“Black Mirror” is a show like no other. It’s an anthology set in a world just around the corner, a world that is at times soothingly tranquil, and at times achingly terrifying. It’s a world that shows the great promise of technology, and is not afraid to explore the dark corners of how that technology can undo the fabric of our daily social interactions at work, with friends and within family.
Last year I interviewed Gemma Kingsley about the screens that exposed that technology in the first two seasons of the show. Today I am quite honored to talk with the production designer of “Black Mirror”, Joel Collins. Along with his company Painting Practice, Joel has been with the show since its very beginning. We talk about the beginning of his career, his love of all things physical, how “Black Mirror” started and how it evolved when it transitioned to Netflix, building a universe that spans the different storylines, and working with multiple directors across the arc of each season.
Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far.
Joel: Back in the 80’s I began to train as a fine artist. Before I started that degree, I made a little book of cartoon illustrations. Somebody took that book to an animator and they offered me a job on an unknown project called “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, incredibly I turned it down, saying that I wanted to be a fine artist! Of course, as we all know, it turned out to be a seminal live action animation movie and when I saw the finished thing I knew I wanted to work in film.
I started out at Henson’s, working on creatures for a variety of productions. Quite rapidly I grew frustrated with being an artist and not being in control. Five years later, as I was working on “Lost in Space”, I had an offer to leave and work as a designer on music videos. That’s when my collaboration with Garth Jennings and Hammer and Tongs started.
We eventually did “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and “Son of Rambow” together. I’ve always had an interest in other areas too, be it puppets, creatures, animatronics or special effects.
It seemed that I was always getting involved with projects that didn’t feature just standard set design. That’s one of the reasons why “Black Mirror” was so attractive to me as it gave me the chance to do a huge array of stuff, a lot of it actually inventing things and making 3D objects. I’m currently on the fourth season. So far my company Painting Practice has done three seasons and worked on the title sequence, the motion graphics, visual effects design, VFX shots, conceptual production design, product design – it all adds up to a very holistic creative view.
Kirill: Going back to things that you’ve worked on – puppets, creatures, animatronics – those have been replaced almost entirely by digital effects.
Joel: It’s a lost art, and I trained in it just before it was lost! [laughs]. What I learned about live action, when I started out 25 years ago, is the same thing that helps me do VFX today. I often find myself working with 3D artists who pretty much live on the computer and don’t have a concept of the real world. They are happy to do it all in pixels, whereas I really enjoy actually making a prop, I love the physicality of it.
It’s the same as when you sculpt a puppet or a creature. If you do a drawing of a creature, it’s obviously two-dimensional. The next step is to make it in clay, very much as you would take it into ZBrush today. It was the same thing with set design. You sketched it, constructed a cardboard model and showed everybody.
Today it’s all in 3D, but the fundamentals are still the same. If you do a drawing, you can’t tell if it’s a 6-foot or a 10-foot door. It’s only when you make it that you understand the scale. But when 3D was starting, people would quite often do 3D sets or spaces without understanding the real world and its issues.
Kirill: For me as a viewer does it really matter if it’s done using a physical model or in pure digital environment, as long as the universe I’m seeing is seamless and believable?
Joel: We are telling stories. If it’s a really engaging story, the character can be as simple as a sock with a couple of buttons for eyes. Ultimately, whatever tool you have, simple or complex, if you use it properly you will get a great result. If it’s a great story, all you need is that sock, a couple of eyeballs and a great voiceover.
Humans are great at filling in the gaps. We listen to stories on the radio, and ultimately we are using our imagination no matter how much information we’re given. We piece together the bits that are missing.
On “Black Mirror” it’s all about a moment in a human’s life, or the emotion that characters go through. Essentially, human nature meets machine, meets technology. We don’t need to compete with big budget movies to achieve that. Get the story right, capture the look of the ‘world’ in which the characters live, which in this show is often a close match to the world we all know, and you are good to go.
Kirill: How did “Black Mirror” start for you? Before the last season that was on Netflix it was on one of the British channels if I’m not mistaken.
Joel: It was on Channel 4. It’s interesting, because “Black Mirror” was the first show of its kind, a technological Twighlight Zone. All we had was a name that nobody had ever heard of, and scripts that were changing continually. We developed various story lines early on with Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, who are the originators of Black Mirror. The lines were constantly shifting and plenty of good ideas were either being re-written or postponed.
With new projects, that have no track record, you invest your time and there’s never enough money and never enough time. But ultimately, if the material is good, it’s worth the effort.
One of the things that set Black Mirror apart was that we had great stories. One of them, “Fifteen Million Merits”, where people collect points to appear on a reality show, needed a lot of prep. I used everything we knew about doing 3D things in camera, and most of that film was done live. Early on I realized that Black Mirror has lots of special stuff going on. Each story had something exciting happening, and it was a heady mix of live action, animation, prop design and VFX in post-production. Anyway, I jumped in, found myself swimming, often against a rip tide, and that was that!
I took my company Painting Practice and my long-term collaborators, Justin Chatburn and Dan May, with me. I’ve been working with my art director, Robyn Paiba, for almost twenty years now. They all came on board, and everybody enjoyed it. And obviously it’s grown in its momentum, but early on nobody was interested. It existed for us, and we sweated blood and tears. We worked really hard to deliver real film quality in a TV show.
Going back to “Fifteen Million Merits”, I had a dream of a cohesive world that needed a lot of energy. Dan and I ploughed a huge amount of creative effort into it, which included making and animating every single avatar live. It was all done on the day of the shoot!
One of my favourite shows is “The National Anthem” a controversial script about the Prime Minister being forced to have sex with a pig. I mean, it doesn’t get worse than that does it? My wife told me that we can’t make a film about that, and I told her that we can and we will, and that it will be amazing. That film went to the very heart of what “Black Mirror” is about. People went crazy when they heard the storyline.
“The Entire History of You” was also a very poignant film which is set in the near future. I wanted everything to look very 1950’s. Everything has a certain character and texture. The result was a world that could easily be science fiction, but it’s not! That ‘in betweenness’, worlds you know but have never seen before, is a feeling I constantly reach for in Black Mirror.
We do let reality in at different points. It depends on the film. With “The Entire History of You” and “Nosedive” it’s nearly there, but it has its own style. For example, the idea for the device that they use to watch their memories was based on the rings of a tree. You’re basically scrolling through the rings of your life’s tree. The device has a naturalistic, organic feel to it. I was trying to fight against what were easy sci-fi tropes, giving the world its own identity and a plausible near-future reality.
Kirill: Each episode tells its own story, with a different set of actors and sets that you don’t reuse. Does it feel like you’re working on an episodic production?
Joel: No, there’s nothing episodic about it. Creatively, it’s like doing a series of pilots, with all the effort that goes into a long-running show. Many times I catch myself thinking that we could carry on with a particular film and do ten episodes of it. Maybe in the future that could happen, but perhaps the beauty of some of the shows is that it doesn’t happen.
Kirill: What was the story of “The White Christmas”? Was that planned to be part of the second season from the beginning, or did it come together later?
Joel: There were discussions about commissioning a new series, or a group of films, and I think that Charlie had various ideas. Ultimately there was a decision to make a single feature-length episode. Charlie wrote a portmanteau, three stories within one. So again, instead of making a singular film which is hard enough, suddenly you’re making three films [laughs] in one, all tied together.
Kirill: You mentioned that there’s never enough money. As Netflix picked “Black Mirror” up, did that enable you to make the scope of the show bigger?
Joel: The ethos with Netflix is that the show is not about being flashy, but rather about telling stories. The difference is, for example, in what we can do. Netflix are a very enthusiastic partner for Annabel and Charlie on the show. If there’s something that needs to be told in the right way, and maybe we couldn’t have done that before, Netflix are extraordinarily supportive. What can I say, they really are. They get on board with good ideas creatively, and support them all the way. They’ve been great.
Kirill: Going back again to each episode being its own story and its own sets, do you work on them sequentially or on a number of them at the same time?
Joel: I have worked on multiple episodes at the same time, and the entire crew at Painting Practice did as well. Elsewhere, each film is a separate entity with its own unit. They didn’t overlap in their shooting schedule, but the process did. There was a handful of key people who worked on more than one episode at the same time, and it’s phenomenally crazy. But ultimately, each film is made by an individual unit.
You spoke with Gemma Kingsley earlier. She works under Erica McEwan who is the graphic art director for the show. Gemma’s been fantastic on the episodes she worked on. “Nosedive” was a big challenge, as we were trying out lots of things. Ultimately the lead graphic designer is probably the biggest hero, because graphic design is such a fantastically complex thing on “Black Mirror”.
Kirill: My impression from season three was that you had more and bigger sets on each individual episode. There’s the dancing club on “San Junipero”, the army base on “Men Against Fire”, the big castle in “Playtest”, the police station on “Hated in the Nation”. Would you say that the production scope from your perspective was larger on this season?
Joel: Yes, and there are a couple of reasons. First, we had six films instead of three in the same block. The ambitions of each film grew as well. It started big, and grew from there. Everybody wanted things to be better each time, and the directors are bringing their visions too. We had phenomenal direction on the last season. We had Joe Wright, Dan Trachtenberg, Jakob Verbruggen, James Watkins, James Hawes and Owen Harris who did “Be Right Back” which was a very popular earlier film. He did “San Junipero” with so much heart and love.
Kirill: Talking specifically about “San Junipero”, how did it feel to go back in time to the ’80s and ’90s for most of the sets?
Joel: That was all Charlie. He’s really into arcades, and he knows everything about those machines. We had to be quite specific to match the games to fit the specific decade or even the specific year.
If you imagine somebody in twenty years time doing a film about the ’80s, probably the only thing they are going to use would be old movies, something like “Cocktail” or “The Breakfast Club”. Those movies will be the inspiration ultimately. And we kind of did that – enjoying popular culture in that film.
Kirill: Did you build that club?
Joel: The shoot was a mix of London and South Africa, and the club was built in a studio in London. We build sets for a single episode. Some sets a big movie would be proud to have, and a long-running series would be over the moon to have them.
Kirill: But you still have a few elements that do appear across multiple episodes. For example the eye implants that are featured extensively in “The Entire History of You” make a cameo appearance at the beginning of “Nosedive”. For me it brings the episodes together into roughly the same world and the same time.
Joel: It’s really interesting, and I think audiences love Easter Eggs. They like to feel that there’s a connectivity. The films are different, the worlds different, but there is something there. If you watch “Black Mirror” very carefully, you’ll see a lot of things that interlink episodes. There’s the Waldo toy, and bits of graphics, and even bigger things. If you know the show intimately, and you keep your eyes open, you’ll see them. It doesn’t matter to the story, but if you want to find the connectivity, you will. It’s there and it’s great fun.
Kirill: I need to go back now. I saw only one in season three, where closer to the end of “Hated in the Nation” the name of the game designer from “Playtest” scrolls by on one of the TV screens.
Joel: Yes, that was one. If you watch very carefully, you’ll see a lot more. Very rarely a detail like that relates to the story that needs to be told. Those stories are original and individual, but those details sometimes make the audience understand that there’s a global and controlled vision across the entire show. It’s not a randomized bunch of work. It’s a crafted process across the entire series of films.
Kirill: “Hated in the Nation” which was 90 minute long had two big sets – the police headquarters and the greenhouse for the bees. How much of that was built physically vs. doing digital extensions?
Joel: I don’t give away too much of the process, because I think it’s quite nice for some of the process of the crafting of the show to be not laid bare. The greenhouse was all in camera, and we didn’t do any extensions. There’s a lot of CG for the bees, but the idea is to not make every other shot visual effects. Some of the exteriors were developed matte paintings.
Kirill: So having a physical set gives the actors the environment to act in.
Joel: I think people see “Black Mirror” as an effects-heavy show. But it’s really not, and VFX is only where it’s needed. It’s run by filmmakers who want to tell their stories, and we try to do as much in camera as we can. Also, on a big feature you have a lot of post time. You can explore digital worlds and may have a whole year to do that. But that’s a different format. On a TV show we do as much as we can in camera from the production standpoint.
Sometimes it lets you down. For example, in “San Junipero” we couldn’t find the place that worked for the Quagmire, the club where you could vent all your emotions. So I did a sketch, and it turned into what was this factory of violent naughty people partying. But it was just a dirt road in South Africa with nothing on it, and the rest of it was VFX.
Kirill: You mentioned that you work with different directors and cinematographers for individual episodes. Would you call yourself one of the custodians of the visual language of the show? Perhaps on this show the directors have more freedom because every episode is its own story?
Joel: They have freedom, but it’s quite a big collaboration. They are filmmakers and they come in to tell a story.
I’m there to support the directors, nurture the films visions, the teams and the VFX. It’s really about making sure that Charlie’s vision is told, and that the stories are cohesive and individual enough.
Every film has its own look and feel. So instead of the show having a Black Mirror look, we try to find the look that makes it right for that film. Because of timing, early on I try to go towards the development of the world, and have something in hand to offer them.
Before “Hated in Nation” started and the director and my co-designer Morgan came on board, we had done animation tests for bees at Painting Practice, and fully developed how that bee looked like and flew. I had done a mood-board, and in my brain it was a Hitchcock film noir kind of feeling. It had to be a very stylish piece of filmmaking. And that mood-board document stayed very strong all the way through the process as a style guide.
And generally, for each “Black Mirror” we try to work with Charlie and Annabel early on to develop these look-book style guides. As he writes the film, we develop the feeling and the look. Then, when teams come on board, they are offered that. They can rip it up, and that’s OK. We all discuss it, and it’s a big collaboration. But really the time is so short that people engage. And, if I may say so, we offer strong ideas.
I’ve been part of the design process since the beginning, and if people say that there’s the overall feeling to it all, it’s probably because I am who I am, and I can’t help it. And you also have Charlie and Annabel who create stories that have a similar thread to them, as show runners their focus on detail is tremendous. Most are human stories with technology. People tend to find the whole to be quite cohesive, even though if you look at them individually, you wouldn’t think they are a part of the same, if that makes sense.
Kirill: To me not only all the episodes feel to belong to the same world, but also they seem to be happening around the same time more or less. At least from the perspective of technology, it doesn’t feel to me that technology in one episode is significantly more advanced compared to the others.
Joel: I think the interesting thing about technology is that the further you get away from reality, and the more “science fiction” it gets, the further you push the audience away from how attached they are to the idea and how they identify with it. They just watch it for the entertainment.
But if you’re working within the realms of the possible and plausible, you’re really working towards something that the audience will feel happening just around the corner. It’s their life next year, or right around the corner. So when you say that the timeline is similar, it really doesn’t aim at any particular year. We don’t want to make broad science fiction fantasy. We’re trying to make close science fiction fact, if we can.
It’s not just a device and how it works, but what we’re doing and how we’re working it. Ultimately it’s us who are driving those stories. The devices are given to us. The technology is just there. Someone came up with it as an invention, but it’s our use of it which is what “Black Mirror” is about.
Kirill: On the personal level, has your view on technology changed throughout these years as you’ve worked on “Black Mirror”? Have you become, perhaps, more skeptical about it? It feels like “San Junipero” was the only episode that ended up on a positive note technology-wise.
Joel: “San Junipero” is quite upbeat, and also very sad too. I don’t do Twitter, and I very rarely use Facebook. Partly it is because I’m convinced nobody is that bothered about what I’ve got to say. If I told everybody continually on Facebook or Twitter what I do on set I’d probably get sacked.
I think “Black Mirror” taught me about lots of things – use of those platforms and how we abuse them, and also our phones. You can’t help but look at an email and misunderstand it. People control lives through things like email and texts. They’re in control of each other’s lives. It’s scary. And rather than just being immediate on that email or text, there’s often a plan afoot. People are controlling things, and it’s the dark side to it all.
You see who a person is by how they operate through texting, emails and their use of technology. It’s the way they pick up on things, the way they reply or don’t, they way they ignore you and how that feels. It’s pervasive. It’s everywhere. We all do it and we’re all using it, and it says a lot about our personalities. We’re sometimes saying a lot by not saying a word.
Kirill: Sounds like you’re not very optimistic about how technology insinuated itself into our daily lives, especially perhaps for the younger generation. Perhaps being skeptical about technology is just the right mindset to be working on “Black Mirror”.
Joel: I have two young children who have iPhones. They’re young, but old enough to have friends to text with. I’m seeing the effects of digital addiction, and they don’t know it. When you have access to Instagram or similar things when you’re twelve or thirteen, where’s the rule book? This stuff is there forever. It’s online and never gone. And everybody loves voice-activated stuff, everybody loves image-related stuff, but all that data is stored, it’s all going somewhere.
I have to admit that I have a healthy skepticism [laughs]. It doesn’t stop my kids from enjoying themselves.
Kirill: You probably spend a lot of time away from your family and friends, and the scheduling is not as predictable as in other fields. What makes you stay in the industry?
Joel: I see myself with a huge amount to learn, but none of that is what drives me. When it comes down to it, I love solving creative problems, instinctively finding solutions to challenging problems.
How hard is it these days to be original?. To create an original set design, an original bit of motion graphics design, or an original VFX set piece. Making an original decision is hard, period. And I love the challenge of doing that.
And here I’d like to thank Joel Collins for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk about building the wonderful worlds of “Black Mirror”. I’d also like to thank Anton Rush and the whole team at Painting Practice for providing the supporting materials for the interview. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.