When Netflix enticed “Black Mirror” creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones to make their first interactive non-children’s episode, little did they realize what a complicated rabbit hole they were falling into. With “Bandersnatch,” though, life imitated art, as they created not only the ultimate “Black Mirror” story about the dark side of tech, but also a landmark achievement for Netflix with all sorts of future interactive programming possibilities.
And what a tangled web it was to edit “Bandersnatch,” which had to compellingly satisfy as both a “Black Mirror” entry and an interactive journey. In “Bandersnatch,” viewers decide the fate of a young programmer from 1984, Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), who adapts a choose-your-own adventure fantasy novel into a video game. Along the way, Stefan collides with his widower father, Peter (Craig Parkinson), a legendary video game creator/mentor, Colin (Will Poulter), and several subsidiary characters. And each choice the viewer makes becomes progressively more dangerous, violent, and fatal for Stefan: an existential game that questions the role of free will (it takes place in 1984, after all) and implicates the viewer in some damning and shocking revelations.
In terms of benchmarks, the “Bandersnatch” script by Brooker is 157 pages (as opposed to the usual 65 pages); there are 250 segments (roughly two typical “Black Mirror” episodes-worth of content); in total, there are nearly five hours of footage (four times the length of a typical “Black Mirror” episode); there are five main endings (depending on how you play it) with multiple variants of each, which translates to more than a trillion permutations; and it was subtitled in 28 languages and dubbed in 10 (all released simultaneously).
As expected, “Bandersnatch” required sophisticated tech to pull off: Brooker wrote the script with programming software called Twine to manage multiple story branches, and Netflix developed Branch Manager to help editorially manage the vast network of intertwining clips and provide the same interactive experience as viewers.
This was a godsend for editor Tony Kearns and assistant editor John Weeks, who proved invaluable as an experienced coder. “It was not a normal shoot in terms of scenes,” said Kearns, as director David Slade shot with two cameras. “And it was broken down into segments because they would be standalone in the system. The actor and crew were baffled most of the time about what they were doing, and script supervisor Marilyn Kirby kept things straight. They were required to shoot the same scene multiple times but with a script variation for that segment, depending on the path chosen by the viewer. During the edit we had to make sure that we had all the material and knew how all the segments related to each other in small part and in its entirety. So that meant we were like accountants working off spreadsheets.”
The choices ranged from the simple (Sugar Puffs or Frosties cereal) to the shocking, such as when Stefan follows Colin home, indulges in an acid trip, and falls to his death after jumping off the roof. “That was probably my favorite segment to edit because of the dynamic and the performances,” said Kearns. “It’s kind of spaced out and you’re discovering more about Colin as well because he’s an interesting character. He’s a slightly demented and dangerous mentor for Stefan. Then it was about how we came out of it when Stefan wakes up in the car. That was was the trickier element to make it feel like a good transition. And these transition points had to be considered carefully to create the right visual flow of movement coming in and out of a choice point.”
One of Kearns’ favorite endings was the bloody fight scene between Stefan and his therapist, Dr. Haynes (Alice Lowe), when discussing his meta conspiracy theory about being part of a Netflix episode. “I enjoyed cutting the fight scene. It was very therapeutic,” he said. “The other part that affected me emotionally was when Stefan was a young boy and agrees to go on the train with his mom [before her fatal crash] with the use of ‘O Superman’ by Laurie Anderson. That was like a completely different thing to edit.”