By Rachael Steven

Map of Hell aired on National Geographic in the US last night. Presented by Danny Trejo – the Hollywood actor best known for playing menacing bad guys – the feature-length documentary maps the evolution of ideas about the underworld, Satan and eternal punishment.

Peepshow was asked to illustrate visions of hell through the ages, from Dante’s Inferno to early Christian descriptions of a fiery place where sinners burn in darkness. The stylised sequences combine live action footage with composited animation and offer a contemporary take on some familiar imagery.

Keen to avoid cliches and do something different to their previous TV work, Peepshow looked to graphic novels, film posters and the work of comic book artist Jack Kirby to create the show’s graphics. With a limited colour palette inspired by comic book printing, sequences have a slightly psychedelic feel.

The collective was asked to create two types of sequences: visions of hell outlined by poets and philosophers through the ages and sequences which contextualise those visions by depicting the eras in which they were conceived. In these scenes, statues of Homer, Plato and other key thinkers are pictured alongside images of an erupting Vesuvius or the burning of Rome, illustrating events that might have influenced their ideas.

“These stories and ideas have been illustrated and visualised many times before so we were keen to make something a little different,” say Peepshow’s Miles Donovan and Pete Mellor. “During the initial conversation about working on the show, the channel

[was] also looking at a full CGI rendering of the various hells, so it was important to us that we create something that was more timeless than whatever the current trend in CGI or processing power would allow. We removed a sense of time, place and geography wherever possible – actors were in modern dress, colours remained bright and tried to keep the scenes in abstract settings.”

Before filming live action scenes using green-screen, Peepshow drew up storyboards and concept designs for each sequence based on a working script.

“We wanted these sequences to have a strong look across the show but we also tried to give each of them their own identity as the historic ideas of hell were always adding or reacting to what had gone before,” explain Donovan and Mellor. “We used a combination of actors and dancers as a lot of the sequences needed quite controlled, physical performances – [for example] burning on iron grates, being electrocuted by God’s lightning, drowning in Plato’s whirlpool, having tree branches grow out of your mouth, being eaten by maggots from the inside etc.”

Concept designs were then reworked with the live action footage, recoloured and collaged with stock photography before being composited with ambient layers of atmospherics, fire and smoke. “There was a lot of fire and smoke used on the project!” add Donovan and Mellor.

The project is Peepshow’s second collaboration with director Julian Jones – in 2014, they created opening titles and animated sequences for How We Got to Now, a six-part PBS documentary looking at the development of scientific breakthroughs that have shaped the way we live today. The project won an Emmy for outstanding motion design in 2015 and you can read our feature on it here.


Creative and production company: Peepshow Collective
Art directors: Miles Donovan, Luke Best
Animation director: Pete Mellor
Animators: Chris Sayer, Nicol Scott, Chris Tulloch

Read more here:: Peepshow’s animations for National Geographic visualise 3,000 years of hell