Ex Machina looks unlike any science fiction film you’ve seen lately. Its mostly subterranean location is opulent and claustrophobic—and then there’s Ava, the eerily beautiful robot. Check out an exclusive clip from the DVD’s special features, and our interview with the film’s production designer, Mark Digby.
We were blown away by Ex Machina when we saw it in theaters, and the more time we’ve spent thinking about it and revisiting it, the more we’ve appreciated its tense, intimate drama. So we were stoked to feature the above clip about the design process that went into creating Ava, the movie’s android character.
And we were excited to talk to Mark Dibgy, the production designer, about two elements: The luxurious home of the inventor Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who invites his employee Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) to come stay with him. And Ava herself. We sent a bunch of questions to Digby via email, and here’s what he told us.
Ex Machina’s mostly subterranean space is so distinctive and pale. Were you influenced by other sealed-off locations, like Moon’s mining base or the base in Robert Wise’s Andromeda Strain? Or were you trying to avoid all science fiction references altogether?
We were not consciously influenced by other film reference locations and that was never our approach. In some sense, certainly for design, from the start I never really placed the film as science fiction. It is set in a very near timeline, possibly even current, and the main science fiction is the achievement of true AI, which perhaps is not that far away in reality.
The final resting place of the location and design of Nathan’s house was the result of a journey that started with the script requirements, but twisted and turned due to a combination of the practicalities and pragmatism of film making as well as our exploration of Nathan’s character and the core requirements of his building.
Specifically about the subterranean element; that came about because we found it hard to find actual billionaire houses or buildings of similar magnitude and opulence that we could film in.
In crude terms, our original thoughts were of a sprawling mansion, possibly in a modernist white Corbusian/International Style architecture. We could not really obtain access or afford anywhere within our time and budgetary constraints, so we rethought what could work for Nathan’s character and us.
It needed security, remoteness, and a low profile/visual thumbnail. It also needed to be the type of place that a man of his wealth and non-ostentatious character could and would own and also have the facilities of a living residence as well as a research and manufacturing workspace.
We came to the conclusion that he didn’t need or care for a large Californian-type mansion that was walled and gated, but instead could achieve security and visual obscurity in a geographically remote, but none-the-less stunning area of natural beauty. And it is only the truly wealthy and powerful that can afford such natural beauty and territory solely for themselves. As a single man whose focus was his work - of room to live - it’s just himself, as long as he had his creature comforts and he did not need to show or prove to anyone his wealth, either. So a comfortable-sized building set on a mountainside or in a national park or glacial environment might do the trick and to give him all the space he needed, some of the rooms could be subterranean.
As for the pale and distinctive styling, that is just our own design aesthetic and interpretation for Nathan and his character choices.
How does that mesh with the parts above ground that were actually shot at a luxury hotel and residence in Norway?
The two aboveground existing location and buildings and below ground studio build environments must seamlessly be joined if we are to believe they are the same building, a pre-requisite for scene-by-scene film design. The two environments were constantly informing and feeding into each other in a very symbiotic way. For example, we actually had to start designing and were some way towards building some of the studio sets before we had sealed off decisions on the Norway locations. But we always knew they (the location buildings) would be concrete walled and we had to wait until we saw the color and patina on the locations before we mirrored that in our studio builds. Elevators, size and style of the studio world, was determined by where and what size fitted in our Norway locations.
You told Dezeen that “hard, shiny surfaces are for bad guys,” and that you wanted to keep away from that, but also use it. Can you explain more about that? Were you trying to create a space that sort of looks like a supervillain lair, but also doesn’t?
No, that was perhaps a flawed response to Dezeen from me. The point I was trying to make was that we are often given a “language “ of ideas, design, science etc. from other and previous films, dramas and fictional works. As time passes, no one questions their validity or truth and they are passed down over and over again. The real world is often less pretty and perfect than we imagine for our forensic labs, police offices and military control rooms. Spaces are often smaller and more chaotic and not color coded. I guess we, as a design team, strive not to be over-influenced by that or take those rules and ideas as given, but to examine and question each aspect for its particular requirement and current use. Which means that generally we would shy away from shiny surfaces and lighting for lighting’s sake, because most of functional modern life is not like that, but in this case we have a man who had the money and taste to have well-styled and perfectly balanced aesthetic to his life, but also genuinely required areas that needed shiny well lit expensive materials and surfaces and, importantly, he could afford them.
We wanted to create a space that reflected Nathan and his very personal world, but also gave subliminal heed to the imposing claustrophobia and imprisonment of every one except Nathan that “lived” there. It is his fortress, prison and living space.
What does this space say about Nathan? Is it supposed to reinforce that he’s a control freak, or to make him seem more isolated?
Yes, it nods to his control, and his self-imposed isolation. But it also tells us he is a man like very few others – rich, highly intelligent and very powerful in the sense that he controls the brain of the masses (i.e. the world’s foremost internet search engine). It nods to his taste and focus on a particular goal. His house says that he is wealthy, he is discerning, vain but so confident of his self that he does not need to be ostentatious in any way; he wants comfort but he is ultimately focused on his supreme target and all else comes secondary to that. He surrounds himself with things that make him comfortable and happy - he collects art, and historical artifacts, all based on his obsession of knowledge and artificial intelligence.
What is it about Modernist architecture, in particular, that speaks to the idea of creating artificial life, and how we relate to it emotionally?
I guess it is about the search for awareness, self-awareness and also about function-over-form as a priority. It is about discarding the superfluous to obtain maximum value. Perhaps it is about purity, simplicity, linearity in searching for the ideal.
You mentioned in one interview that one of your guiding principles for Nathan’s house was that all the technology should be hidden, because the most high-end homes don’t show off their advanced tech. Did you look at smart homes that are being designed now, or people’s ideas for the smart home of the future?
Well, yes, to a point, but it is not just now or for the future that this is the case, and it’s not particularly about smart devices. There has for a long time been an impetus in a certain aesthetic of interior design that plays down and hides the mechanics of infrastructure and service, (if that is what technology does for us – serve us). I guess for a lot of us we want technology to be, and we believe it to be, some sort of magic. So it is most impressive and effective hidden.
Also from the Dezeen interview, you talked about how you wanted to reflect the theme of nature and the artificial in the space. Including having the forest intruding into the house in various places. Did you consider pushing that contrast further? Are the glimpses of nature supposed to represent escape, or freedom, or just the opposite of what’s going on in Nathan’s world? Especially since that huge impassible landscape is part of what’s keeping Caleb and Ava trapped there?
There is a duplicity that runs through the core of this film. We aimed to constantly remind everyone (the audience, Caleb and Ava) that there is a duplicity around us. That is the co-existence of the artificial and the natural, of the man-made and the organic. Ava is a man-made artificial item yet we “see” her, through her intelligence, to be human–like. Organic. Living, almost. We should be constantly confused by that contradiction or juxtaposition, right through the film. We are to be reminded that all is not one thing or the other. She is something organic, encased in synthetic housing, and so too is the garden behind her.
In the design we attempted to continue that idea. A very much modern building of man made or man-treated fabric (concrete, glass, metal) yet in a highly powerful natural location. The imposing backdrop of garden in Ava’ s space and the separating flora filled wall separating Nathan’s study / bedroom, and of course the intruding mountain wall in the living room and Pollock room.
And yes, the natural displays represent a perhaps taunting taste of what the outside world is for Ava. A reminder she is imprisoned and allowed only a certain amount of knowledge and experience of “life.”
You mentioned that the Observation Room is designed so that Caleb is the one who is trapped, and Ava can actually walk around him. What was the purpose of reversing the usual dynamic where the “prisoner” is trapped in a fishbowl and the “examiner” can walk around him or her?
Well, it was part of our design process to question the norm, to asses what we are told about how things are observed or displayed.
It makes most sense that Nathan (and then Caleb) needed to observe Ava, and the like, in her own living space, not in a punitive prison space or interrogation area. So it would make sense that she has as much room to move. The observer (Caleb / Nathan) just needs enough room to see and question. What we did was the most efficient way of doing that, but was a reverse of what normally exists. It also allowed us to play with the notion that she was observing him and that perhaps he was as much part of the experiment as she was too.
Was the lighting in the house a particular challenge? With the recessed LEDs and the need to have the lights turn red at a moment’s notice? Plus of course the disco lights in that one dance scene?
Yes, it was a big challenge and from very early on an important topic of discussion. The lighting had to inform of the level of technology, control, security, claustrophobia. It was very much symbolic of Nathan’s approach and aesthetic, low profile, functional and unnoticeable until it matters.
The extent and scale of lighting in all the rooms and corridors etc. was a challenge of quantity and cost and also controlling the heat temperature and color temperature was important. In order to control intensity and color temperature, some of the recessed light features were actually tungsten bulbs, so we needed to design in air vents and fans to dispel the immense heat generated in some of the more constricted and constantly used areas.
The disco lights took a fair bit of design thought. They needed to be unnoticed until that scene, but they need to have substantial presence once the disco starts. So we need to “hide” them on a large wall that was a featured background. We decided to embed them in sculptural wall artwork, which in itself unlit could not be too distracting behind the actors in other scenes, nor could it give the game away of its future use.
Can you say more about the use of masks in Nathan’s home? He has various types of masks hanging around his house, plus there are all the unused robot faces. What did the theme of masks and artificial faces add to the film for you?
They are masks from antiquity to the present day (and perhaps to the future, if you include Ava). He is a collector, a man of history and the legacy of what has come before. A man who understands and is working on evolution. He is interested in the human form and human face and through his work on Ava and the like he is interested in the messages and power of the face, and what is hidden behind the facade. Hence, we imagined he would collect a variety of works of art and artifacts. The ones in the corridor are some form of historical progression and evolution of the face.
I feel like Ava is often at her sexiest when we’re most aware of her artificiality. Did you try to create a female silhouette that becomes more alluring to the male gaze when its inner workings are visible?
I don’t think we approached it like that at all. We did, however, want to make sure that Caleb and we would see her as robot and human at the same time for a lot of the film. That in essence was the challenge for Caleb and us, to fight our seduction of her human intelligence by being reminded she is ultimately artificial.
When people think about gynoids, the art of Hajime Sorayama immediately comes to mind. Did you think about Sorayama’s artwork while you were designing Ava? Was it something you sought to evoke, or avoid? Or neither?
Neither. We tried to travel a journey not influenced by anything other than the practicalities of the script and our technical vision. We wanted her not to be overtly hard, shiny or animatronicly, mechanically skeletal, but a bit more fluid and synthetically organic.
Her robot skin needed to allow the overlay of a human-like skin and have that softness, hence its grid topography and flexible texture.
One of the things that you’re credited with is coming up with that mesh that allows Ava to look transparent at times, and solid at others. Can you explain more about how you made that work, and why you wanted that to happen?
Well, that actually was very much a collaborative venture, driven mainly by Alex Garland, the director, and the visual effects guys, particularly Andrew Whitehurst. We contributed but the credit is really theirs. I guess we wanted to play with the notion that Caleb will see her as different at different times. He gets confused about her as he becomes seduced by her intelligence. In the same way that at times she appears very human and at others she is clearly artificial.
You mentioned in one interview that you wanted the visible parts inside Ava to look sort of soft and organic, as opposed to “hard” and mechanical. Were there designs you rejected because they looked too heavy on gears or hard surfaces? What was the guiding principle behind making her look artificial but still sort of like a living being?
The guiding principle was to mirror the effect that was having in relation to her artificial intelligence.
What’s the reasoning behind having lights that are visible inside Ava’s body?
That was part of the Visual Effects team remit, but I guess it was a filmic decision to be visually interesting, but also to indicate a working part that was not mechanical, so it’s a way of showing movement.
How much of Ava is CG and how much her is practical skeletons and other props that you guys built? How much of a hand did you have in designing the bodysuit that Alicia Vikander wore on set?
Ava is actress and CG. We did, however, build a physical skeleton, based on their design of her, as a prop that appears in part of a scene, but does not make it to the final cut. The duplication of that skeleton is seen all around the lab, on the shelves and table tops. All to scale and anatomically correct, for our Ava.
The very early and initial ideas of how the body suit might pan out was looked at by those on board at the time; director, production design and Visual Effects. As soon as the correct and relevant departments came on board – costume and prosthetics – they took over and formulated and completed the final designs and fabrication.