Framestore’s CG artists worked on ‘Playtest’, directed by Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane). The series’ move to Netflix, plus the public’s ravenous appetite for more episodes, resulted in a serious upping in production values for Season 3, giving Framestore opportunity to showcase one of its finest skillsets – creature work – in spectacular 4k.

Black Mirror 'Playtest'

The work centred around the design of a fully CG creature, a disturbing mash-up of spider and human which haunts character Cooper (played by Wyatt Russell), who is lost in a state somewhere between game engine and greatest fears. The episode seeks to explore the line between the virtual and the real, leaving viewers to question their own understanding of the evolving demarcation between the two.

The creature was a concept by Framestore VFX Supervisor Grant Walker, who looked to design a hybrid creature that would play on Cooper’s fears of both arachnids and the school bully of his past, Peters. Determined to steer clear of a potentially comedic mash-up, Walker looked to the work of Chris Cunningham, known for his experimental films and music promos for the likes of Aphex Twin and Autechre, to influence the distorted and grotesque creature. The nature of the design, and the team’s desire not to fall into the trap of existing creatures such as The Thing, made for a highly collaborative process, with all sides working to realise a vision of something that couldn’t necessarily be described. 

Though an actor was originally shot and photo-scanned for reference, in particular for his eyes, it proved better ultimately to fashion the entire asset in CG, to allow maximum manipulation and effect. Walker was able to draw on the experience of Framestore’s Capture Lab to assist with the scanning, using Zbrush to blend the information onto the spider build.

Black Mirror 'Playtest'

Framestore also created the glitchy, hyperreal effect seen in ‘Playtest’’s fight sequence, as Cooper tears away the face of Sonja, co-star Hannah John-Carmen. As the virtual game world Cooper is living in ‘recalibrates’, the audience experience a unique visual effect created specifically for the show, again pushing the team to deliver something previously unseen. The handful of shots artfully combine organic and digital effects in a way that feels logical within the context of the scene, and yet give indication of an additional, unknown reality. What may have previously been attempted with prosthetics is given a technological upgrade, lending a new visual language to the episode’s virtual game mentality.

All of the work was completed in 4k resolution, marking Framestore’s first 4k television project. The team also used deep compositing techniques within 4k in order to turn out the elements at their optimum quality, giving the finished product even greater depth of field. Together, the combination of resolution, artistry, and innovative breakthrough VFX, landed ‘Playtest’ in a particularly bright future of its own.