“Hard Shiny Surfaces Are For The Bad Guys” Says Ex Machina Set Designer

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Interview: Alex Garland’s science-fiction film Ex Machina features just one place: a tech billionaire’s minimalist hideaway in Alaska. Set designer Mark Digby informed Dezeen how architecture was utilised to produce the thriller’s clinical mood and provide a “seducing” backdrop (+ slideshow + transcript).

“It truly is a really particular movie,” said Digby. “There are only three or four people in it and it’s all set in 1 residence. There is really small area to escape to somewhere else. So the house had to be important.”

In the film, directed by British author Alex Garland and released final month, coder Caleb Smith wins a firm-wide competition to spend a week at the wilderness retreat of Nathan Bateman, his reclusive billionaire boss.

Trailer for Ex Machina


Following arriving by helicopter at the home, Caleb learns that Nathan wants him to spend time with Ava, a robot he has built, to ascertain regardless of whether she shows real artificial intelligence. From then on, all the action requires place within the confines of the property.

The area for this claustrophobic experience between males and machines “had to be welcoming and seducing but at the very same time it also had to make us wary and somewhat on edge,” explained the British designer.

Ex Machina film set Film nevertheless of Juvet Landscape Hotel by Jensen &amp Skodvin Architects

A lengthy spot search led to the Juvet Landscape Hotel in north-west Norway. Made by Jensen &amp Skodvin Architects, the hotel features timber-clad cabins set amid trees in a glacial valley.

The Residence, a cliff-top house by the exact same architects, was utilized as a secondary place although an underground suite of austere concrete rooms that host a lot of of the scenes was constructed at Pinewood Studios in England.

Ex Machina film set Juvet Landscape Hotel by Jensen &amp Skodvin Architects

“It really is set in about five rooms and they are all created of concrete,” explained Digby. “It was really a challenge to get concrete and make it gorgeous and seducing and hopefully we did that.”


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“Tough shiny surfaces are for the undesirable guys,” he added, referring to Hollywood’s tendency to residence villains in Modernist structures. “We desired to hold away from that, but we needed to still use it. So that was really a challenge really.”

Ex Machina film set Juvet Landscape Hotel by Jensen &amp Skodvin Architects

Tastefully furnished in a vaguely Scandinavian-retro manner, the Ex Machina interiors deliberately eschew sci-fi genre cliche, Digby stated. “That goes back to our want as designers not to feed into the literature of movies and well-liked culture, which says that for the future it has to be shiny and vivid and in your face.”

The low-tech vibe of the interiors contrasts with “female” robot Ava, whose partially transparent torso, limbs and skull reveal flashing circuitry.

Ex Machina film set Movie still of Ava the robot in the corridor designed at Pinewood Studios

“There’s a duplicity that runs via the total movie,” explained Digby. “All the way via we wished the two Caleb and the audience to be baffled and reminded perhaps that she is a robot, but she has human attributes. She had to look a bit weird, and continuously not human.”

Ex Machina stars Alicia Vikander as Ava, Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb and Oscar Isaac as Nathan.

Ex Machina film set The corridor developed at Pinewood Studios during filming

Under is an edited transcript of the interview with Digby. Spoiler alert! The interview reveals crucial plot specifics.


Marcus Fairs: Tell us who you are and what you do.

Mark Digby: I am a production designer. I take care of everything 3-dimensional on a movie everything that we see in the film. So I take care of bodily sets, whether or not they’re created or located by a area manager or a location staff, but also little props, furniture, pens, pencils, furniture, dogs, automobiles, guns, aeroplanes, grass, trees or greenery… everything you may possibly touch in a three-dimensional sense, apart from costume and the actors, is under my quick.

Marcus Fairs: So you weren’t involved in developing the robot in Ex Machina?

Mark Digby: I was to some degree. The bulk of the robot ended up being a CGI short but I acquired concerned in some of the preliminary tips for her skin and outer physical appearance, the inner workings. This was taken on by the costume division and the prosthetic department to construct her geometric-patterned skin.

And then we talked collaboratively about the inner workings of the robot, and the CGI guys then took on the style of that, and then handed some of that back to us since we made physical skeletons, then gave them back for them to scan and even more use in their last layout. So it was really collaborative the way it worked.

Ex Machina film set Juvet Landscape Hotel by Jensen &amp Skodvin Architects

Marcus Fairs: How did you get to be a set designer? Did you research style or did you fall in to it from somewhere else?

Mark Digby: I guess I fell into it. I did engineering at university but I didn’t finish it. I joined a theatre and I got heavily involved in that and then moved on to film and tv. I developed my career from the bottom genuinely. I just took the opportunities that came my way.

Marcus Fairs: What other films have you worked on?

Mark Digby: We did the forthcoming Dredd 3D and the Kazuo Ishiguro guide By no means Let Me Go. I also did Slumdog Millionaire and Rush, the Formula 1 film with Ron Howard. I just completed a movie called Genius which is about Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and literary agent Max Perkins.

Prior to that, I worked on 28 Days Later on [with Alex Garland], Hundreds of thousands, and a honest handful of of Danny Boyle’s films. In my quite early days I worked on children’s Television, and 1-off dramas for Channel 4 or BBC.

Ex Machina film set Juvet Landscape Hotel by Jensen &amp Skodvin Architects

Marcus Fairs: Inform me about the background of this film. How did you get concerned with it and what’s it all about?

Mark Digby: I acquired involved by means of my extended-term collaboration with Alex Garland. I have recognized Alex because [2002 film] 28 Days Later, and then By no means Let Me Go and then Dredd. He came to me and my team and asked us to go along this journey with him based mostly on this wonderful script.

I have received to admit, it truly is often the first issue you search at and it was a script that I actually, actually loved. And early on we realised that the set and the spot and the architecture was a really essential thing.

It really is a really distinct movie. There are only three or four people in it and it truly is all set in a single house. There’s quite tiny room to escape to someplace else. So the home had to be critical. It had to the two reflect the unusual character of Nathan, a multibillionaire who has a secret hideaway the place he’s creating technological innovation of the future. It had to reflect his wealth, but also his technical ability and his intellectual status.

Marcus Fairs: And his weirdness in a way…

Mark Digby: Absolutely, it had to be welcoming and seducing but at the exact same time it also had to make us wary and somewhat on edge. It had to be secure but not too safe, it had to display his wealth with out being too ostentatious due to the fact that was his character, and it also had to be exciting. It really is set in about five rooms and they are all built of concrete. It was really a challenge to consider concrete and make it lovely and seducing and hopefully we did that.

Ex Machina film set Juvet Landscape Hotel by Jensen &amp Skodvin Architects

Marcus Fairs: That type of difficult, contemporary architecture does have a tendency to get connected with the negative guys. You know, all the Bond villain lairs.

Mark Digby: Definitely. I consider we like to consider that one of our design strengths is that we shy away from the language we’re offered by other movies, by contemporary culture. As you say, these hard shiny surfaces are for the negative guys. We needed to hold away from that, but we wished to nonetheless use it. So that was very a challenge genuinely.

Marcus Fairs: And this demand for there to be just one remote area, was that already in the script or did you assist create that concept?

Mark Digby: No, that was in the script. I would not say it needed to be specifically remote, but it required to be safe. And component of that protection comes with getting remote. At first we imagined a multibillionaire would almost certainly have a palatial, hugely modernistic, big-scale creating, and most likely in someplace significantly less inhospitable. But we couldn’t actually uncover anywhere that fitted the bill, practically for shooting or even thematically.

So our journey, by chance, took us in excess of glacial and alpine territory and we all of a sudden realised, effectively, why do not we make the landscape itself the protection and the remoteness, and as a result our home, our residing room can be smaller. The point that displays his wealth and his energy is that he can have a house in this kind of a location, due to the fact most people cannot.

But it also served all the other functions. Originally in our short we believed we would create a walled and gated residence, but we never require that if you place it in a area that is quite difficult to get to. That was the exciting turn on that.

Ex Machina film set Juvet Landscape Hotel by Jensen &amp Skodvin Architects

Marcus Fairs: Is it normal in a movie like this to go and find an present developing that fits the bill, rather than constructing 1 yourselves?

Mark Digby: Properly there are no fantastic rules in filmmaking. I think it really is what ideal fits our plan for the film – and a great deal of that is down to economics and ideology. It’s extremely difficult to create actuality, and surely I feel that it is really tough to construct the idiosyncrasies of actuality. When you happen to be creating from scratch and building a set, you’ve received to function hard not to create completely normal shapes and straightforward entry and simple patination simply because life isn’t like that. And economically it is very difficult for us to construct anything of that stature.

1 of the factors with sets is it can finish up currently being a theatre space unless of course you happen to be capable to appear out of the window. And if you are in one particular room often, and you are hunting out of that very same window and it truly is not a actuality – no matter how considerably CGI you have, no matter how a lot scene painting you have – you can get caught out.

So it manufactured far more sense on this occasion to do part build, part area. And I feel that is the ideal balance. You get the greatest of the two worlds.

Ex Machina film set Film even now of the Residence by Jensen &amp Skodvin Architects

Marcus Fairs: Tell us about the location you found.

Mark Digby: It really is in Norway. We were quite fortunate actually. We found a hotel complicated, which has these tiny cabins. When you initial technique the movie you see what seems like a little wooden cabin and then it expands into a larger house and a subterranean globe as nicely. And they have breathless views, which you see in some of the rooms. In the dining space for instance, looking out onto a beautiful valley with a meandering but fierce glacial river. We liked that, but the area was also brief to do the whole film in. We believed we may well have to build, but the guy who owned it stated effectively, there’s a residence becoming built by the very same architect not half an hour away.

We went to have a appear at that, it had specifically the same architectural functions and the very same texture of the concrete, exact same height, exact same structures, except it was developed into the mountainside. We had a duality of nature and the man-created construction there, which was something else we quite liked simply because it mirrored our Ava, our robot, becoming a mix of humanity and nature with guy-manufactured science. We took that theme and put it in some of the other rooms, which have been constructed sets.

Ex Machina film set The Residence by Jensen &amp Skodvin Architects in the course of filming

Marcus Fairs: So the suite of underground rooms linked by a glass corridor was created for the movie?

Mark Digby: We built the rest at Pinewood Studios. That corridor was a construct in a studio, and in the identical studio room appropriate following to it we had Nathan’s bedroom with all the cupboards. And appropriate next to it was his workplace area with all the Submit-It notes on the wall. And then a bit additional down, nevertheless connected, we had his bedroom, which has no windows, which was part of the theme for that.

And then in another studio we built the development lab, which is exactly where you see naturally all the skulls and the bits to make Ava.

Marcus Fairs: So what was your starting stage for the architecture utilized in the film? Did it come out of the place in Norway or did you get out a big architecture guide for inspiration?

Mark Digby: Nicely it is a blend of factors. Our original layout encompasses any concepts that hit our head when we search at it, so it is truly a gallery of sculptural pieces. Due to the fact we thought we have been going to be filming in big mansions, we actually commenced off searching at large airport spaces, big concrete buildings, big museums. We looked at a amazing book on Ando’s perform.

Ex Machina film set The Residence by Jensen &amp Skodvin Architects for the duration of filming

Marcus Fairs: I was going to mention Ando actually…

Mark Digby: Yeah there was certainly a nod to that, specifically in the early days simply because some of the buildings we looked at really had been art galleries and scientific research laboratories. So I guess we were influenced by these massive municipal buildings, and then you fine-tune it down with tons of minor ideas that you find along the way. But it’s a cornucopia of things really. I think that is essential.

Marcus Fairs: From the outside the property is quite Scandinavian: boxy with weathered timber. Within it’s architecturally very harsh, but then the fixtures and fittings are really fairly soft and humanising.

Mark Digby: We put it collectively like that simply because we’re in a stark setting outdoors, we’ve created a concrete framework inside, but someone’s residing there. And you want to balance that out with the softness of human existence. It was extremely considerably driven by Nathan’s character. He’s a guy alone residing there he focuses on his function. But certainly he is been allowed daily life experiences and life options and he is clearly an intelligent man. He surely is able to afford art and is educated about art. Don’t forget this is the man who controls almost everything on the web. So he can uncover out everything about anything at all.

Marcus Fairs: So did you have a search in mind for the interior furnishings? Is it mid-century Present day, is it Scandinavian?

Mark Digby: Effectively I believe it ended up being mid-century classic with a Scandinavian tilt. I feel for both the purity and the simpleness, but also the effectiveness of Scandinavian style. And it was driven by the fact that we had been in a Scandinavian country. You’re all the more reminded of it although the film is supposed to be set in Alaska. But I believe much of the design and style is in empathy with that type of landscape, hence it fits really well.

Ex Machina film set Movie even now of the corridor developed at Pinewood Studios

Marcus Fairs: But for an individual who is a powerful figure in technological innovation, the technology is extremely hidden in the property. It is not in your face, there is no banking institutions of blinking LEDs.

Mark Digby: No and that goes back to our want as designers not to feed into the literature of movies and well-known culture, which says that for the future it has to be shiny and bright and in your face, and also if you have wealth you have to be hugely ostentatious with it. I think there is an substitute reality of people who are so focused on other aspects of their life and so rich that they never need to have bling.

And there’s also a matter of design and style performance that says if you do not want some thing it does not have to be there. So if the lights have no perform or it doesn’t want to be shiny, never make it. Yet again it’s for us a response to a great deal of common culture that says if one thing has to be weird or in the potential, it has to have LED lights, which are the engineering of now, and it has to be in your encounter.

And it doesn’t. Most of the engineering in our personal existence even in beautifully made homes is hidden the light switches, the panels, issues are hidden away. We have cupboards for stuff and we have lighting that is recessed and not in your face. So we worked really difficult to comply with that through. I guess that is just a single of our mantras really.

Ex Machina film set The building lab created at Pinewood Studios for the duration of filming

Marcus Fairs: But on the other hand, the robot has LED lights flashing within her. Did you feel like you had to make it very obvious that she was not human?

Mark Digby: Yes, totally. There’s a duplicity that runs via the complete movie. All the way through we wished each Caleb and the audience to be baffled and reminded maybe that she is a robot, nevertheless she has human attributes. I consider we played with that right the way along the movie. So we required to be seduced by her artificial intelligence and her humanity, but the next 2nd be reminded: ‘Oh, hang on a minute, this is the purpose of it, this is the goal of what Nathan was striving to do’.

Marcus Fairs: Ava had to search a bit weird then?

Mark Digby: She had to seem a bit weird, and continuously not human. You know, we could’ve carried out the complete human skin, but it would’ve worked against what we have been striving to do, and against what Nathan was attempting to do. It truly is often an arbitrary choice about design and style and attractiveness. We also desired it to truly feel significantly less mechanical and hydraulic, and have some residing and beating essence in it, and a single way of showing that is with light. To be able to show light inside of her, she then required to have an component of transparency and an element of solidity as nicely.

Marcus Fairs: You stated you had been concerned in the design of the robot. What was the process?

Mark Digby: The CGI guys really much made what was going to be in her internal organs and how they may well search, and they drew that on personal computers. But then we were capable to take people technical drawings and 3D-print from them. So we constructed it into a skeleton, and some of those pipes and fluids have been the organs, so we had her skeletal framework 3D printed. And also built a life-dimension skeleton, which we used in a scene that was minimize, but that is what filmmaking is all about.

Ex Machina film set Film still of the observation room created at Pinewood Studios

Marcus Fairs: What is your favourite second of the movie in terms of your set layout?

Mark Digby: There is really a few. I truly like Nathan’s bedroom and those curved cupboards and that curved room. And we really loved separating that with a glass forest, that was truly pretty.

Her space was quite intriguing as well. We were teasing her to remind the audience that there is nature, there is a light outdoors, we had a tree and a minor backyard at the back and that was constantly supposed to be a bit of a thorn in his side, in her side. We flipped close to the theology about how we see people so if you appear again at the film, he is in a box trapped hunting out at her, who can view him by walking around, well 270 degrees. Now usually, our 1st consider is to place the observed in the box, in the fish bowl, and have the observer go around the outdoors, and I think I loved the spatial arrangement of that and the theme and depth into her living space and her garden behind. So I guess the observation room is my favourite.

Marcus Fairs: Do you start to get connected to the characters?

Mark Digby: Yeah you do, you do get extremely much attached. I feel you have to get connected to the characters, you have to get deep into them. And ideally we need to have to have the very same feelings that the audience are going to have, in purchase to understand what to do.

Ex Machina film set Movie still of the observation room created at Pinewood Studios

Marcus Fairs: Throughout, you are kind of, who’s the hero and who’s the villain is usually going via your mind – whose side are you on if it truly is not going to be a really like story at the end?

Mark Digby: What I liked was that despite the fact that you can guess the greatest scene, even now I’m not confident who are the goodies and who are the baddies, and I like that complexity.

At some stage, you have an amount of empathy for Caleb. He’s a guy and he is falling in adore with a woman, inverted commas, and she betrays him, but he sort of betrays her as well. When it actually comes to it and she asks him what will occur, will you protect me, what happens at the finish of this when you go away, he covered his bases and he didn’t genuinely say: ‘Well that is it, you may be gone, I’m not going to help you’. So in a sense she had a motive and each and every appropriate to depart him behind. And possibly it is about survival of the fittest, and in that case, what would a human do?

So I am in two minds about her in fact. She was ruthless, but so had been the other two characters. Nathan’s fairly ruthless to her and Caleb was puzzled. But in the end, he was going to go property and depart her there. And he knew she was not the ultimate model. And which is why I loved the script. It was very considerably about some of these massive inquiries. Existence, existence, loyalty, enjoy, a lot of issues.

Dezeen

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