How “Black Mirror” Gets Its Barely Sci-Fi Tech Just Right

The devices and tech featured in “Black Mirror” aren’t designed to scare viewers—they’re designed to feel familiar, says longtime production designer Joel Collins.

November 3, 2016 | Magenta

“Black Mirror,” with its third season now streaming on Netflix, has a penchant for political bestiality and a prescience for social-media satire. But the British series’ overwhelming virtue? It gets us to look up from our smartphones long enough to realize how much of our lives depend on, and are lived through, screens.

Joel Collins, a BAFTA-winning designer with credits that include “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and Lexus’s hoverboard campaign, has been the production designer on the series since the first episode. His company, Painting Practice, handles everything from visual effects to interface design to set design.

“Although the films are separate, there’s a tone to the entire show. There’s something within it that links it intrinsically,” says Collins. “The art is to make that invisible.”

Collins recently spoke with Magenta about how he designs for the small-screen audience.

What do you consider when you design the technology for the show?
As a designer I’m very much from a “less is more” world, where the story is king and the characters are the people telling that story. It’s not a moment for me, or any of the people I collaborate with, or any of my design team to shine. It’s a moment for them just to do the exact right thing so that [the technology] doesn’t feel too important or too special. 

My mantra with the team continually is “underdesign.” Because actually, the world is not very overdesigned. When you make a science fiction film, often you overdesign everything.

We’ve always tried to bring a certain plausible reality to the design of everything that we do, even down to how you might use this technology. Subtlety is what makes “Black Mirror.”

Which also makes it a little bit more terrifying.
That’s why I use this advertising term “attainable.” If you can make the design and the world attainable to the audience, then they connect in a way. With the limited time we have, we need the audience to get in, invest, feel comfortable, and then explore mentally the challenges that they’re going to face.

The first episode in this season, “Nosedive,” feels especially relatable in this social media era.
If you look at that world, it’s heightened but it’s also very close to how we live our lives. “Nosedive” takes it to a place where you have a set amount of cars like you do phones, and a certain set of colors within that range. If you were to appear with something that was off-piste, you might get a down rating because you look like you’re stepping out. 

The development of this idea came early, in “The Entire History of You.” The feeling I had was to just set it in 2050, but make it feel like it’s 1950. You know, give it a few rules. To make the audience feel comfortable [we used] a lot of natural resources. If you look around that film, there’s a lot of implants of stone, wood, or things that are very naturalistic. The [hand-held] tech was what we called a “pebble,” and the [device in the neck] was called a Willow Grain. The in-eye graphics were like the rings of a tree, getting bigger the more you record.

It was all very much entwined in an invisible logic and an invisible ethos, which helped the audience not think, “I’m sitting in a science fiction film.”

Fans love hunting for Easter eggs. Are there any clues viewers haven’t picked up on?
There are a couple of ways to look at Easter eggs. We do reuse things from shows and we carefully choose when to do it so that it doesn’t become too obvious.

If you look at the news channel, for instance, which we’ve used in different episodes, you may not realize it but it’s always the same. But, if time changed, we re-branded it like a normal news channel three years later, or [added] branded graphics, so you wouldn’t necessarily register that it was the same news channel.

There are obviously Easter eggs within the script for each film. So if you look at “Playtest,” you can go backward in time to understand the end result. In the dressing, in the detail and the design, there’s a jigsaw puzzle that, when pieced together, is the end result.

How was the production of Season 3 different from the previous episodes in the series?
Obviously we made more concurrently. There’s only a small handful of people who actually know what’s going on on every single film, because you’ve got a different director and cinematographer on each film, and producers are different.

If you want every film to have its own flavor and its own individuality and its strength and its own tone, you have to really be quite keen-eyed on the world’s limitations.

How do you keep track of all of those details?
I think it’s a very complicated mental process. I think Charlie [Brooker, creator and writer] and Annabel [Jones, executive producer] are amazing with the imagination of the story. Charlie’s a fantastic writer and he’s also brilliant. He really loves getting into the detail when he can. He spots things that other people wouldn’t see. I think it takes a certain brain to absorb all of this.

I sometimes spot things I wish I wouldn’t. Whether it’s scripted or just in design, if there’s an overlap of an item or a thing or a room or a tone or a color, we’re trying to make it mesh deliberately rather than suddenly you find out, “Damn, we used the same chair three times in three different films. Maybe no one will notice.”

Are there any inconsistencies you see now that you didn’t recognize when you were creating the episodes?
No. In my office I have all the films on the wall in images around me. Every “Black Mirror” is totally laid out with titles and names of stuff and images all over the walls.

What I really want is a digital room, to actually be able to pin all the work on or off the walls depending on the meetings that are about to happen. Each director has got to focus on their own project. I want to be able to flick my finger to get rid of everything from film one and just load up the film three so that they don’t look around and go, “Oh, look what’s happening on film one.”

All the screens in “Fifteen Million Merits” from Season 1 were filmed live, rather than added in post-production. Was there a lot of live tech in Season 3?
Each time you do this you learn how better to do it. If you look at “Shut Up and Dance,” it’s live stuff in people’s phones, for example.

There’s no reason to burn it in if you’re organized. Charlie is very organized in his scripting and the graphics, which I approve with him. He has a very big interest in us developing the tech and where we go with it, the motion graphics and where we go with them. He has ideas about fonts. Charlie even has ideas on kerning. Really, I think it’s a bit of a mix and match because we’re using a lot of tech that isn’t real.

Are there other movies or films that have inspired or served as a reference for “Black Mirror”?
No, I would much rather other movies reference us. It sounds really silly to say, doesn’t it? When it comes down to the tech it’s actually desperation to be something original or plausible, rather than “that film did it well.”

As a designer, my gut is always to be restrained if I can be. As you develop technology, it gets simpler. A phone is now very simple-looking but can do way more than it used to.

Has working on the series changed how you interact with technology?
I avoid Instagram and Facebook almost completely now. Mainly because I’m either at home with my wife and kids or at work. Also, I would just get in a world of trouble if I uploaded stuff from work. All I would be doing is sending a picture of a dog or a sunset, and who’s interested in that?

I’m becoming a bigger technophobe. It’s funny owning a visual effects design company. You send a picture of a couple of you having a laugh at the office and in the background on a laptop is a design for a Warner Brothers film. Where does it end? It’s the same for everybody in the film industry. You’ve got to be very careful.

It’s similar in the ad industry.
I’ve known people in advertising. People on ad shoots get sacked from agencies for uploading something on Facebook.

I’m from an advertising family. My dad, Dwight Collins, used to own an agency called WCRS. It’s still going; it’s a huge agency. My brother owns an agency called Joint London. I kind of have it in my blood, the advertising, which I vowed never to go into. But deep in my psyche is an understanding of how to view the world and what advertising does to the way we see it. When you make an advert you’re not doing it because it’s for you, you’re doing it to engage the right result. I design because I want the right reaction from the audience.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.