Minor spoilers ahead for Season 3 of Black Mirror.
Apart from serving up dark, surreal sci-fi plots that make you wonder, What's the point?, is known for the near seamless integration of visual effects into its haunting, Twilight Zone-esque narratives. With the third season now on Netflix, fans both fervent and casual are seeing some of the best production design and VFX of the show’s entire run.
Black Mirror’s production designer, Joel Collins, of creative studio Painting Practice, has been with the show since its inception in 2011. Collins envisioned the studio as a one-stop shop—a place where the show’s director could come and talk VFX, motion graphics, set design, and decoration.
“The premise of doing them all was to give the show a cohesive nature,” he says. “Immediately, you can imagine if no one was managing it, it could get really messy.” Painting Practice’s creative team traveled to every country in Black Mirror’s shooting locations, built every set, and created all of the graphics.
With its virtual reality California beach town setting, the futuristic "San Junipero" episode is particularly notable in that its production design is augmented reality itself. Crafting this was no small feat, and Collins acknowledges that it is due to a very rare set of challenges making the show provides: “Our ethos is to work in the realm of the real but also enjoy the virtual: to understand how sets are dressed, shooting schedules, and the dynamics of a set itself,” says Collins. “People make robots for us or sometimes 3D print something. I always make sure they see when they’ve made an error making something real.”
A production designer by trade, Collins says his speciality is designing things that include “unusual VFX elements.” He says that one of show’s themes is the idea of “suggested augmented reality.” Not AR as some nifty virtual trick used by artists or companies to sell an idea or product, but the fabric of one’s actual reality becoming augmented—often dangerously so—through bleeding edge technology.
"Playtest" stars Wyatt Russell as a backpacking game tester who becomes lost in an augmented reality experience. The episode features some of the show’s most amazing VFX work and production work to date. “In truth, the show itself is more about the mind than the fact,” Collins says. “But the visual effects in the show are supposed to be visual effects. So the things the character sees in 'Playtest' are the things he knows he’s seeing, rather than things that are real.”
Painting Practice developed the "Playtest" visuals alongside the episode’s director, Dan Trachtenberg. The AR games, the headset, and the implant that the character encounters in the episode were created by Painting Practice, as Trachtenberg, alongside show creator Charlie Brooker, developed the episode.
“So, there is a progression in augmented reality throughout the show,” says Collins. “There are also a lot of what are called easter eggs, and they’re peppered throughout the first half of 'Playtest.' And if you really studied the show you’d see that most of the stories told in visual effects are found earlier in the show, hidden in this film earlier in books, games, in pubs.”
The production design and VFX work for episode "San Junipero" is more subtle to the viewer’s eye, but even more ambitious. As Collins explains it, the town is a complete fabrication—a cinematic augmented reality.
The VFX designer on this episode, Painting Practice’s founding partner Dan May, worked with Collins on how they would virtually transition San Junipero from the 80s to the 00s, while also creating the narratives in some near-future America.
“There are evolving and augmented subtleties in the street,” Collins points out. “The driverless car is featured in various episodes of Black Mirror, and this one had to be unique for script needs, and it went through various iterations to get it right.”
“The world outside the hospital is a very subtle nod to the near future,” he adds. “The color spectrum is a lot of pink and blue, as we enjoyed those spectrums as we designed the show.”
While viewers might assume that The Quagmire—the club where San Junipero residents fulfill their darker desires—was an actual venue, Collins says this was not the case. Originally, the production team drove out into the South African countryside to look at factories for the set, but nothing had the magic and mystery the script demanded.
“I did a little doodle in Photoshop, and we expanded that and it became this this big crazy factory you go to release your inner demons,” says Collins. “None of it was shot in America, and very little of it was real. It is a constructed world, so we had to rely on the art department and VFX to give it that flavor it needed to feel like past and future America.”
“We needed a feeling of warmth, the feeling that you could smell the air, the palpable feeling of the 80s and of reality in the sense of the beach, the warm nights,” he adds. “It’s almost like where we shot felt more like California in the 80s than California now. We turned an old building into a club, and that was augmented with props and VFX.”
One of Black Mirror’s crowning VFX achievements is found in the closing moments of "San Junipero." As the onscreen drama resolves between the two female lovers, Brooker and episode director Owen Harris pull viewers out of this virtual reality and place them in Tucker Systems’ server farm. There, the virtual afterlives are tended to by robots. Collins believes that this scene, which plays out in an immense physical space, grounds the San Junipero virtual reality. It creates a space that he thinks the audience will understand—a mauseoleum-as-disco, full of life.
“It’s not a somber place to end—it’s a very emotionally upbeat ending,” Collins says. “Dan created that environment in the office and Owen was quite eager to make a disco of lights, which is what we explored. Dan added the robot arm to add tone and pace to the scene. It’s like a nightclub in the server room where people are living their lives.”
For the Black Mirror producers, the design ethos always starts with one question: “What’s around the corner?” It imbues each episode with a high plausibility factor, whether it’s the futuristic warfare of "Men Against Fire," the warped AR social media landscape of "Nosedive," or the artificially intelligent bees and cyber mayhem of "Hated in the Nation."
“When you’re making the show, you pretend it’s real so the process you’re going through is real,” Collins muses. “You put yourself in the place of those people, and try to empathize with them a bit. The emotional journey is one of the things that resonates with the audience.”
Watch Black Mirror Season 3 on Netflix. Click here to see more of Painting Practice’s work.