Behind the scenes of Black Mirror

It’s hard to describe just what the TV mini-series Black Mirror is about. Show creator Charlie Brooker told The Guardian that “each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.” Others have given it a ‘techno-paranoia’ label – and that could also the describe Black Mirror’s visual effects which are key to the story but always rendered as seamless shots. Primarily responsible for most of the work in the first two series, which aired on Channel 4, was Painting Practice. We take a look at some of their key contributions.

Series 1

For the first series, Painting Practice established the opening titles, as well as various motion graphics, future designs and on-screen visuals. The second episode in this series – ’15 Million Merits’ – features a room made up entirely of TV screens. Rather than shooting actors against greenscreen and compositing in the screen views, Painting Practice instead produced dozens of QuickTimes and graphics, including avatars of each character, pumping them through the monitors on set in real time. The show also required matte painting work and the creation of CG crowds for the show-within-a-show called Hot Shot.

A still from 15 Million Merits.

The third episode of series 1 – ‘The Entire History of You’ – presented an alternative reality where everyday activities are constantly recorded and memories can be played back. Painting Practice realized computer interfaces and futuristic eye effects. “I created just a couple of gradients in Nuke for the eyes,” explains visual effects supervisor Justin Hutchinson-Chatburn. “I built the script and sent it out to the compositors who were able to track the eyes and apply the gradient to lots of shots.”

The success of that episode, with its uncanny resemblance to the impending release of Google Glass, is clear – Robert Downey Jr.’s production company has optioned the Jesse Armstrong-written ep.

Series 2

Painting Practice returned for the second series of Black Mirror. In ‘Be Right Back’, series production designer Joel Collins designed an easel prop that appeared as a futuristic, battered tactile Cintiq. Painting Practice then worked with Collins to design the easel interface. “The director wanted it to feel like a tactile piece of tech,” says Justin. “It was very varied and almost battered with muted colors and almost a Bauhaus graphic design. The control surface of the equipment she was using wasn’t illuminated, it was tactile, so it had the feel of a dull Wacom tablet.”

Watch a clip from Be Right Back. Note, there is no sound in this clip.

In a later episode called ‘The Waldo Moment’, Painting Practice partnered with Passion Pictures to bring to life a blue cartoon bear named Waldo who is voiced and performance captured by a failed comedian. “The actor operated a prop puppet system on set and the bear had to respond to that on screen,” explains Justin. “The first solution you’d usually do for that would be to make all the screens greenscreen and do this as a post animation element and insert it back into the shots. But with a 12 day shoot and a short post schedule, it was not possible. So we decided to to go with an in-camera solution.” That was driven by game engine Unity and a mix of pre-animated sequences and live puppeteering – highlighted by an appearance on a late-night topical comedy show.

– Above: watch a clip from The Waldo Moment.