The man behind the show’s visual identity gives us an episode-by-episode rundown of how he made Series 4 look futuristic and realistic
The magic of Black Mirror lies in its gritty realism, assisted largely by the show’s impressive attention to detail. Joel Collins and his company Painting Practice have overseen the look and the feel of the show since its inception.
“I’m aware of every design team on the show, every chair, everything that is happening on every episode. I've got the weight of knowledge in my brain of all the reasons why everything looks the way it does. I personally sculpted Waldo, I've got little toys of Waldo that I sculpted in my drawer,” Collins explains before laughing. “I've got Black Mirror all over myself – bits of it dripping off, because it's evasive, it's like almost like method acting.”
While Collins is in charge of meticulous details from VFX and motion graphics to set design, he also works closely with Charlie Brooker and the writers to collaborate and bring the ideas to life. As the show grows one of the biggest challenges is keeping it looking futuristic and realistic. “When I first met Charlie and Annabelle we talked about time frames, Charlie would say imagine five years in the future, and that was more than five years ago,” says Collins. “We're now way beyond some of those ideas. Time has caught up with us, so the test for us was whether our taste and our approach feels relevant to new viewers. The worst thing is for Black Mirror to trope itself to you know, become a parody of itself.”
With all that in mind we skim through the look and feel of the next season and he’s obviously nervous and excited in equal measure. “I'm so desperate to talk about it but I don't want to give anything away,” he explains. But here’s some exclusive previews that he could divulge.
“I've got the weight of knowledge in my brain of all the reasons why everything looks the way it does. I've got Black Mirror all over myself – bits of it dripping off, because it's evasive, it's like almost like method acting” – Joel Collins, Production Designer, Black Mirror
Callister looks like a Star Trek-style show. The story is about the world they inhabit – the first location is an amazing spaceship – and it looks heavily science fiction but the themes that thread through the episode are much deeper than that. One of the biggest issues of playing in the realms of science fiction is that the audiences are so tuned in to very sophisticated movies and shows now. We're not in the 70s and the 80s – there were some terrible science fiction out there. We have this utterly brilliant new Star Wars movie, Marvel films like Guardians of The Galaxy. If we are going to play in that arena we have to play a very serious hand, which we did. The tone of it, for me, is as sophisticated as those sort of films. The question is, is that really where the film is set? I guess the audience will eventually find out.
This one will hit home to people with kids, or if you’ve been a kid, so that's actually everyone. It hits both age groups because it’s a very emotionally driven subtly made piece.
Jodie was very clear about trying to make a grassroots film about a real American family and mother – she's phenomenal. It’s a very normal North American backdrop. It’s supposed to be something that could happen very soon. It's not supposed to be something that's that clever. If you look at the phones in the episode they're impossibly thin so if you were to just dissect the detail, even more, you would see hints that it’s in the future but not far. It gets you to ask yourself the question: if this happened tomorrow would you sign up? That's the feeling of the show.
“Crocodile” is a crime drama. Guilt and anxiety are centre stage so the environment is a backdrop for the story rather than a big part of the story. The idea is that it could be in Iceland, where we filmed it, or somewhere as close as Scotland. It doesn't matter because it’s a timeless “somewhere” that could be on your doorstep. Obviously finding a beautiful environment that’s dark and beautiful really helps the story, it’s got depth to its beauty and it adds some real grit. The harsher environment actually helps the story flow. It isn't the story – but it is a great way to frame it.
Similar to “The Entire History of You” the issue was that if you were to get into somebody else's mind and look at what they did, you could cause yourself a lot of damage. So it’s the fear for all of us that in the future if this is ever real, where do you hide? And not just where do we hide with our memories but how do we stop other people entering them and what do we do if they have that information?
I worked on the design for memory reading technology in the episode with Charlie Brooker. Other people had a go at trying to do it but ultimately it was quite hard. It’s got the feeling of an old flight viewer or something, it’s quite vintage. The show isn't supposed to feel futuristic. There are some elements that give the timing away a little bit of where it’s set, there are driverless vehicles and things but actually, we didn’t want it to be really sci-fi. It’s supposed to be a relatively real piece of tech in a real world. So it looks a bit battered, it doesn't look perfect, it doesn't look really skinny, it's not like a hologram. It does a very difficult job of trying to delve deep into your mind as the theme of the episode is memory. Somewhere in your mind is information but sadly we also confuse information with other information and layer information with other information and memories get mixed up. You can’t train your brain to alter memories.
HANG THE DJ
“Hang The DJ” is very subtly designed. We imagined someone actually setting up a dating app and giving them a device to organise dates online with that which is what is happening with “the system” in the episode. You can almost imagine someone getting inspiration from “Crocodile” and setting up a location similar to what you see in the show, like a dating Butlins (a chain of large holiday camps in the United Kingdom) where people can kind of spend holiday doing different dates.
The handheld system is a softer way to have something that's not a mobile phone but is your information giver really, like a Siri kind of guide. These shows take ages to make and a long time to post produce but weirdly during the making sometimes things come out that are similar to our design I’ve seen someone designing a phone like what we’ve made.
There was a humorous aspect for me which is that it’s all a bit like Soho farmhouse. There's a kind of community that you feel lives there but they don’t.
“Metalhead” is in a Black Mirror time quite close to now, but much like “Men Against Fire” you’re left thinking “Am I on Earth?” You are somewhere that you kind of understand but you don't know quite what's happened. “Metalhead” is much more visceral, enclosed it’s about two things going head-to-head.
I worked with David Slade who I've known for, it must be 16 years. It’s a very dynamic film – he keeps you on the edge of your seat. When you've got two lead characters and one of them isn't real, the one that isn't real has to be done utterly brilliantly. It has to have all of the same attributes as someone you might cast if that was a real person or real thing or animal. You have to be original and clever and brilliant at animation and design, to give the audience the feeling of reality. We used puppetry and CGI – all different types of tricks to try and make sure that the kind of relationship on screen is as real as possible.
This is the pièce de résistance as it were. It was really fun to create “Black Museum”. It’s a crime museum run by a showman who is working in tech and he collected artefacts from grizzly crimes, tech crimes. He's quite a character and the great fun thing is that he is aware of some of the people that have done bad things in Black Mirror because they've made it into this museum.
The story revolves around him telling a visitor a story of some of the items there. It’s a brilliant film-length episode, it has to be. Viewers are taken on a very big journey, it's multi-layered. It’s a portmanteau basically where you see three films in one. You journey into different films and different moments but again I don't want to give you too much you've got to watch it and you'll see. The audience will enjoy searching out bits of detail after they've enjoyed watching the film. If you want to go back and find things, it’s there to find. There are lots of little elements from within the global world of Black Mirror.