USS Cal­lis­ter

Tak­ing a look be­hind the scenes of the VFX on Black Mir­ror’s space­bound homage to Star Trek

3D Artist - - CONTENT -

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

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