Adding Digital Thrills to Black Mirror's 'USS Callister'
February 6, 2018

Adding Digital Thrills to Black Mirror's 'USS Callister'

Buckle up,  Black Mirror  fans. Charlie Brooker’s cult series has returned to Netflix, with six new episodes showcasing the directorial talent and dystopian nightmares audiences have grown to love (and fear), thanks to the use of digital effects.

Framestore’s Television department, led by VFX Supervisor Russell Dodgson, re-joined the show to tackle Season 4 episode “USS Callister” in its entirety, having previously fashioned VFX for Season 3’s award-winning “Playtest.” This time, the creative mind of director Toby Haynes (Doctor Who, Wallander) took the team deep into space, handing Framestore an opportunity to deliver stunning 4K assets and edge-to-edge CG and anamorphic sequences, in a 270-shot, 74-minute, ’60s-inspired showcase.

Framestore’s brief for “USS Callister” was no small undertaking. Approached by Brooker and Executive Producer Annabel Jones to work on Haynes’ episode, the team was challenged to find the creative solutions to a big idea: one that would combine the iconic visual tropes of a past era of sci-fi with its modern counterpart, all under a video gaming umbrella. The narrative arc of this highly-stylized episode called for numerous environments, including those in outer space, the namesake USS Callister spaceship, the nightmarish CG Arachnajax creature, and the many special effects, matte paintings and graphic replacements that bring veracity to a high production value film.

All Aboard

Much of the episode’s action takes place onboard the USS Callister, a spaceship of epic proportion that proved one of Framestore’s greatest achievements on the project. 

Supplied with an initial concept and a clear indication of the intended style and aesthetic, Framestore’s Rob Harrington led the CG team in continued look development on the model to turn out a hero asset. The ship’s fluid, flowing lines drew on a full pack of references, including retro cars, historical spacecraft architecture, and the design trends of the ’60s, from which the overall sequences take their cue. 

Extensive texturing and shader work ensured that the gargantuan craft would sustain the scrutiny of detailed 4K close-ups.

New Worlds

Of course, the spaceship would need a setting. Framestore artists designed and matte-painted multiple space environments across the duration of the episode. Always keen to push the work to a higher creative plane, the team worked to reflect the nuances of the script in the visuals – whether using a red, stormy, nebulous background when protagonist Jesse Plemons flies into a rage, or painting a cool and muted atmosphere to reflect gameplay stasis. 

The episode’s final sequence, set among a labyrinth of asteroids rendered in deep compositing, also called for a level of responsiveness. Movements were carefully crafted to generate the feel of a first-person video game chase, set within a vast cinematic scene.


Having created the monstrous star of Season 3 episode “Playtest,” it felt right for Framestore to flex its creature-making credentials once more. After an initial sculpt by the show’s art department Painting Practice, Framestore applied further look dev to the Arachnajax: a writhing, multi-tentacled CG beast, which called for extensive technical rigging, color and texture, seen predominantly within a gravelly, rock-simulated landscape. 

The narrative called for emotional intelligence, too – the creature needed to demonstrate personality and emotion in its interactions. The Arachnajax’ fantastical nature gave the team a chance to riff creatively, incorporating ideas and eccentricities from across the board, while reiterating Framestore’s capabilities in creature design.