Television

Everything about the BlackBerry series is perfectly '90s

They drove 8 hours for authentic Warhammer figurines. The BlackBerry miniseries is full of props from the ‘90s and early 2000s. Production designer Adam Belanger takes us through the painstaking process of crafting this nostalgic time.

Production designer Adam Belanger shares the painstaking detail that went into creating the limited series

Matt Johnson talking to Rich Sommer and Jay Baruchel in a photo from TV series BlackBerry.  He's wearing a Wolfenstein T-Shirt and standing in front of an arcade machine.
Matt Johnson ("Doug"), Rich Sommer ("Paul Stannos") and Jay Baruchel ("Mike Lazaridis") in limited series BlackBerry (Christopher Katsarov Luna)

Nostalgia for the '90s is all the rage right now and CBC Gem has a new miniseries to help you relive the past. 

BlackBerry takes place in the late '90s through to the mid-2000s. It follows the rise and fall of the Canadian company Research in Motion and the creation of one of the first mass-market smartphones: the BlackBerry. 

Directed by Matthew Johnson, BlackBerry stars Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Johnson's past projects, which include Nirvanna the Band the Show, contain painstaking attention to detail when it comes to the props. This miniseries is also full of objects that transport the viewer back to an earlier era. 

If you hit pause, you would be able to just pick up all of these things and understand exactly who these characters are- Adam Belanger

Sourcing and creating objects from the late '90s and early 2000s was a challenge that miniseries production designer Adam Belanger took on. 

"We're all of that age where this was our childhood we're looking back on," he told CBC. "We're very like-minded and excited about the things that we were making."

Even finding original BlackBerry phones was more difficult than they expected.

A selection of phones from the 2000s including BlackBerry, Nokia and Ericsson.
A selection of phones from the 2000s including BlackBerry, Nokia and Ericsson. (Ethan Eng)

"The world has changed so much and then these items are going to be around that we need to find," Belanger said. 

For the team to get their hands on these iconic devices, Belanger met up with people who collected them. 

"Adam's got lots of stories about meeting people in parking lots to do huge deals on hundreds of BlackBerrys," Johnson said. "The people who collect this stuff are so unique, let's say…. He got to meet them in their interesting worlds." 

The same amount of attention to detail also went into making other scenes. 

A closeup of someone's hand using a small paintbrush to paint a blue Warhammer figure.
Painting a Warhammer 40k Space Marine mini. (BlackBerry | CBC Gem)

In BlackBerry, a character called Steve, played by Born Ruffians' drummer Steve Hamelin, paints Warhammer figurines. Warhammer 40,000 is a miniature tabletop game, in which players paint their own futuristic figurines for battle. 

"I have no idea what Warhammer was," Belanger remembered. "[But] Matt was like, 'They should definitely be playing Warhammer.'"

So, he drove eight hours to and from Buffalo, U.S., to secure Warhammer figurines from the '90s, which are made from metal rather than plastic. 

"We got a whole collection of Warhammer that was all authentic from the era because we didn't want to use new stuff, as Games Workshop models have changed so much," Johnson commented. 

Sharp-eyed Canadian viewers of BlackBerry might notice the abundance of old-school Tim Hortons merchandise — both cups and boxes. 

Timbit and donut boxes
Era-appropriate Timbits and Donuts boxes created from period-accurate reference images. (Eshaan Gupta)

"There aren't any of these boxes lying around and there's nothing that's like a graphic image that we can pull from online — certainly nothing that would be high quality enough to just print," Belanger said. 

So Belanger's graphic designer Eshaan Gupta had to recreate these items from scratch using screenshots of Timbit boxes from old Tim Horton's commercials in the '90s. 

BlackBerry Production Designer Adam Belanger looks at some reference information for the set of BlackBerry.
BlackBerry Production Designer Adam Belanger (Colin Medley)

In 1999, Research in Motion and BlackBerry co-founder Mike Lazaridis won an Oscar for technical achievement for creating a high-speed barcode reader used in film editing.

Belanger knew he needed to have this award in the BlackBerry miniseries. "It doesn't look like your average one [Oscar] because it was a technical award," he said. "We knew we had to have that, and there's obviously not an aftermarket for these Oscars."

Belanger and his team found quality images of the award and then commissioned a sculptor to cast it out of clay and gild it. 

Special care was paid to replicate the offices of Research in Motion and BlackBerry engineers. Popular cult movie posters and other references to pop culture aligned the walls. But the biggest job was getting the technology of the time right.

A large warehouse-style office from the early 2000s.
The iconic BlackBerry office it appears in the BlackBerry limited series on CBC Gem. (Colin Medley)

"In part two, when they suddenly have a larger engineering facility, all of the desks and all of the workstations are covered in gadgetry," remembers Belanger. Although the casual audience might not notice these tiny details, a keen eye will recognize the authenticity of the objects.

"If you hit pause, you would be able to just pick up all of these things and understand exactly who these characters are," Belanger said. 

"I would say the biggest thing is working desktop computers," Johnson said. "We wanted there to be [a feeling] like, 'I remember what it was like to play desktop video games in the '90s.' It's a very specific experience."

Watch BlackBerry, now streaming on CBC Gem.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Oliver Thompson is a writer, producer and musician. Originally from the UK, where he worked for the BBC, Oliver moved to Canada in 2018.

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