How Centre for Computer History in Cambridge helped bring to life new interactive Netflix movie Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
For as long as he can remember, Jason Fitzpatrick has always loved technology.
Born in the early 1970s, Jason was witness to the home computer revolution that swept the nation and inspired his passion.
“When I was about eight or nine, I didn’t have a computer so I used to cut holes out of boxes and made my own. I pretended as a kid. Now, I’m 48 and I’m basically doing the same thing.”
He added: “Home computers at the time weren’t the first computers but they were the first computers to rock our lives. It can’t really happen again. For anybody that has lived it, it’s pretty special and I hope this film captures a little bit of that.”
Jason runs the Centre for Computer History in Cambridge and also supplies retro technology to the TV and film industry, which helps to fund the museum.
His most recent project was supplying tech for Bandersnatch, the choose-your-own-adventure Black Mirror film that appeared on Netflix just after Christmas.
“We’ve supplied things to Black Mirror in the past but it’s been hands off,” Jason said.
Most Black Mirror episodes are set in the future, but this interactive movie, where the viewer decides what happens to the main character on screen, is set in 1984.
A young programmer, Stefan, begins to question reality as he adapts a sprawling fantasy novel Bandersnatch into a video game and soon faces a mind-mangling challenge believing that his own actions are being controlled by an unseen force (that’s you!).
Early last year, Jason, who is a big fan of the Charlie Brooker science fiction television series, was approached by the film’s art director, Maggie Musial, to be involved.
Shortly afterwards he began the task of sending the creators, who had a specific look in mind, thousands of images of old technology to choose from before sourcing “the absolute best machines I could”.
“Which is tricky,” said Jason, “because the computers aren’t new and they degrade over time, as plastic tends to go yellow.”
The chosen items were then packed into a van and laid out in a studio for director David Slade to see.
“It’s called a show and tell, like in school. Everyone talks about each item and things are chosen for different sets.
“Sometimes it’s a bit of a balancing act between what looks great visually, and what technically is correct. Sometimes you bend either one of those factors.”
Jason estimates that he supplied hundreds of items to the show but on this occasion, the experience was much more hands on.
He had a week to produce eight desk setups for Tuckersoft – a gaming development company that took the world by storm in the 1980s (at least in Bandersnatch).
“There’s lots of little details,” he said. “I get a little bit sad with it all but I think that’s what you’re supposed to do.
“There is a line in the show that says: ‘We’re going to be the Motown of the games industry’.
“That’s what we were trying to set up,” said Jason.
Jason explained that the fictional Tuckersoft is “slightly inspired” by the company, Imagine Software.
The company, founded in 1982, rose quickly to prominence and was noted for its polished, high-budget approach to packaging and advertising, as well as its self-promotion and ambition.
It achieved nationwide notoriety when it was filmed by a BBC documentary crew in 1984 while in the process of going bust.
“They were advertising a game called Bandersnatch and it never happened,” said Jason.
He added: “Tuckersoft is slightly inspired by the company, Imagine. Not the story but the look and feel – the young guns going for it.”
“But it’s also this game that never appeared.”
Jason and his team were not just involved in the filming process, they were also asked to help out at Black Mirror-inspired newsagents launched in the days after the film went live.
“We got a call on the Thursday asking can we set up on the Monday,” he said.
“We were asked to supply TVs because they wanted them working in the background playing the nosedive game, and after that we got a phone call saying they were opening up the London store for three hours and we need you there to have the game playable.
“We had a video loop of the game, but they wanted us to show people how it worked.”
Jason, who has also worked on TV programmes like The IT Crowd, says he is extremely proud to have worked on the film and paid tribute to Netflix for their commitment.
“I played a relatively tiny part,” he said.
“This is a big thing for Netflix. I thought we were producing the first episode of the new season and it was what was on the call sheet.
“The decision to make it a film was after the filming had been completed. There was a huge amount of time and money invested in it by Netflix and huge amount of credit to them.”
But does he like it?
“When we were doing it I wasn’t sure. If I want to watch a film, I want to sit back and be lazy and I want to enjoy somebody else’s story.
“However, I did really enjoy it. It was great – killing Colin was glorious, it was horrible and a bit of a shocker, but brilliant.”