Ex_Machina hit UK cinemas in January and was a visual and psychological delight. In his first stint as a director Alex Garland, the writer behind many Danny Boyle movies, manned to craft a taunt and claustrophobic tale about the perils of artificial intelligence and playing God.
Domhnall Gleeson played Caleb, a computer coder, who found himself the winner of a work lottery. His prize was to spend a week in seclusion with company head and eccentric billionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The purpose of Caleb’s work is to determine whether Nathan’s latest creation Ava, a humanoid robot (Alicia Vikander) can pass an unorthodox Turing Test which will determine whether ‘she’ is truly sentient.
To coincide with the home entertainment release on Monday 1st June, THN was invited to attend an exclusive event at Universal studios’ UK headquarters. The event included a close-up look at some of the costumes and props from the film, a chat with key crew members and advisors, as well as an exclusive play on a specially designed virtual reality experience.
The VR experience was created by special effects wonder studio Double Negative, who did the VFX for Ex_Machina. We were strapped into the headset and headphones; as the video started playing the real world slipped away. Suddenly I was Caleb sat in the film’s Turing Test room awaiting Ava for the first time. After fully looking around my virtual environment, she entered. Slowly creeping in from the distance, Ava made her way into the viewing room, coming right up to the glass, before slopping off from whence she came.
Then it was onto a show-and-tell presentation of Ava’s costume by designer Sammy Sheldon-Differ who spoke at great length about the logistics of the costume:
The brief basically was how do we make it look like she’s just got mesh stuck on her? When she moves it moves with her body. That was really difficult because obviously when you put fabric on your body it does wrinkle. We came up with this shape which is in three sections down the body and then the arms. The biggest challenge was to get rid of the seams on the shoulder.
Double Negative are one of the best special effects house’s in the world, working on big name films such as Godzilla and The Avengers. Given all the massive effects and CGI that they produce for these projects they revealed that it is the little things that they enjoy doing most.
The shot the team are proudest of in Ex_Machina is not anything to do with Ava’s suit, but rather a splash of blood. People who have already seen the film will know that there is a sequence involving the claret liquid, but did you know that it wasn’t corn syrup or any other practical effect? It was created entirely by Double Negative. It’s the shots that you would never think were computer made, but are, that excite Double Negative the most.
That’s the thing I love from visual effects, obviously you look at Ava and know that’s effects, but the thing that gets me excited is the blood. It doesn’t excite anyone else probably, but it’s the hidden things that nobody would ever watch in that movie and go ‘oh look at that CG blood’.
That’s not to say they aren’t pleased with the work they did on Ava. Usually for a character like her the crew would film using a green screen and mo-cap suit, Alex Garland however thought that this way of filming would diminish the actor’s performances. Instead Double Negative had the painstaking task of imposing Ava’s circuitry onto her costume during post production. Each costume was designed to include black strips of material which acted as a reference for the different sections of Ava. No greens or blue were used at all, just these cleverly incorporated designs. The Double Negative team then added on the effects, tracking Vikander’s every movement:
I think some of the design features were to help us out. The metal studs are a nice looking design but they also allow us to track the joints. We had to get an exact match on the joint to replace the arm.
The sound editing in Ex_Machina is phenomenal. The location is predominantly underground, secluded and silent, but into this ‘silence’ Glenn Fremantle has woven a vast amount of auditory texture. Ava herself is a prime example. She is of course a machine, machine’s have circuits and electrical power; Fremantle worked exceptionally hard at creating her sound. What is even more clever about Ava’s sound however, is that it changes as the film progresses. Give it another watch if you don’t believe us. Fremantle had this to say on the topic:
She gradually, through the film, her sounds disappear a little bit. As the relationship grows, she gets dressed and you see less and less, the sound goes. It’s drawing you into that human part of her. You’re not supposed to notice it, but if you watch it again you’ll hear it. When it goes red for example she changes sound again, she becomes brighter within her sound, more alert. It’s more threatening to go with the colour red, when it’s blue it’s more relaxing.
The question that everyone is asking after watching Ex_Machina is of course, could this happen? Thankfully Alex Garland‘s artificial intelligence advisor Dr Adam Rutherford was on hand to put our minds at ease. He explained that we are decades away from anything as advanced as Ava, want to know why? Then read below:
In robotics terms we just can’t build or engineer things that behave in the same way as human beings do. I spoke to a robotics engineer last year who builds humanoid robotics for rescuing people from disaster zones and he said ‘we can make a bipedal robot drive a car really well, but we can’t can’t get them into the car’. Just the simple movement of twisting our hips that we do after billions of years of evolution is something that engineering is incapable of doing. The other thing is batteries. We just can’t make batteries small enough and powerful enough.
That’s just the robotics. In terms of AI, well there’s two things. One, people aren’t working on creating human level AI, AI researchers tend to focus on task specific jobs; so can you get an AI to do a certain task, like help us design better scientific experiments, or play video games, or deep learning in different levels that humans do very naturally.
The other thing is we don’t actually understand how the human brain works very well. That’s a big barrier. We don’t really have a good grasp as to what consciousness is.
In the movies it’s always a ‘mad’ scientist who creates mankind’s downfall, in reality though Rutherford stated it would be a large group of people. Simply because of the amount of, and different types of work, but that of course wouldn’t make for quite as compelling a narrative. Rutherford, unlike the sci-fi audiences who have seen humanity enslaved by machines in countless films, welcomes the advent of Ava.
They’re going to be different from us. They’re not going to be human, but they’re going to be better than us in many respects. That line where Caleb and Nathan are sitting out, drinking vodka outside and Nathan says ‘One day they’re gonna look back at us like we look at fossils. Neanderthal’s doomed to extinction on the plains of Africa.’ There is an inevitability about that. All species go extinct and we are not exempt from that. If we spawn a different type of entity that is capable of surviving in any sense after us, then so be it. It’s the natural order of things.
We don’t know about you, but all the talking about the film has made us want to watch Ex_Machina all over again, especially to listen to those changes in Ava.
Ex_Machina is available digitally now and out to own on Blu Ray and DVD from Monday 1st June.