Taking a look behind the scenes of the VFX on Black Mirror’s spacebound homage to Star Trek
Framestore reveals the CG secrets behind the alien creatures in the
Black Mirror episode
ever since its first episode debuted in 2011, charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series has both wowed and challenged audiences with some of the most thought-provoking and visually striking stories on television. skilfully mixing aspects of sci-fi, thriller and mystery with liberal sprinklings of Brooker’s trademark acerbic wit, each standalone show puts its own spin on issues facing society today, particularly with regard to the unanticipated consequences of new technologies.
the show’s highly anticipated fourth season recently opened with ‘uss callister’, a story based around a shy chief technology officer named robert at a technology company who had created his own virtual reality world designed to look like a tongue-in-cheek homage to the classic Star Trek episodes.
However, it takes a sinister twist when robert – played by jesse plemons, who television fans will probably remember as Breaking Bad’s sociopathic child-killing hillbilly todd – finds a way to crew his fantasy ship with self-aware digital ‘clones’ of his real-world workmates. His often aggressive and brutal treatment of them – such as making one character’s faces disappear – isn’t, shall we say, quite up to captain Kirk’s standards of Hr compliance.
the episode has already been hailed as one of the best of Black Mirror’s entire four-season run and having already done some work on the previous season with the episode ‘playtest’, when framestore were asked to produce the
VFX for ‘uss callister’, they knew they were getting into something special.
“We were thrilled when we were asked if we could pull off ‘uss callister’, which would again be our largest VFX undertaking by quite a large margin,” says creative director and VFX supervisor russell Dodgson. “charlie Brooker and [producer] Annabel jones are such lovely people to work with and when you do VFX reviews with them, you are constantly reminded that everything is in service of the story and the viewer.”
one of the toughest challenges for a creative team working on this particular show was how to make something a homage without completely ripping it off. It had to evoke feelings of nostalgia without being an out-and-out copy of the iconic programme that it was trying to emulate. to get around this, the design of the ship, for example, looked more like a conventional aircraft than the unmistakable saucer and nacelle structure that everyone knows to be the uss enterprise.
“our art department did a lot of very different concept sketches and took quite some time to narrow in on a final
charlie Brooker and Annabel jones are such lovely people to work with… you are constantly reminded that everything is in service of the story and the viewer
idea,” says Dodgson. “Star Trek is obviously a strong influence as in many ways it defines the genre. But we weren’t trying to make a Star Trek ship – there is a bit of stingray in the design, some old American car shapes and some Star Trek-style detailing. It is also a bit of a blend of the cues you’ll find on military planes conceived in the 1970s, french curves and the greeble methodologies that you’d find in sci-fi ships.”
for modelling the ship’s exterior, the team turned to a firm in california that they’d collaborated with before, which provided the initial build and texture for the ship. Dodgson explains, “When working on something this physically big with flowing lines, you really benefit from precise control over your curves and Nurbs give you that. You need to be able to look along the line and see no kinks, no inflections.
“With that in mind, our low-poly sketch model was turned into a nice smooth polygon model so we could re-create the plans as Nurbs projections over the base mesh, and have accuracy for all the features we needed to add such as panels, channels, everything.”
one of the most striking pieces of VFX in the show was the Arachnajax – a giant, insectoid creature that is discovered by the ship’s landing party on an alien planet. It turns out that this huge creature used to be a digital version of one of jesse’s old colleagues – from the marketing department, in fact – but he’d given her a redesign after a fit of rage in yet another sinister twist in the tale.
so how tough was it designing a creature that not only looked alien, but also conveyed something of the helpless victim trapped within too? Dodgson said, “the Arachnajax was indeed all about character, and we wanted be able to get across some relatively gentle emotion with it. However, at the same time, she needed to come across as a horrible, screaming monster that was designed for killing in computer games. the main elements that gave us the light and shade here were the small, Velociraptor-like arms on its torso, the eyes and the tentacles. these became nice devices for us to show its character and personality.”
He continues, “the tentacles were there for huffing and the small hands could show fidgeting, conversational gestures and subtle comedy, while the eyes helped us with creating a sense of solemnness. All of this coupled with the awkward movement, and the idea that she curls up a bit like a dead spider when she sits down, gave us plenty to work with.”
With projects like Thor: Ragnarok and Paddington 2 in its portfolio, framestore is no stranger to bringing impossible creatures to life on the big screen as well as the small. However, there’s actually very little difference between working on the two, adds Dodgson.
He explains, “In both mediums, you approach creatures from the viewpoint of how ‘featured’ they are and what they need to do. You have to ask questions such as, how do we want the rig to work? Does it need sliding, skin, deforming muscles, fur? these answers inevitably define how you approach it.”
star trek is obviously a strong influence, as in many ways it defines the genre, but we weren’t trying to make a star trek ship
06 There were a number of sketches before the final designs were agreed on
07 The USS Callister crew land on planet Rannoch B in search of Valdack
08 Framestore created the outer space scenes as well as the interior ones