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Creating the unique, unsettling sound world of Black Mirror’s San Junipero

Meet the team who worked on the iconic episode, make the sounds for fake social media platforms and turn sugary pop songs totally sinister

With its near-future backdrop and anthology series format, Black Mirror isn’t necessarily the most straightforward show to soundtrack. How do you create a believable noise for technology that doesn’t yet exist? How do you craft a consistent score when storylines, locations, and characters change episode-on-episode? What sort of pop song is appropriate to play in the background of a futuristic setting?

With the series coming back for its fourth season on Netflix later this month (December 29), we spoke to some of the key players behind Black Mirror’s audio to get an insight into how it all comes together.

INVENTING THE FUTURE

Jim Goddard works at Boom, a London-based company specialising in audio post-production for films and TV drama. As a fan of Screenwipe and Nathan Barley, he was keen to get involved with a new Charlie Brooker show when the company took on Black Mirror – and, after hearing the premise of the series, was even more excited to become its supervising sound editor. His job sees him work with both Brooker and series producer Annabel Jones, as well as individual directors, to build the sound world for an episode. This often means creating noises that audiences can immediately relate to while fitting within an overarching techno-futuristic environment.

“With the directors I’d discuss what kind of world the episodes are based in,” Goddard says. “Whether it’s an alternate reality or somewhere slightly in the future, whether the vehicles are electric, whether things should feel futuristic or pretty much like the world we live in today. Every episode is different, which makes it an incredibly exciting and creative show to be a part of.”

Goddard starts by putting ideas down for the sound of technology using synthesisers and manipulated sound recordings. Then, he builds a general atmosphere before filling in the rest with help from the foley team and sound editors before mixing the audio tracks with dialogue and music.

“Charlie is usually involved in how the technology sounds as it’s such an integral part of the show,” he says. “I’d often design a variety of options of ringtones, message alerts, and technology devices to play to the director, Charlie, and the team to gauge their reactions and develop further if needed. This means that hopefully by the time we get to the mix stage, these sounds were already approved. Charlie is also very keen on existing technology sound effects and music being accurate, and rightly so. A good example of this is ‘San Junipero’, which features various arcade games through the decades, which involved sourcing the original sound for authenticity.”

Goddard tries to avoid taking influence from classic sci-fi in his work, instead trying to get a vibe of particular sounds from conversations with Brooker and the directors. Even so, there are some real world inspirations that can’t be avoided. “In many instances, listening to ringtones and notifications on modern devices and social media platforms was a good way to start,” he says. “It was often a case of trying to work out how they were made and then going about designing my own original versions using synthesisers or processing organic sounds and even voices. ‘Hated in the Nation’ is largely based around social media, with some very close comparisons to a few popular platforms like Twitter – my job was to make something original, but also familiar enough to help the viewer know what sort of platform it was. The sound for our version of a tweet was made by whistling and then processing the audio.”

MAKING THE RIGHT MUSIC CHOICES

Amelia Hartley is the Head of Music at Endemol, and has been working as Black Mirror’s music supervisor since the start. Her role involves reading scripts, helping directors find music to fit the scenes, and working with record companies and publishers to license the tracks. “Because Charlie has got such an encyclopedic knowledge of music and it’s so broad and eclectic, when we get scripts, he will always suggest pieces of music that he thinks would work well,” Hartley says. “He thinks creatively what his vision is for them. Then the directors come on board and they take over the overall feel.”

In an episode like “San Junipero”, perhaps the most iconic entry into the Black Mirror canon so far, the emotional resonance of the narrative rides or dies on the music choices. “Obviously the idea was that the music would reflect the 1987 utopia of San Junipero,” says Hartley. “The first thing that Charlie wanted was ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’ by Belinda Carlisle. One of my favourite scenes in the episode is the panning shot down the servers as it plays at the end. Other than that, the tracks we were using were to reflect the characters. For example, Kelly is a very vivacious character, so the music in the discos and things reflects her character.”

Not every idea ends up in an episode. Sometimes this is on a technicality – an Eric B. & Rakim track couldn’t be used in “San Junipero” because it contained an uncleared James Brown sample – while other times, a preferred song simply doesn’t work. “Sometimes you can come up with what you think is the best song in the world for a particular scene, get really over excited about it, put it to pitch, and it doesn’t work,” says Hartley. “There’ll be something about it that jars with the picture, maybe something slightly out for the emotion you’re trying to get. The one thing that one has to be terrified of is if anything is too lyrically in-your-face.”

STRIKING THE BALANCE

Black Mirror’s tone can vary from bleakly comic to deeply tragic, often in the space of one episode. Songs like Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” can be pretty nauseating even at the best of times, but it takes on a nightmarish quality in “White Christmas”. “By the time you’ve heard it over and over again, you’ve completely changed the essence of the song,” says Hartley. “It becomes to a much less happy, jolly Christmas song. I think that’s a cool way to play around with music.”

Repurposing music for this ends is one of the things the show does so well. In “Shut Up and Dance”, a counterbalance to the grim events is established with Radio 2-friendly pop songs by Jess Glynne and Emeli Sande creating a mundane normality. Elsewhere, Stereophonics’ “Have a Nice Day” is used to ironic effect. It’s a totally different to an episode like “San Junipero”, but it has its own musical identity regardless. “There’s a bit where the lead character goes into a garage, and there’s a juxtaposition between the horrendous time he is having and going in to just pay for some petrol,” says Hartley. “We put on ‘Have a Nice Day’ and it worked absolutely brilliantly because it just jars with you. But it would have been touch-and-go, actually. It could have been one that we prized but then actually, lyrically, it’s a bit too heavy. It worked perfectly. It’s only really when you see it to picture that you can go, ‘Yeah that totally works.’”

“By the time you’ve heard it over and over again, you’ve completely changed the essence of the song”

KNOWING THE SCORE

Some episodes stick out not for their song choices, but their lack of them. Season 3’s “Nosedive” is characterised by Max Richter’s distinctive, dreamy score, and doesn’t feature music by any other artist. “The subject matter spoke to me very strongly, and the critique of social media at the heart of the script is a hugely important question facing us right now, so it was a no-brainer for me,” Richter says. “‘Nosedive’ is all about the seductive power of network affirmation and everything in its visual world is shiny and happy. From the musical standpoint I decided to score the film as though everything in it were unreal – to evoke a dreamlike sense of safety and comfort. The music is constantly telling you ‘Everything is okay’, even though it is increasingly obvious that this is false. In this way I managed to open up a psychological space between the score and the action that makes Lacie’s descent into chaos, and her final redemptive moment of disenchantment all the more affecting.”

While “Nosedive”s musical world was built on Richter’s compositions alone, Clint Mansell’s score for “San Junipero” complemented the multi-era song choices used throughout the episode. Mansell’s music came from a deeply personal place. “The subject matter was heavy for me – my girlfriend had died 18 months before,” Mansell says. “But it was also cathartic, beautiful, sad, and therapeutic too. A lot of musical choices had already been made when I started on the episode, and a lot of the 80s songs were already in place. The 80s vibe for the score felt like the right approach – John Hughes was mentioned. I started on ideas which came together quite well, but it took a little time to capture the right tone.”

“The fun thing about Black Mirror has been dealing with the composers,” adds Amelia Hartley. “Because of the nature of the show, and because Charlie wrote the episodes and he’s very creative, people want to work with him. We were able to talk to and collaborate with some really really good composers. And in the new series that’s coming out, we’ve got some amazing people too.”

“The subject matter was heavy for me – my girlfriend had died 18 months before. But it was also cathartic, beautiful, sad, and therapeutic too” – Clint Mansell

CREATING CONSISTENCY WITH EASTER EGGS

Charlie Brooker has never been dead set on the idea that Black Mirror’s episodes all occupy a shared universe, but the show does feature a lot of subtle references and callbacks to previous episodes as Easter Eggs for die-hard fans. Sometimes that’s shared events appearing on news tickers and webpages between episodes, and sometimes that’s dialogue echoing previous lines from the show. But there’s also the use of sound, too. As Jim Goddard explains, although “each sound is tailor-made to each individual episode,” they will occasionally reuse a sound in a different episode “as a subtle Easter egg for any viewers that might notice.”

And if there’s one piece of music that’s come to define the show, it’s Irma Thomas’s “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)”. The character Abi Khan performs the song on “15 Million Merits”, and it appears again in “White Christmas” and “Men Against Fire”.

“The one thing that Charlie loves more than anything is playing around with ‘Anyone Who Knows What Love Is’,” says Amelia Hartley. “It’s a really brilliant piece of music to play around with. I now consider it to be almost like our theme song. It ended up in one of Charlie’s favourite episodes, in the talent show, and he liked the idea of that sort of nod to it through the series. It just appeals to him.”

Are there any other connections eagle-eared fans should be listening out for in the forthcoming fourth season? “Yes,” Hartley says bluntly, letting out a laugh. Sadly, she can’t reveal anything just yet. “People should be able to recognise what that is when they watch one of the episodes, specifically.”

Clint Mansell and Max Richter interviews by Steven T. Hanley. Max Richter’s Nosedive soundtrack available here

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