Unless you’ve been hiding beneath a rock, you can’t have missed the conversations surrounding Charlie Brooker’s season four of sci-fi TV series, Black Mirror. Released at the end of last year, many binged on the entire boxset before heading back to work in the new year, while others waited until they felt ready to handle his episodic dystopian worlds. Either way, the series has earnt Brooker great respect among creatives and technologists and secured numerous fans, thankful (and inevitably fearful) of its dark portrayal of a possible future.

Framestore’s VFX supervisor Russell Dodgson and his television department team returned to the series to work on the show’s first episode, Callister, following their work on Season 3’s Playtest episode. We caught up with him to find out what it was like working on-set and what challenges he had to overcome during production.


How did the opportunity to become involved with Black Mirror come up?

I have a long-standing relationship with the Painting Practice and the Series Production Designer Joel Collins. They have worked on the series in one way or another since its inception, and have been central to the aesthetic of the Black Mirror world to date. Prior to Season 3, Black Mirror had not been a VFX-heavy show; it had used VFX sparingly, along with lots of graphic inserts, to build its world. One of the episodes in Season 3, ‘Playtest’, had called for some of the heaviest VFX to date. They needed a woman’s face to be ripped off digitally, a weird part-human arachnid, and some other bits and bobs. This was a little outside the type of work the close-knit production team had been doing, so they enlisted Framestore to take it on. We had a blast doing it, and were very proud of the results. When the relative VFX behemoth of ‘USS Callister’ came along, they returned to us to see if it could be done.


What was the brief with which you were approached?

Things move really fast in the Black Mirror production process. We saw a script in late 2016 and were blown away by it. What was amazing in this case was that Charlie and Will [Bridges] had written a space opera, in which the actual being in space was not even remotely the focus of the piece. It was a real page-turner: emotionally complex, funny, and had a lot of scope for VFX. We sat down with the Black Mirror team, who by then had enlisted the amazing Toby Haynes as their director and discussed what was required. The script, from a VFX perspective, had the potential to be anywhere between simple and incredibly complex. For example, something like the scene where Nanette has her face removed could have been massively elaborate; but they were very reserved and stuck with it being a device that instigates a scene, rather than an effect that dominates it. After lots of discussion we knew we were aiming for a tricky middle ground between ‘realistic’ VFX and a hyper-real game environment. Ultimately we got to create VFX that were supporting the story but not taking over it, which happens a lot in sci-fi projects.  



The Callister world is distinctly grainy and highly stylised, easily distinguishing it from reality. How did you achieve this effect?

One of our biggest challenges was establishing three looks. The first was retro space. This was for the opening scene of the show, where the viewer is led to believe the episode is presented in 4:3. This wanted to be nostalgic, and feel like the ‘60s. The challenge here was to work out where to draw the line; it is hard to deliver basic-looking FX when you are so used to aiming really high. We tried lots of things until we hit something we felt really good about, including tricks like making the ship blow up like a model and swinging as if on a string when it gets hit. Technicolor then did the awesome, retro-looking ‘60s film grade. 

The second look was our general video game space aesthetic. The director really wanted us to be inspired by ‘60s sci-fi book covers, which almost always look up at the sky from the surface of an alien planet. We took the feel of these, as they had strong sweeping lines and graphic compositions, and applied it to aspects of our space environments. Something I was really keen to push for was making the views out of the bridge window in some way reflect the emotion of Captain Daley whenever he is on board. When he is angry, space is stormy and blood red; when he is about to throw Walton’s son In the airlock, Walton is looking at a world shattering. It’s subtle, but I really like the detail.

Our third look was J.J. Abrams-space inspired.



What are the biggest differences in creating post work for commercials versus a TV series? 

The biggest differences are scale and volume. We have a very adept team at Framestore; our CG Supervisor, Robert Harrington, is amazing, and the compositing, animation, asset and FX teams are incredibly versatile. We share our artists between Advertising and Television, so they are all well-versed in both. 


How much of a fan are you of Black Mirror and were you satisfied with your input into the series?

I came to the series a little later than most, and watched them all after the first season. I think they are amazing; so good that you really don’t want to mess up. It’s a show that has loads of staff itching to work on it, which makes the whole project really fun to work on. We are very proud of the work we created, as the aesthetic was a delicate balance. It’s also just a great episode. At the end of it all it really is about the people you work with, and both my team and the Black Mirror production team are extraordinary.


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