Framestore’s Television Department, led by VFX Supervisor Russell Dodgson, re-joined Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror in Series 4 episode 1: ‘USS Callister’. Framestore previously worked on Series 3’s award-winning ‘Playtest’. Toby Haynes (Doctor Who, Wallander) directed the episode, which partially takes place in deep space. This required Framestore to deliver CG space ships and anamorphic environments, with a 270-shot hot count in the 74-minute, Sixties-inspired episode. As with series 3 all this work was delivered in 4K resolution.
Framestore’s brief for ‘USS Callister’ was to create an original Star Trek inspired gaming environment that traps our heroes in a horrifying if not amusing world. The narrative arc of this stylised episode called for numerous environments, including those in outer space; the USS Callister spaceship; the nightmarish CG Arachnajax creature, various beaming and other effects, such as matte paintings and on screen graphics.
Much of the episode’s action takes place on board the USS Callister, a spaceship that was the centrepiece of Framestore’s vfx on the project. The team were supplied with an initial concept and a clear indication of the intended style and aesthetic. Framestore’s Rob Harrington led the CG team in look development on the model, turning it into a hero asset. The ship’s fluid, flowing lines drew on a full pack of references, including retro cars, historical spacecraft architecture, and the design trends of the Sixties, from which the overall sequences take their cue. Extensive texturing and shader work ensured that the gargantuan craft would hold up to the scrutiny of 4K close-ups.
Technicolour did the grade. There was an early test for HDR, as this episode, in particular has both rich saturated colours and deep blacks. While doing HDR Framestore’s standard OpenEXR pipeline is inherently wide gamut, “the one thing we did have to worry about were the windows in the spaceship” explains Dodgson. “If you watch, say a normal Star Trek style spaceship in standard format and you look at the windows of the ship, they are blown out. But if you look at Windows in HDR, you can see details in the windows” he explains. So Framestore added a small IBL for every room behind all the windows on the USS Callister “so there would be some detail, since you never know what you are going to see or have revealed by the HDR”. Dodgson points out that if one flips between an SD grade and the HD grade of a show such as this, “sitting in the grade in post, flipping between the two it is a dramatic difference, it makes a massive difference”.
Framestore artists also designed and matte-painted multiple space environments across the duration of the episode. In an effort to help the sub-text, the team worked to reflect the nuances of the script in the visuals – whether using a red, stormy, nebulous background when protagonist Jesse Plemons flies into a rage, or painting a cool and muted atmosphere to reflect gameplay stasis. The episode’s final sequence, set amongst a labyrinth of asteroids was rendered using deep comp. The animation team choose to animate the ships movements through the asteroids as a first person video game chase, rather than a classic model motion control sequence.
In their previous work on episode two of Series 3, Playtest, Framestore created the VR based disturbing mash-up of spider and human that attacks Cooper (Wyatt Russell). Cooper is the poor American tourist, who accepts a one-off job testing a new video game for SaitoGemu. The initial sculpt for the creature in USS Callister was done by Black Mirror’s art department Painting Practice. The team at Painting Practice has worked on all of the Black Mirror episodes and as Framestore’s Dodgson points out “we have a really long standing relationship with the Painting Practice. They did the initial design. Joel Collins, who is the production designer for Black Mirror is one of the (founding) partners at Painting Practice”, “They did the initial Z-brush sculpt of the creature as a concept to get sign off and that achieved about 70% of the design you see. We then picked that up and had to do a bunch of design work to make it work better for the animation process and for the performance”.
Framestore applied further look dev to the Arachnajax, moving the eyes a little etc. The writhing, multi-tentacled CG beast, called for extensive technical rigging, colour and texture, seen predominantly within a gravelly, rock-simulated landscape. The narrative called for emotional intelligence, as the creature needed to demonstrate personality and emotion in its interactions, when the game is paused and the creature relaxed with the other ‘captives’ of the game. The Arachnajax’s fantastical nature builds on Framestore’s renowned capabilities in creature design seen in such films as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, (see our story here).
While the creature is threatening she also has to be able to ‘take a break and relax’. Oddly, one of the most interesting challenges for the animators was having the creature “sit down when it doesn’t actually have an arse, and it has a tail, so you have to think, – where does that go?” explains Dodgson. And even when the team had worked out how to make it sit down, they had to ask “is it funny? Can you make it look a bit depressed?” After all, in the show the creature is a like the other crew members: “it is just putting on a show and the rest of the time it is waiting for something to happen. It was a matter of putting ‘character’ into a creature that was designed to scare”, he adds.
Deep comp pipeline helped with the dust and particles and placed the creature into the scene as part of the comp. The render was done with Arnold with either MtoA or HtoA, with the creature coming from Maya and the effects (dust and particles) from Mantra.
The interactive environment was complex, the location was an old quarry, and the whole area was scanned with LiDAR, which helped with both tracking and shadows. The LiDAR from the Faro scanner point cloud is meshed in Houdini into a solid object that could be used in the pipeline as both an aide to tracking but also as a hold out in the Deep Comp pipeline, as well as temp geo for shading and lighting.
The IBLs were done in a standard fashion, using an 8mm DSLR bracketed and later stitched. IBL is imported and then the natural “shadows are divided out of the plate and then they are multiplied back in again from the 3D render, which also helps provide nice colour in the shadows”, Dodgson explains.
As this episode was shot in January, the light levels were changing constantly due to the weather, so the team needed to both balance shots and manage the shadows on the CG creature. “The light was changing like crazy,.. so if you watch the scene it is in and out of key light, so we had to do some additional lighting in post”.
In the ship, Shania Lowry is turned into an Arachnajax. While the asset was not the primary narrative character, and only appeared in a few shot scenes, the asset needed to be used for two separate creatures, a threatening creature and a bored ‘extra’ in a space soap drama. The second Arachnajax was slightly retextured and reshaded, as the original creature did not work as well in the clean IBL of the ship’s bridge as it did on the red rocky planet surface. “We adjusted and found a new look, in both the texturing and the comp to A) work better with the lighting and B) find a look that reflected that Ehania was a ‘new born’ Arachnajax and needed to look scared and more vulnerable”. There were also some small scale adjustments to fit the scale of the set.
The creature was rendered in a pipeline out of Maya, but most of the ship and the space scenes were rendered from a pipeline starting with Houdini. The final render for both was in Arnold.
The Callister did not need to explode or suffer damage so the model did not really need any internal modelling, but the camera did get very close to the ship “so it was a fairly traditional asset, just very detailed and we were seeing it in 4K which is fairly brutal”, jokes Dodgson.
The team also had to do a series of transporter shots and additional work both inside and outside the Infinity game.
Back in the ‘real world’, Framestore did a series of small effects such as eye misting over when our heros attach the neural implant/neurological attachments and enter the ‘virtual reality’, (the ‘neural implant’ looks remarkably like the VR nodes in Season Three’s San Junipero (they also bear the logo ‘TCKR’)).
In fact the whole episode is full of cultural and Black Mirror references.