Black Mirror production designer Joel Collins on bringing Charlie Brooker’s dystopian visions to life

Motion graphics and VFX company Painting Practice has worked on Black Mirror since the series started in 2011. We talked to co-founder and the series production designer Joel Collins about bringing Charlie Brooker’s dystopian visions to life on screen

Black Mirror
Black Mirror

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is one of the most unsettling programmes on television. The show taps into our deepest fears about modern society and presents some frightening scenarios set in a not-so-distant future.

On paper, its plots sound absurd. In series one, episode one, the UK Prime Minister was forced to have sex with a pig to save a member of the Royal Family. In episode two, a group of young people endlessly slogged away on exercise bikes while trapped in a grim, X Factor-style game show.

But the series has always felt oddly prescient. Brooker taps into our fear of the uncanny with bizarre scenarios set in worlds that are just one notch further round the dial from the present day. This could happen – in a world where Donal Trump can be President, who’s to say it wouldn’t?

Bryce Dallas Howard in Black Mirror series 3 episode 1, 'Nosedive'. The episode presents a world where people are constantly rating each other out of five on social media
Bryce Dallas Howard in Black Mirror series 3 episode 1, ‘Nosedive’. The episode presents a world where people are constantly rating each other out of five on social media

For its third series, the show has moved from Channel 4 to Netflix and upped its run from three episodes to six. New episodes cover Twitter trolling, war, gaming and the afterlife and feature some dark, violent, funny and unexpectedly poignant scenes.

London studio Painting Practice is responsible for the VFX, motion graphics and production design on Black Mirror. The company has worked on the series since 2011, designing its title sequence as well as props, products and technology systems featured in each episode.

At the beginning of each series, Painting Practice co-founder Joel Collins, art director Robyn Paiba and graphic designer Erica McEwan work with Brooker and executive producer Annabel Jones to establish a visual concept for each episode. (Each one is a complete story and has a different director, cast and crew as well as a distinct look and feel). The team then works with directors – plus a team of makeup artists, costume designers, prosthetics, graphics and VFX artists – to bring that concept to life.

For series three, Painting Practice designed some beautiful and eerie sets, robotic killer creatures and CG landscapes.

Nosedive

In Nosedive, the opening episode, characters are rated out of five for their every deed and interaction. A good rating can land you a better job, a bigger house or a nicer car, while a bad one can ruin your life.

The episode was filmed in South Africa but is set in a future America – a beautiful, eternally sunny but frighteningly homogenous America, where people drive identical white cars and wear clothing in matching pastel shades.

“We wanted to film it somewhere with an LA-style feel,” Collins explains. “I found a small island about an hour out of Cape Town, which was almost like a fake version of America. When Joe Wright [the director] came on board, we offered it up as a vision for how the tone of the show could work. He flew out there and loved it, so we used it as the basis to construct this Truman Show-esque, Pleasantville-style, perfect-imperfect America.”

“The way people were living in that episode was in a very equal way, in as much as they’d have a phone and a computer and the person next to them would have a similar one but in a different colour, and they’d feel comfortable because they both have the same thing, just different versions of it. That world, from the cars to the phone and the clothes and the tone of it, is very non-offensive,” he adds.

Black Mirror Bryce Dallas Howard Nosedive
Bryce Dallas Howard in Black Mirror series 3 episode 1, ‘Nosedive’

The idea was to create a “heightened, stylised version of the way we live now,” says Collins – a world where people strive to present a perfect version of themselves to others and are terrified of stepping out of line.

Scenes where the main character Lacie is seen driving and riding in a truck feature a fake landscape which was created using CGI. Painting Practice animated a suitably American-looking world (one where Lacie drives on the right side of the road) and live projected it onto sets during filming.

“It’s kind of an old school way to do it … in this day and age, you’d usually use blue or green screen … but it saves all the green spill on [actors’] faces and eyes and all the compositing and rotoscope,” says Collins. “It also helped us adhere to the cohesive overall look [in the episode].” The CG landscape was created by Dan May, VFX art director on Nosedive and co-founder of Painting Practice.

Black Mirror San Junipero Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis in Black Mirror series 3 episode 4, ‘San Junipero’

San Junipero

Another episode, San Junipero, was also shot in South Africa and presents a world inspired by classic 80s films such as Cocktail. The film is set in a fictional Californian resort town, where characters wear shoulder pads and sequinned dresses, play retro arcade games and dance in a club next to a video drive in. From the music (it opens with Belinda Carlyle) to the retro signage on bars and shop fronts, every detail is designed to evoke a sense of nostalgia. 

“That one was an unusual departure [episodes are usually set in alternate realities or the future] but it seemed to resonate a lot with the audience,” says Collins.

Without giving too much away, the world featured in the episode is an artificial construct designed decades later – which is why Collins and the production team looked to well-known films and pop culture to design it.

“If I was the person designing the world in that film, I would have used movie references … if you’re designing this world 30 years in the future, the likely thing to do would be to research things online and watch movies,” he says. The visuals, music and costumes are inspired by different genres of films from the era, says Collins, from romance to action.

Black Mirror Still from San Junipero. The episode is set in a fictional world that looks like a 1980s film set
Still from Black Mirror series 3 episode 4, San Junipero. The episode is set in a fictional world that looks like a 1980s film set

By using familiar references, the team was able to play with viewers emotions and subvert their expectations of the storyline, leaving people guessing until close to the film’s end. The episode has an unexpected and poignant twist and proved particularly popular with viewers online.

“Sometimes, to tell a really good story, we have to make people feel they are in a genre they understand, so by thinking they’re watching a certain kind of film, they fall into a story, and then they realise by the end of it that it wasn’t that film at all, it was a different journey,” says Collins.

Black Mirror Alex Lawther in episode 3, 'Shut Up and Dance'
Alex Lawther in Black Mirror series 3, episode 3, ‘Shut Up and Dance’. The episode tells the story of a teenage boy who is at the mercy of an anonymous blackmailer after a virus infects his computer

Shut Up and Dance

This is also the case in Shut Up and Dance, perhaps the most chilling episode of the series and one with a shocking twist. The episode tells the story of a teenage boy who is forced to carry out tasks by an anonymous blackmailer after a virus infects his laptop.

The episode was shot in England and has no futuristic tech. Characters drive normal cars and wear normal clothes and live in normal, unremarkable suburban houses. However, there are some subtle quirks and visual cues that hint at the episode’s dark content and influence our emotional response to the film, says Collins. Everything from clothing to paint colours on walls is carefully considered to create the desired effect.

Black Mirror
Shut Up and Dance. Collins says the episode was designed to feel “normal” and unremarkable

“Shut Up and Dance feels very normal, but it is very considered. A boy of that age might not have a bedroom with walls that deep in colour for example [the main character’s bedroom is painted dark blue] but the tone of the room helps determine the effect it has on you emotionally.”

“That episode had to feel real and normal to the audience, because it wasn’t about technology, it was about human nature and what we do and how we abuse it. And although it didn’t have bells and whistles, it still felt extremely Black Mirror,” he continues.

The future of technology

Other episodes feature more sophisticated technology. Hated in the Nation features drone-operated insects introduced to Britain following the extinction of honeybees. Playtest presents a horrifying vision of the future of gaming, with an almost comically gruesome CGI monster, and Men against Fire considers the future of combat. 

Men Against Fire, the penultimate episode in the series, shows soldiers hunting creatures known as ‘roaches’ in a bleak, post-apocalyptic setting. Troops have been fitted with brain implants to make them more efficient, and spend their days roaming abandoned tower blocks and rural farmhouses looking for ‘roaches’ to exterminate. The episode begins with an ‘us and them’ dichotomy – enhanced by a setting and visuals that bring to mind shoot-em-up video games and shows like The Walking Dead – but soon evolves into something much more complex.

Black Mirror Malachi Kirby in episode 5, Men Against Fire. The episode explores the future of combat, with soldiers fighting 'cockroaches' in a post-apocalyptic setting
Malachi Kirby in Black Mirror series 3, episode 5, Men Against Fire. The episode explores the future of combat, with soldiers fighting ‘cockroaches’ in a post-apocalyptic setting

Some episodes feature existing technology and social media, while others feature imagined products and interfaces designed by Painting Practice and based on concepts thought up by Brooker. 

Collins says future technologies featured in the show must be “recognisable” and not too far removed from existing inventions. “You can’t stray too far from what’s real to the point where the audience disconnects,” he explains. The ratings app in Nosedive, for example, is not unlike real-life app Peeple, while the immersive experience in Playtest feels like an extreme but plausible vision of the future of gaming. 

Keeping things simple

The tech in Black Mirror is designed to look clean and simple – reflecting a move towards increasingly minimal design and away from screen-based devices into augmented reality, immersive experiences and wearable tech.

“If you think about what a phone used to look like, it used to flip out and have lots of buttons and things on it and now it’s just a sheet of glass, but it does so much,” says Collins. “I think we’re working towards a future of design that is under-designed.”

Hated in the Nation, the final episode in Black Mirror series 3, features extreme Twitter trolling and robotic bees
Hated in the Nation, the final episode in Black Mirror series 3, features extreme Twitter trolling and robotic bees

Designs are based on research into emerging technologies as well as details in Brooker’s scripts. Prototypes and mock-ups are put through “rigorous” testing, says Collins, with Brooker examining even the smallest of details.

“Charlie looks at everything from kerning to font details. He’s a remarkably intelligent guy who’s highly tuned into not just the writing, but the graphic details, and technology and gaming,” says Collins.
“[When it comes to designing tech] we’ll work at things tirelessly to get it to the point where he sees it and then it will go through a rigorous process to ensure it’s original and right.”

Working on each episode of Black Mirror is like working on a feature film: each one requires a unique creative approach and every detail is carefully considered. Designing an episode is a painstaking process – but the aim is to create an immersive series of episodes that sustain momentum from start to finish, says Collins.

“It’s about trying to be original and fresh each time,” he says. “Trying to project possible futures as clearly as you can, with touches of originality.”

Men Against Fire
Men Against Fire

Series one, two and three of Black Mirror are available to watch on Netflix

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