How designers created the world of smash hit drama Bodyguard

Image: BBC

Ahead of the Bodyguard series finale this week, we look at the BBC drama's meticulous design work.

Perhaps like us you've been glued to British drama of the moment Bodyguard, a six-part tale of a politician and her security officer as they struggle to stay alive amidst a backdrop of terrorism and conspiracy. The show, which is coming to a close this Sunday (and which'll no doubt get an American remake soon) plays out like a sexy concoction of 24, Homeland and State of Play, wracked as it is with unbearable tension that stems from a strong and sometimes brutal sense of realism.

That realism comes from some great behind the scenes work courtesy of graphic designer Matthew Clark, who caught our eye with tweets detailing the meticulous work that went into bringing the show's world to life. One of those tweets, an off-hand joke about a certain framed photo in character Julia Montague's apartment, even managed to dupe The Mirror into believing ex-Prime Minister and apathetic country wrecker David Cameron had posed for it (he hadn't). Digital Arts may also have been slightly duped, but no worries, for we've dug to the bottom of things much like David Budd himself in his quest to find out who is trying to kill the imperilled Julia. Don't worry though, as this interview won't be spoilery for readers who haven't caught up yet on BBC iPlayer - and it doesn't tell you whether Julia Montague is really dead or not (or does it?)

GL: What was the most challenging aspect of designing for Bodyguard?

MC: "Easily the biggest challenge in Bodyguard was the screen design. There were multiple scripted sequences involving screens in each episode, and I largely have to design these myself. I knew we’d have a lot of screens being used in the police sets, especially the control room.

"I designed a set of modular OS windows - that way I could build up a basic framework for the scripted sections with a kit of graphic parts that would mean there’d be a definite design theme, but not that every screen looked the same. The scripted graphics - PNC searches, tracking maps, evidence photos etc - are designed as slideshows with animation notes.

"I work with a company called Revolver that take these files and then make them into interactive packages. In addition to this, we also shot our own CCTV footage by hanging cameras out of the office windows, roped in family passport photos for our criminal database, and staged our own forensic photos using genuine scene of crime props to fill the background apps.

"The majority of police control / office scenes were shot in the same week, so between myself and Chris the animator we had to produce something like 100 different screens for 5 days' worth of shooting. On-set playback was achieved in a number of ways; most of the interactive files on laptops and desktops ran live, which the actors rehearsed with and learned to use themselves. The large screens, and PowerPoint slideshows etc were usually run by myself or a Revolver tech using wireless keyboard and lurking behind walls."

GL: Were there any unique challenges with Bodyguard compared to other TV work?

MC: "Bodyguard is different to a lot of police dramas in that (show creator) Jed Mercurio is very interested in making it feel as real as possible. It’s not uncommon for police dramas to have a police advisor on the show - but we actually had a few, with some from the specific departments we were representing. That way, if we were making a form, or a booklet, or anything that existed in the real world, we were given pointers on how they should look, so we could design to that spec.

"Bodyguard was also a lot higher-end than a lot of these other dramas, which tends to require a bit of a premium feel. A lot of time was put in on the process of creating these pieces - we added effects like print bleed, photocopier noise etc, and printed it on a variety of paper stocks to make sure the graphics visually matched the palette of the rest of the show - which is a 'contrasty' and desaturated one.

"A bright white, crisp piece of paper really sticks out on sets like these so we have to make sure they’re a little bit aged or lived-in first."

Matthew and team also designed these anti-RIPA '18 protestor placards

GL: You've worked previously on sci-fi like Red Dwarf and Doctor Who. As Bodyguard aims for realism, does that make the work feel less adventurous compared to science-fiction design?

MC: "I think we always go for a ‘heightened’ realism so while it’s maybe less outwardly adventurous than something like a sci-fi show, we were keen to make everything look as good as possible.

"When you read the script and it tells you that a character walks down a street, goes into a cafe, reads something on their tablet; each stage of that is something we have to create - signage, branding, screen graphics. It should feel like a cohesive world and even if it’s never explicitly seen it has a value in creating a background world for the actors' work inside.

The logo of the hotel where David Budd and Julia Montague had a little fun together

"We try to get that world right, so we think about the colours of the signage, how much texture through age it would have, whether the branding should feel high or low end - it’s really fun to get lost inside several different worlds at once.

"Even things like the design of the bottle and drink labels in any given set need to match the environment around them. Bodyguard takes place inside a lot of very institutional locations - the Home Office, the Houses of Parliament, various police stations etc so I went with quite an officious aesthetic. It’s always great to have a good reason to use loads of Helvetica and Gotham without it feeling uninspired.

Logo for restaurant where Julia Montague rebuked the advances of an underling 

"The average viewer won’t really look at the prop paperwork - which is probably the point - but if it was wrong, it would on some level stick out."

GL: Tell us about how you created the below 'Death Star' image of Julia with ex-PM David Cameron (especially as it's created a little tabloid controversy thanks to your tweet.)

MC: "It was a bit of a reverse process. We started by going through Getty images and selecting a shortlist of about 15 images that we thought might work, and from there saw what images we could get cleared for use where we could modify it. That whittled it down to 3 or 4 images.

"Once we had those, we arranged a photoshoot with Keeley in costume. For each shot, we matched the lighting angles to the source photo and lenses, where possible, and she posed with members of the crew to recreate the image. I supplied 4 complete images for Jed and Thomas (the director) to chose from."

Matthew and team mocked up fake web pages such as this for the drama

Bodyguard fans (Bodyguarders? Bodies? Body-Stanners?) out there may be wondering if we asked Matthew whether Julia Montague has truly bitten the bullet; well, we didn't ask as there was no way he was going to tell us, but perhaps he did - or didn't - give us a hint or two, and as such Digital Arts can now definitively tell you that Julia is (retracted).

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