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…

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:

Black Mirror – 15 Million Merits – cornfield from Painting Practice on Vimeo.

“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:

Black Mirror – 15 Million Merits – Pedal Chamber from Painting Practice on Vimeo.

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.

Black Mirror – 15 Million Merits – Hot Shot Audience from Painting Practice on Vimeo.

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

To watch 15 Million Merits, visit 4OD at



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