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July 05
2018

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

BLACK MIRROR’s ‘USS Callister’: Crafting Effects for a Modern-Day Sci-Fi Satire

By IAN FAILES

Netflix’s fourth series of Black Mirror debuted with an episode that turned the typical sci-fi space adventure trope on its head. The episode’s villain, gifted programmer Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), finds a way to trap his co-workers inside a simulated Star Trek-like TV series on board the spaceship USS Callister, until they find a way to rebel.

This unusual premise is perhaps unsurprising for Black Mirror, a series created by Charlie Brooker that seems to forewarn the impacts of new technologies with wonderfully satirical takes on natural human behavior. The episode’s visual effects had to seem natural, despite their sci-fi nature.

Leading the charge on the VFX work was Framestore, and VFX Voice caught up with Visual Effects Supervisor Russell Dodgson to find out about three specific effects challenges in the show.

Watch the trailer for ‘USS Callister’.

Meeting the ship

Daly brings new employee Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) onto the spaceship as a fresh crew member. Her shocking realization that she is now aboard this strange environment is revealed in a pullback from her at the window of the USS Callister as it flies through space. Ship designs began with Art Director Joel Collins at Painting Practice, and then were brought into Framestore to deliver as a hi-res CG model. “Rob Harrington, our head of CG, slavishly went through turning that into a model that worked in the round and worked three-dimensionally,” says Dodgson. “He really made sure that all the lines of that ship worked beautifully, and all the scales worked, and whatever angle you looked at it from, it all complemented each other.”

To film that pullback, Milioti was shot on a corridor set-piece behind a layer of glass. A dolly pulled back as far as possible, after which Framestore took over digitally. “One of the interesting things that came up with that shot is because it’s an HDR delivery,” says Dodgson, “we realized that the old kind of method of blowing out all the windows inside the space ship wouldn’t work, so actually we had to model and project and build interiors for all of the corridors, because as soon as you see that in an HDR delivery you see everything inside.”

Reluctant crew members aboard the USS Callister.

“Rob Harrington, our head of CG, slavishly went through turning [a hi-res CG model of the USS Callister] into a model that worked in the round and worked three-dimensionally. He really made sure that all the lines of that ship worked beautifully, and all the scales worked, and whatever angle you looked at it from, it all complemented each other.”

—Russell Dodgson, Visual Effects Supervisor

Creature feature

Daly punishes crew members who don’t behave in several ways – one is to turn them into creatures for eternity. On a trip down to a planet surface, the crew meet an Arachnajax, actually one of the former crew. Again based on Painting Practice concepts, Framestore built the multi-tentacled beast. One of the biggest challenges wasn’t so much the creature build, but instead imbuing it with a human personality, one that has been trapped inside.

“Toby Haynes, the director, really liked to act out and play some of the emotional range of the character,” describes Dodgson. “He would stand up and behave like this disgruntled, slightly beaten person. And then, obviously, there’s things like finding a good way for it to sit down. We played it a little camel-like. The front legs go down and then the back go down and then we’ve got this really great line on the back of the neck. And then the tentacles let us do an almost Zoidberg-ish huff [referencing the character from Futurama].”

The planet surface where the crew meet the Arachnajax.

Asteroids!

The crew gets the better of Daly while he is away from the spaceship, but then he tries to catch up them through an asteroid field. Here, Framestore choreographed an action sequence of the ships dashing through the asteroid belt, seen from outside the ships, inside cockpits and the main deck. “From a technical perspective, it was really just a case of finding a really good procedural way of generating our asteroids and populating them,” explains Dodgson. “We rendered everything using deep in Arnold, which allowed us loads of flexibility to use deep compositing for adding in noise and haze and dust in places.”

“We filmed the interiors like a classic Star Trek, too,” adds Dodgson. “So everyone’s pretending to shake around – it was like, ‘Move left! Move right! Back!’ So we did the whole thing in that classic Star Trek way and then we reverse-engineered the shot. The thing that I really like about that is it’s in no way the point of the scene. The story is not about people going through an asteroid field. It’s about the emotional range of what’s happening to the characters.”

Scenes on the main deck of the USS Callister were filmed in a traditional Star Trek-like manner.

“From a technical perspective, it was really just a case of finding a really good procedural way of generating our asteroids and populating them. We rendered everything using deep in Arnold, which allowed us loads of flexibility to use deep compositing for adding in noise and haze and dust in places.”

—Russell Dodgson, Visual Effects Supervisor

That aspect guided Framestore in its effects for the entire episode. The visual effects were always in service of the story. “It’s really nice to read reviews,” says Dodgson, “and see them about a space show and not have a lot of the conversation be about the effects. I think that means we’ve done our job, because we’ve supported a really strong story. Charlie and Toby found a great balance between making sure that when people left watching the episode, they’d be talking about people and not space.”


Mike Eames

Read our interview with Michael Eames, Global Director of Animation at Framestore, here

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