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'Black Mirror' Visual Effects Bring Sci-Fi Anxiety Beyond the Cracked Screens of the Future

In anticipation of 'Black Mirror White Christmas' with Jon Hamm, we talked to Painting Practice, the studio behind the VFX of the bone-chilling series.
Jon Hamm in Black Mirror White Christmas. GIF by Tumblr user 365filmsbyauroranocte

The only thing missing from Channel 4 anthology series Black Mirror is the world-weary voice of Rod Serling, warning the watcher against what they just witnessed. Like The Twilight Zone, the show crams an entirely new dimension into each episode, scenarios united only by the invisible waypoints the the show's creator, Charlie Brookercalled, "a sort of global sweet spot of enchantment or anxiety," and a devilishly understated title sequence.


Unlike The Twilight Zone, every screen in Black Mirror is saturated with awareness of the techno-singularities looming just over the horizons of the future. Some surfaces shout from the sides of vans, some sit flush on walls in future-standard definition, and others ache out from within our own bodies. But each and every one of them shares the same origin: the mind of Brooker, then the execution of Carl Tibbets, and finally the CGI enhancement of UK VFX studio, Painting Practice.

The episodes are known for the uncanny approaches they take to interfaces: Season 1, released in 2011, introduced interspecies political relations via video messaging, a virtually-viewed singing competition set somewhere like Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century's sadistic sister Space Age, and a biotech implant that might make Steve Mann have his Nietzsche moment. The only miniseries bearing future tech more cutting edge was Season 2, with its minute attention to the nuances of three more all-too-possible future hellscapes.

Now, for Black Mirror White Christmas, the show's feature-length holiday spectacular (debuting on DirecTV in the States on December 25) starring Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Oona Chaplin (Game of Thrones), and Rafe Spall (Prometheus), they've introduced three new storylines and a different kind of Black Mirror experience: the portmanteau narrative. We wanted to know how they came up with the interfaces that give the show the kind of uncanny wholeness missing from so much of today's sci-fi TV, so we spoke to Justin Hutchinson Chatburn, the Director and VFX Supervisor at Painting Practice, about designing interfaces for White Christmas, The Twilight Zone, and his favorite episode of Black Mirror.


The Creators Project: First off, can you tell us about how Painting Practice became involved with Black Mirror?

Justin Hutchinson Chatburn: Painting Practice had a natural involvement in Black Mirror when one it’s founding partners, Joel Collins, was asked to production design the debut series. Joel is regularly supported by our team of designers and VFX artists, and so because of that we were drawn into the process of designing the Black Mirror universe.

What drew you to the original pitch and why was it in line with what you do at Painting Practice? 

Originally we were given only one script, which oddly enough never made it, but it was outstanding, and well, we love Charlie, he’s a bit of genius. But also the deal on the table was to design a world in its entirety from production design through to VFX and that is something we are always interested in because of our unique skill set, essentially it’s what we do best as a team.

Here in the states, people are viewing the show as an updated Twilight Zone. Where do you guys find inspiration for visualizing such nightmarish future technologies? Can you give us any examples from the series? 

Charlie regularly sights The Twilight Zone as an inspiration, I think mainly because it was a distinctly unsettling and  challenging series that made little effort to place itself in a universe or even a future that was unrecognisable. In turn this made the regular subtexts of the show much more accessible and relevant. Wether this was a conscious decision by Rod Serling, or simply a budgetary symptom, I cannot say, but I do know it worked and we all took that as our reference point rathe than any particular episode.


Can you walk us through the process of creating  the graphics and interfaces of each episode? (Does it start with script breakdowns, then move into sketches, etc.)

Well we are all very seasoned now, and given what I have already explained about the way we looked at the Twilight Zone we very quickly decided that less is more, and that the Black Mirror world has no place for the kind of interfaces you might see in Iron Man or Minority Report.

So when we get a script we already know the language essentially and it’s just a question of either moving it on slightly from the last thing or as in Be Right Back, embracing the design of the physical, such as Martha's easel - a personal favourite for me. Often the production design works hand in hand with the interface design but we all follow the same guidelines. We start designing the interfaces as soon as we can especially if there needs to be on screen choreography. Then I’ll sit with the actors on set and walk them through the motion of where they need to point press and swipe.

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

How did Charlie Brooker debrief you guys on White Christmas?

Honestly, he didn’t. We’ve worked on them all, and we know where and how far we need to go. These stories are not about the technology but the way in which we use it and how it affects our lives and therefore it should never be too distracting, just acceptable. Thats always the brief however Charlie is definitely involved in the final sign off process and he’s quite succinct about what he thinks works.


Were there challenges in designing for a "portmanteau narrative?”

The were fewer challenges this time round because all three tales exist in the same time frame essentially so we didn’t need to consider too many realities lets say.But there was a hell of a lot of work to do and that in itself was the challenge given our schedule.

However, despite keeping things low key the interior of Greta’s cookie did give us a faux reality where we could go a little crazy, but I wanted to still keep that feeling tactile. We also had the blocking ‘look’ to define too and that went through countless iterations before we settled on a look that worked well. Someday soon I’ll let everyone in on how we managed that because it’s quite funny to see!

What's your favorite work you've done on Black Mirror? 

The eyes on Entire History of You, hands down. Mainly because it’s the most favoured episode amongst fans so far and a personal favourite of mine in terms of it’s subtleties  in both production design and VFX. I often get asked about it - “how did you do the eye’s? ‘ and everyone is always surprised when I describe the simplicity of the way we achieved that. The interface we designed for that was outstanding too. For me it was the Empire Strikes back of those three episodes, which is what I kept telling the director, and well I was right. But they’re all good, and the experience of working across them all is rather special.


What's next for Painting Practice? 

Well we are pretty diverse and VFX design is only a part of what we do. In fact if you look back at the work we’ve done across 2014  it’s quite a broad spectrum ranging  from animation, commercials, film and drama so we’re just up for the next challenge and of course I’m sure there’ll be another Black Mirror someday soon so stay tuned!

Black Mirror White Christmas comes out on DIRECTV on December 25, 2014.


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