Making a brand new world with no rules that feels alien to our own is always a challenge in any film or TV enterprise. Making one that feels just close enough to reality is as daunting as it is unsettling. So the fact that “Black Mirror” has done that in most (if not all) of its now 19 installments is one of the more impressive recent achievements in the TV landscape.
One person who knows more than most about how these new worlds get created year after year is “Black Mirror” production Joel Collins. Serving in that capacity for every episode of all four seasons, Collins has been one of the creative engines behind the series’ visual look.
The constant, episode-to-episode changing may be daunting, but that challenge is part of the allure of the series. In fact, that variety has meant that over the 19 chapters, Collins has had the opportunity to use nearly all of his favorite ideas for the more distinctive elements of the show.
“The playground is so huge and vast that I never feel like we don’t get an opportunity to go places and try ideas out. I don’t really have a favorite, because I love all these shows, individually,” Collins said to IndieWire in a recent interview. “I think during the making of the show, you exercise a lot of demons trying to get it right. And, as I say, subtlety and simplicity, and right always wins, I like to think.”
With that in mind, we went through each of the “Black Mirror” Season 4 episodes with Collins to talk about the noteworthy gadgets and character details that brought this group of stories to life.
The ship in “USS Callister”
“If somebody says, ‘Can you make a spaceship or a robot?’ both times your heart sinks, because being original is really tough,” Collins said.
Fortunately, even with having to design two different versions of a traditional spaceship deck, Collins was able to riff on some well-established properties.
“If you look at the way the ship ends up at the last hurdle, it’s the version that JJ [Abrams] may have created. Whereas, if you start in the ’70s tone, it’s a very different feel. It’s there,” Collins said. “It kind of changes a few times, because it goes from the show reality that you’re watching, through to the people who are stuck within the reality’s reality, through to the upgraded, new upload that hits and re-skins its entire ship, and put them into the modern infinity game that they finally end up in.”
As with most “Black Mirror” episodes, “Callister” was also a study in contrasts. So distinguishing between Daly’s in-game life and his regular living arrangement, Collins wanted that difference to feel grounded once the audience was outside the world of the simulation.
“His world that he inhabits, has to just be real. There’s some modernity in his apartment, and there’s modernity in his office, but it’s not more modern or less modern than any other tech company, or a nice flat in a big city. Some things go on when people walk past. Other things look a bit funky,” Collins said. “It isn’t like you’re going into a gaming company that isn’t real, but there are people sitting back in VR with things on their temples as you walk through the company. And there are screens that people are game developing on that clearly are slightly ahead of our time. But really, it’s just trying to feel like a plausible place where people who do game design would be.”
The tablet in “Arkangel”
Even though the apparatus in “Arkangel” is central to the ongoing conflict between mother and daughter, it’s perhaps the most de-emphasized design of any piece of tech in the entire series.
“With ‘Arkangel,’ we didn’t try and be too clever again with the tech. If you look at the mobile phones, they’re thinner than any phone you’d have now. And the tablet, it’s just a tablet. It’s quite a grassroots film with quite a blue-collar tone. Anything too fancy, anything too clever, too futuristic would have really clashed,” Collins said.”
That simplicity is an idea that runs through many of the Season 4 installments. Collins is a self-described believer in a “less is more” approach, but that philosophy can help mitigate some of the complications if they’re addressed up front.
“We learned the hard way. Some things are much more successful than others. Like ‘Nosedive,’ a very complicated phone device, throughout the entire show. All those phones,” Collins said. “But we knew what they were, and we knew what we were trying to do. So it’s always good to work it up front. And again, really subtle, simple.”
The memory machine in “Crocodile”
For “Crocodile,” the simple story of a woman trying to outrun her murderous past, Collins and Brooker actively wanted to bring in a decidedly less digital feel to the chilly noir setting. Making a story set in the future have such a connection to the past made for a bit of a design quandary.
“There’s this kind of tone in that film, which is in the locations and in the story, that isn’t all about science fiction. There’s some subtlety in it. There’s a driverless pizza truck. It’s got some stuff which nods towards the future. It’s not now, but it’s not that far away,” Collins said.
When confronted with the prospect of making a machine that could access and display people’s memories, the two decided on something that would go against people’s futuristic expectations.
“I collaborated with people on this show, and people love to try modernizing stuff. Somebody presented us with an idea, which was quite modern. Charlie and I went away and huddled and discussed whether it should feel more analog and, in fact, be more lens-based, depth-based,” Collins said. “You kind of need to project memories. You don’t just want to look like you’re just looking at a sat-nav screen. That device is trying to do something remarkably complicated. It’s layering memories. It’s got history.”
Their ultimate solution came from a pair of inspirations from decades past.
“We found a slide viewer, like the old style viewers where you put a photo slide in. There was a gaming console, as well, that Charlie liked from the ’80s. And we merged those two things together,” Collins said. “The slide viewer kind of plays quite nicely here because, a bit like the game, it was very boxy and the lens was curved and the game played deep in the back of this machine. Like a slide viewer with a curved front where you’re looking at it and it’s a bit hazy.”
Watching the device be implemented, it was once again a situation where the philosophy behind the item dovetailed with how it was used in practice.
“Memories aren’t clear. They are fabrication and manipulation. They’re part truths. They are a host of things. But memories are never completely clear, and so by giving this device some shape to it, some weight to it, some scale, it meant that somewhere inside that box these memories were forming back to the person viewing them. And they may never form that clearly,” Collins said. “If you had just a laptop, what you see is what you see. There is no magic in that. The stuff on the screen is a direct image. Whereas, what you want to do is look deep into this device, and try to find the answers. That’s how it formed.”
The timer device in “Hang the DJ”
Jonathan Prime / Netflix
In some ways, phones of the future are the quintessential “Black Mirror” device. But when presented with the prospect of a dating-centered episode, Collins landed on something different.
“Charlie had something round that he played with, and we discussed it being a round item rather than a phone. Partly so that it didn’t just feel like you were in a contemporary world. I think you needed to feel like you were in a space where specific things were happening. We also wanted was this curved screen, so that it reflected the world around, and looked more interesting,” Collins said. “We designed quite a few mobiles, I think, much to the chagrin of the VFX guys trying to make it always work.”
As the design for the device itself was being finalized, Collins wanted to make sure that everything down to the timer’s readout screen had a similarly simplified feel.
“The one thing it does have is it’s very little. It’s got this pared-back nature of ‘Black Mirror’ attached to it. It doesn’t have lots of buttons. It’s not fancy. It’s just a circular disc, almost like a discus, with a glass screen,” Collins said. “We tried a few designs out, and we tried a few sizes and shapes, and we 3D-printed many different things. Ultimately, what felt right in the hand, and had very little going on, was what worked best.”
That stick-to-the-basics approach also applied to the layout of the screen itself.
“My company, we’ve done all the motion graphics since the beginning, and we develop them in tandem with the design. So we don’t ever leave it to post-production process. We work with the production process, trying to develop the graphics that go in, maybe, sometimes later on, so that everyone knows both what they’re looking at with the tone and the feel. And lighting can try and make sure that it matches the light levels so that, for instance, something might just illuminate the face,” Collins said.
Of all the tech and governing ideas in Season 4, the “Hang the DJ” date-land construct is one Collins is sure will eventually come to pass outside of the realm of the show.
“I’m completely convinced that somebody might, one day, open up a park for dating. They’ll take your mobile phone off you and say, ‘Off you go. You’ve got a two week holiday,'” Collins said. “Or someone will make a TV show. God knows, because it could be real.”
The “Dog” in “Metalhead”
Jonathan Prime / Netflix
Part of what gives “Metalhead” its overwhelming dread (and incredibly dark humor at points), is the ways that the robotic Dog veers from its canine companions. Particularly, the way it jettisons one of its legs in the aftermath a car wreck gives the machine an even more imposing quality.
“Charlie had a different idea, which was to have a different implement,” Collins said. “But it was quite a long time in the development, having it have to be able to release from a knuckle, which is what I worked out. If you had this forearm that gets damaged, it kind of releases like the chuck of a drill. And that drill chuck is able to clamp on to other things, so it’s not completely debunked if it damages its forearm, which has a gun on it.”
If its ruthless pursuit of its prey wasn’t haunting enough, the Dog later picks up a knife. To help convey the idea of a multi-purpose robot limb, Collins and his team looked to a novelty pinscreen.
“It’s much like one of those metal things you put your face into, in the sense of it will fit any gap, and then it can hack open, start a car, open a door, all that stuff,” Collins said. “Obviously, I think, there’s almost a laugh of anxiety when it picks the knife up.”
That unexpected emotion is baked into the design of the Dog, a creation that Collins ultimately saw as something more than just pure mechanical evil.
“Knowing that the arm was gonna be damaged, there were various things that we wanted to do,” Collins said. “It’s quite interesting because you almost feel sad for this robot, sometimes. You almost feel a bit sympathy. In a kind of weird way, by brilliant animation and story creation that’s so subtle and simple. Sometimes the way it moves and what it does, it almost humanized. Or it becomes like a dog, and you feel something inside for both parties in that film.”
The sensory helmet in “Black Museum”
Jonathan Prime / Netflix
If the first part of the season finale let you a little flustered, know that you’re not alone.
“Yeah, to be honest, that’s kind of a…quite an out-there item,” Collins said of the glowing blue headgear that allows Dr. Peter Dawson (Daniel Lapaine) to feel the pain of both his patients and his lovers.
Because of the experimental nature of the technology within the world of “Black Museum,” a few of the episode’s pieces gave Collins the chance to play around with some things that didn’t necessarily look like a finished product. The standard, pared-back approach didn’t work for something developed by the outsized Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge).
“We tried very subtle things to go on the head. But there’s an R&D to the stuff that’s created in the show. It’s not stuff that you’d buy in a shop. It’s stuff that’s been fabricated in the labs,” Collins said. “That head device also needed to do things like be seen in the dark. It took ages trying to find something that kind of fitted the brief, managed to be seen by a camera, managed to show that it was doing something by its lighting up. So it seems kind of a bit wacky, and probably more designed than other bits. But, actually, we developed it with [director] Colm McCarthy and Charlie.”
For an episode filled with little nuggets from the show’s history, that helmet literally tied multiple episodes’ worth of previous technology together.
“If you look at the items, it’s made up of tons of the little discs that go to your temple in ‘San Junipero,’ ‘Callister,’ and the other ‘Black Mirrors’ that we’ve used them. They’re all wired together and light up,” Collins said.
Obviously, that’s not the only “Black Museum” connection to past installments. As Collins describes, “pretty much most episodes that have something to do with a crime, is in that museum.”
Luckily, when constructing the museum itself, some of it was just a matter of plucking pieces and costumes from the physical archives that Collins had been keeping since the show’s beginning.
“In between, I’d store the props. I’ve kept things from the first and second season when we never knew that we were gonna make more ‘Black Mirrors.’ I would just keep stuff that I didn’t want to get thrown away,” Collins said. “So I kept the headgear, and the eggs from ‘White Christmas,’ and abstract, weird things. Little props, like the saw that was used in ‘White Bear.’ We’ve got a collection of stuff, which helps maybe get feathered in. But as I say, you have to look very carefully. There’s a lot more that goes on, there’s a lot more in that museum than I think anyone would realize. For instance, the faces in the corridor aren’t just nobodies.”
Ultimately, like any good designer, Collins left his personal signature. He’s cagey about exactly where, but he’s curious how quickly people will sniff them out.
“Yeah, I’m fascinated because I’m aware that I’m in there twice. It’s quite funny. And that may mean nothing to anyone else, but it means a lot to me.”
“Black Mirror” Seasons 1-4 are now available to stream on Netflix.