, MForce? I think a characteristic of a really well-made film is how it can challenge the viewer and also lead to different experiences based on the viewer's existing prejudices. For instance - my girlfriend saw they were windows in the final scene, and I saw they were screens.
It's also worth mentioning the title sequence - also by Painting Practice
Kind of creepy- its like an innocent version of "i robot"- and its getting like that in real life- there are screens and audio media everywhere, at least in public but if computers and TV becomes a mandatory part of housing and accommodation there will be respite. I wonder if this project could be taken further and explore how it would affect children and the elderly?
Watching that second episode I was thinking about the amount of graft that must have gone into the graphics and effects, especially all of the avatars. Thanks for letting us know more about the process and the people behind the work.
Hopefully Black Mirror will go on to be more than just 3 episodes. Even if Charlie's influences are purposely easy to identify, the high standard to which each of the first two episodes was produced has left me with food for thought.
You're absolutely right, of course. What he was looking at could have been a screen - the elite in that society being presented with higher quality images than the cycling class and free from the intrusive advertising. I suppose I just wanted some kind of evidence of how this world existed within the world at large and how the two affected each other e.g where was the food coming from? How did the yellow jumpsuited 'proles' live? How did people reproduce - were there families? I thought the issues being explored by the film required this larger context.
Not sure how anyone got hopeful from the end whether it was screens or windows. Fact was the guy made a stand at being part of the machine only to forget his morale crusade to take the money and be a performing monkey all day. Doesn't matter whether he got a good view real or not he had already sold out. Depressing.
|Google's Atari Breakout image search surprise (2)|
|How can we improve the CR iPad app? (3)|
|The billboard turning thin air into water (6)|
|Virgin Records celebrates 40 years of disruption (3)|
|Propaganda: Power and Persuasion (2)|
|The billboard turning thin air into water|
|Step into my cardboard office...|
|Paul Arden: a true maverick|
|Image Duplicator: pop art's comic debt|