Posted 24 September 2018
Interview by Laura Snoad

Designer Matthew Clark on creating the unexpected graphics for BBC hit, Bodyguard

If you’ve been gripped by Jed Mercurio’s conspiracy-packed BBC series Bodyguard, then you’re not alone. More than 11 million viewers have been hungrily tuning in to follow PC Budd (aka actor Richard Madden) as he discovers who killed controversial Home Secretary Julia Montague, played by Keeley Hawes. From Andrew Marr cameos to faked Wikipedia pages, believability has been at the heart of the thriller’s success. The person to thank for all that spine-tingling detail is graphic designer Matthew Clark, who created every single graphic element you see in the series, from branding for the Police (including PC Budd’s badge) to car chase maps, PNC search results, forensic evidence photos, police forms, protest banners, restaurant menus, snaps of Keeley Hawes and ex-PM David Cameron, not to mention hours of CCTV footage. Just before the dramatic finale on Sunday, we went behind the scenes with Matthew to talk about meticulous world-building, designing on set and late nights.

Project Background

In TV, the production company will hire a production designer who is the head of the art department. That person will then subcontract out jobs. There’ll be a supervising art director, a graphic designer, a buyer and so on. I tend to get jobs based on the production designers that I know. A job’s never advertised – it’s like a kind of secret head-hunting.

For Bodyguard, I’d worked with production designer James Lapsley a few times on other jobs and I’d also done a few police-style shows before. I didn’t have to pitch for this project or produce a portfolio, but you might need to if you’re going for an interview with a new designer. In that case, I’ll often reorganise and finesse by portfolio to match the work – whether that’s sci-fi or period drama or so on.

Trailer for BBC's Bodyguard

Turning the Script into a Brief

Often there isn’t a brief as such, but you’re given all the scripts at the start of the show. The show creator will have something in mind visually and then the production designer will start translating that into mood boards and references. That’s the point where I tend to join – when the team hasn't started shooting and they’re still finding the look. I look at the references I’ve been given and further research those ideas. For Bodyguard I looked at real world versions of the places we’d be shooting, like police stations and government offices, and started working on designs that were based on reality, but heightened and stylised for TV.

From researching the environments mentioned in the script, I knew what props and graphics were needed, plus, often a script will specifically mention items. For example, it could say, “They look at the screen and X action happens which causes Y action to happen”. So you’ll know that whatever you’re designing has to incorporate the element of the story they’ve mentioned. Sometimes you may have to leave the technical reality behind to stylise an object so it conveys the plot point in the right way.

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Matthew at work

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Matthew at work

Building a Believable World

Because the world of the Bodyguard needed to feel real, a lot of the design was copying in a way – it was about researching and being technically accurate. But I got to have a bit more fun with some elements like restaurants and such. On shows like this we’ll often get advice from people that used to work for the police. They’ll give you a rough idea of what a certain form, for example, would say and look like, then you translate that into the branding you’ve made.

“A lot of the design was copying in a way – it was about researching and being technically accurate.”

A lot of my job is developing brands. For Bodyguard we designed a government brand, a police brand, a secret service brand, and so on. We can’t find out what some things really look like, like the screens in the Met control room, so I’ll design something I think feels right. Some shows tend to go for quite flashy, computer effects but we were aiming for a very grounded look. The show had quite a desaturated colour palette, so we knew to do the screen graphics in greys, blues and greens to match that.

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A lot of Matthew’s job is branding – here for Julia Montague’s controversial RIPA 18 bill.

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A lot of Matthew’s job is branding – here for Julia Montague’s controversial RIPA 18 bill.

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Research is essential for making any branding believable, like in this signage at Roger Penhaligon’s constituency office.

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Mathew created placards for the protesters demonstrating against Julia Montague’s ‘snoopers’ charter’, some digitally and some by hand.

A lot of the ambient branding such as restaurant The Gresley was a chance for Matthew to have some fun. The restaurant (where Rob tries to woo Julia) is named after railway engineer Nigel Gresley, who was a fan of ducks, and named many of his trains after birds.
The team created signage from trashy internet cafes to classy hotels, always thinking about whether something need to show signs of age or wear and tear. The slate-effect signage for the hotel that Budd and Julia Montague stay in was created using paint on foam board.
Matthew’s brand for the Home Office in Bodyguard is very close to the real life branding, but with some very subtle departures.
Matthew created several logos for the high-vis jacket that sniper Andy wears as he tries to assassinate Home Secretary Julia Montague. You can only see the the very top of the selected design (number 4) in the show.

The Strain of the Schedule

The Bodyguard shoot ran for about six months. We had about six weeks to prep before that. Bodyguard was really good as the scripts didn’t really change much. I used to do Doctor Who and often we’d have a script, prep it and then right before shooting, it would change completely and we would have to start all over again. It was crazy.

On a project like this I tend to look at the scariest stuff first. There were a hundred-odd screens in Bodyguard so we started those really early. If there’s any character-based graphics with photography of the cast, like Budd’s ID, you start working on those as soon as you can so you can send it to the production designer (and possibly the writer and the director) so they can give feedback. I also hired an E-FIT company to mock-up up specific characters’ faces, as well as record how they did it (as you see Budd working with an E-FIT artist in the scene). We physically make a lot of things, so you have to bear in mind the lead times of making a book, getting something embossed or printing signs.

“We started working on any character-based graphics of the cast as soon as we could.”

The police force crest Matthew created was used across uniforms, paperwork, screens and warrant cards. It wad 3D printed to create the officers’ badges.
Matthew commissioned an E-FIT company to create the final imagery of Richard Longcross and the process of making it.

We’ll have a schedule of what scenes are being shot when, but that changes. For example, the part on the train [an attempted bomb detonation] in the first episode was supposed to happen in Waterloo Station. We had two platforms at Waterloo booked, brought two trains and had riot police and a thousand extras. But the day before the shoot, Waterloo backed out of the agreement. We all turned grey. So filming the train scene got pushed to the end, and we had to bring other things forward. We then ended up making stuff overnight, even making elements on the day. It was all a bit crazy.

“The day before the shoot, Waterloo backed out of the agreement. We all turned grey.”

Even less dramatic changes mean more work. You could get to a location and the director might want to shoot at a different angle so you have to make different cover ups, or the actor might say “I’d like to be holding this prop,” so you have to design that and get it made. We do a lot of overnights and a lot of weekends.

Matthew faked the image of Keeley Hawes and David Cameron by sourcing an existing image of the ex-PM via Getty Images and then conducting a photoshoot with Keeley to exactly match the lighting.

A Collaborative Process

Normally the production designer is the head of the art department, and usually, everything gets signed off by them as it’s finished. Underneath there’s the art director, and then that branches off to the graphics department and the set decorating department. ‘Set dec’ do all the finer detailing on set, like buying all the bits of cutlery for a cafe or the objects on a desk – all the details.

There is a hierarchy, but it also goes left to right as well as up and down depending on what’s needed for the set. The set dec might buy some props, but ask me to design the labels for example. I outsource some tasks too. For anything animated screen-wise in Bodyguard, I designed the screens; made sure they matched the story points and that the action worked; and got them signed off before I hired an animator.

Matthew had to create webpages from scratch so that they were fully interactive. The elements that aren’t totally bespoke – like Julia’s Wikipedia page – often took the longest as they had to look true to life. For interactive screens, the actors had to learn to operate the animations and rehearse with them for timing. For PowerPoint slideshows Matthew and animator Chris Gibbons hid and activated the graphics from behind the scenes.

Behind the Screens

The most challenging part of Bodyguard was the screen design. You’ll notice that for a lot of the episodes that take place in various parts of the police station, there are screens everywhere. That was all shot in one location and in three weeks. We had to get all 150 screens ready at the same time. A lot of sequences feature actors pressing buttons and then the screens responding so we had to make sure the actors had rehearsed with them, and that they worked the way we wanted them to.

“A lot of sequences feature actors pressing buttons and then the screens responding so we had to make sure the actors had rehearsed with them.”

You can read the script to get a sense of how an actor is going to read their lines, but then they’ll read it in their own way. We had to make sure the beats we’d programmed in matched the beats they acted. A particularly complex part was when the police are tracking the terrorists’ car, as we had to make sure the map matched exactly what would happen in the other footage. Getting all those sequences ready was an intense challenge.

The control room set was four-walled space with screens on every wall. The desk screens were interactive so actors could actually press buttons to make it look like they were working. The wall mounted screens were animated on repeating loops.
Creating the animated maps to exactly match the footage was one of the most challenging parts of the job.

Faking Evidence

A production is not shot in order, so we had to check that all the things that we made – evidence boards for example – were correct for the right part of the story. I think we made somewhere in the region of 50 evidence boards, each specific for the scene with sequential evidence building up. If we got this wrong, we could have revealed things before they’d been revealed in the plot. It was a bit of a brain-scratcher. We had to write it all down and plot everything.

“If we got the evidence boards wrong, we could have revealed things before they’d been revealed in the plot.”

We also had to generate evidence. On the boards, you see photographs of characters doing various things so we had to shoot these. For example, one of the suspects rents a car and so the police have a CCTV still of him doing that on the board. We had to build a set of a rental office, get the actor in, make the rental paperwork, photograph him on the set, print the paperwork out then bring it all back to the evidence board. If there’s a photograph of anything, you have to also create the world that exists in the photograph.

Matthew and the team photographed a lot of their own CCTV footage by hanging cameras out of nearby windows.
Matthew created modular OS windows for the on-screen evidence boards, so that there was a common look and feel but not every board looked the same. He designed the scripted graphics (think maps, and evidence photos searches) as slideshows with animation notes.
Many of the incident photos and forensics shots were staged by the team on set, using props. The bomb radius analysis was featured, very briefly, in the aftermath report presented to senior police and politicians.

Tools of the Trade

We photograph or design any photo that you see on screen, so we do a lot of Photoshop work. I use Adobe suite, mostly Illustrator and Photoshop for detailing and texturing photo mock-ups. We use After Effects for the motion graphics and Flash for the interactive graphics. I also use Sketch Up if I need to create renders. A lot of the software is the standard stuff – you work with so many printers and model makers that it’s good to work on the same software as everyone in the real world.

However, the graphic designers on TV shows are different than most other people in the art department because we bring so much kit with us. My kit list is around £10k, including two computers, two printers, loads of specialist paper stock and loads of specialist tools. Much of the paperwork and forms we printed in-house.

Here you can see the graphic layouts for the kompromat, which were then animated by Chris Gibbons, and then uploaded onto the device.
Matthew wanted the Bodyguard world to have a premium feel, so a lot of effort was put into paperstock, using different textures and colours to retain interest. He also added effects like print bleed and photocopier noise to make documents look more realistic.

A Hit Series

If I had a shot at this project again I’d probably try to hire more people. Graphics on television and film has really changed. Twenty years ago, it was just Letraset, photocopying and hiring sign writers. Now it’s completely different. We do printed matter, we do digital and interactive objects; we can make newspapers, we can print on carpet, we can even print wallpaper. Despite this, the industry hasn't really changed much and each production tends to only hire one graphic designer. On Black Mirror, there was five of us working on one episode, but Charlie Brooker really likes graphics, so he was happy to have that happen. But a lot of shows don’t understand that, so it’s kind of a struggle. You've probably seen a TV show that has a website or a phone app which looks really ropey because the person doing it isn’t experienced in doing web apps. It really drags you out of the episode.

“It is a really collaborative process and one person can’t exist without the other.”

Some of the individuals featured on the PNC database are friends of the crew, others are extras.

Having said that, my advice is that you also have to learn to let go because you can find yourself finessing something and then it’s in the corner of a shot for one second and you never see it again. The satisfaction you get from the job is seeing the end result with everyone’s work combined, not knowing that you did one perfect thing that no one else can see.

Bodyguard’s ratings and the reviews are fantastic so it’s great to be a part of that. The way that the graphics have been noticed has been lovely. I’ve gotten quite a lot of attention, but I was one of 10 designers and every person had their own thing. It is a really collaborative process and one person can’t exist without the other. If a show looks really good then that's really satisfying. If it does really well and the visuals aren’t really part of the character, which in Bodyguard they’re not, then you just take pride in the fact that it happened at all and that everyone really likes it.

Interview by Laura Snoad
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