Despite its futuristic theme and characters, the production team deployed no greenscreen or performance capture on the set of the elegant psychological thriller Ex Machina. Cinematographer Rob Hardy, director Alex Garland and VFX supervisor Andrew Whitehurst relied on a minimum of digital tools during the shoot. (An exhaustive postproduction schedule was another matter altogether.) The feature film from A24—captured in Sony F65 anamorphic—is closing out its North American theater run and will be released on Blu-ray and VOD on July 14.
The film centers on three primary characters. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at an Internet search giant, wins a competition to spend a week at the secluded estate of the search company’s reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Caleb learns the secretive Bateman has chosen him to be the “human component” in a test to evaluate the human-like capabilities of the CEO’s latest experiment in artificial intelligence. The A.I. Ava (Alicia Vikander) soon proves she’s more than just a pretty face.
Director Alex Garland and Oscar Isaac
Garland wrote the screenplay for Ex Machina, his directorial debut. (He previously wrote the screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine.)
The cinematographer wanted to visually maximize the lush green forest environment outside the starkly beautiful estate deep in the woods (shot in part at the Juvet Landscape Hotel in a remote area of Norway). Hardy sought to get the most of both natural light and contrasts inside the estate, as well as additional interior scenes shot on three soundstages at Pinewood Studios near London. Hardy notes, “With every project I take on, I think it’s important to test out exactly what makes the right ingredients for the film, since each one is different, right?
“This was one of those times when I felt a digital format would really lend itself well to the story, especially when filming the scenes with Ava’s character. We tested the [ARRI] Alexa and the RED EPIC, and then the [Sony] F65 at the very last minute, because not many people were using it at the time. We replicated a typical scene at Pinewood—lots of glass, reflections, very soft lighting and such. I’ve always loved celluloid and I was looking for an image that would translate in a similar way without needing too much manipulation. I [wanted] a filmic look, I guess,” Hardy explains. “In the end, the Sony F65 had everything. It picked up on the subtleties of light and other details. I was very surprised—I wasn’t expecting it.”
Hardy also tested a range of lenses, “such as the sharp spherical ones like the [ARRI] Master Primes, down to the Cooke Speed Panchro, as well as anamorphic lenses like the [Cooke] Xtal Express, all of which have very distinct personalities.” Indeed, it seems lens choices played a larger role in the film’s overall look and feel than is typical.
There are five sequences in the movie that mark the progression of the relationship between the A.I and Caleb. With the goal of shooting as much as possible practically, minimizing the use of visual effects, Hardy deployed subtle lens changes over the course of the long takes that make up these sequences—with each encounter showcasing its own subtle reflections (sometimes quite literally) and image-laden idiosyncrasies as the story evolves.
Kyoka (Sonoya Mizuno) and Ava (Alicia Vikander)
For exterior shots in the woods at the stark, Scandinavian-influenced cabins of the Juvet Landscape Hotel (as well as a newly built private residence nearby that filled in as another part of the estate), Hardy deployed tungsten lighting for daylight. “The light in Norway is rather incredible, with a lot of subtle hues as the day progresses—especially during the summer, which was when we were shooting. It’s almost like a permanent ‘magic hour.’ I was using tungsten light to reflect that, and mixing it with natural daylight. And a combination of those when it comes together just gives everything a very gauzy visual effect,” says Hardy, who managed to jerry rig tiny tungsten units onto large configurations so he could more precisely control the lighting elements.
Scenes that take place in the subterranean laboratory and living quarters were shot in 360 degrees on the trio of Pinewood soundstages. “The set—the walls and ceilings, everything—were sealed and they were for real, so stepping into it to shoot was very much like stepping into a real [facility],” says Hardy.
By opting out of performance capture (e.g., Andy Serkis’ Gollum character in TheLord of the Rings) and instead allowing a costumed Vikander to interact on-set as Ava with the cast as she would in a typical live-action movie, Hardy was able to work around the blocking choices of the actors and director, and not the other way around. (This proved especially useful in long takes, where Ava was able to walk around a room and seemingly study Caleb, who was situated inside a glass box and studying her, for some psychological one-upsmanship.) Choosing the technically more intricate “body capture” over “performance capture” provided challenges of its own for Hardy and crew, including overcoming anamorphic lens distortion during focus changes while shooting several of the lengthy takes in the film.
The team at Double Negative, led by visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst, augmented the footage shot on set to create Ava. Whitehurst notes that as much as possible of Vikander’s on-set performance was translated into the CGI model. Whitehurst and his team spent untold hours matching their animation to the actor’s live-action movements—a painstaking yet essential process. In all, it took six months of postproduction to marry Vikander’s performance with the special effects team’s rendering to create the central character of Ava.