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‘Ex Machina’ Blends VFX With Human Emotion

Cinematographer Rob Hardy had more visual-effects shots in “Ex Machina” than in any previous film he’d done, but it was important to him and to writer-director Alex Garland that “it didn’t feel like a movie about visual effects.”

In the film, which A24 will release on April 10, young programmer Nathan (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited to the secluded estate of a billionaire (Oscar Isaac) to evaluate the human qual-
ities of an in-development A.I., Ava (Alicia Vikander).

Challenge: “We needed to balance the emotional aspects of the story and the ‘wow factor,’ ” Hardy says. “One of characters is artificial, so we worked closely with (visual effects supervisor) Andrew Whitehurst.”

Key Scenes: At the heart of the film are the sequences between Nathan and Ava in the observation room, Hardy continues. “There were five scenes marking the progression of the rela-
tionship. We needed to make them feel different, but subtly, so the audience senses that something is changing. It should never feel effects-y. The audience should quickly start to see her as a person; we need to believe that Caleb believes what he’s seeing.

Execution: “We tried to convey that (progression) with our lens choices, the numerous reflections that we were playing with, and the soft, naturalistic lighting,” Hardy continues. “They were long, single, 10-minute takes, but the camera moved. I had special lights built so I could emphasize certain reflections, and you could travel through those and create frames within frames.”

Togetherness: “Alex puts a lot of emphasis on collaboration among everyone on the film. It’s such a simple idea, one assumes that’s what always happens,” says Hardy. “But, of course, it doesn’t always. Alex emphasized direct communication across all departments, and, I really mean all.”

Working on the lot: The project had a rapid, six-week schedule, “but we had prep time of about eight weeks, and we shot for four of those weeks at Pinewood (Studios, just outside of London),” Hardy explains. “We had everything in one place, which was great; during the prep time, we used it to its fullest. The art department was on the second floor. We had three stages where sets were being built. Alex, the cast and I would work through certain scenes, then walk down to the set and start plotting out ideas, trying out things choreographically to get used to feeling the space.”

Equipment: The stages were located next to camera house Movietech, which supplied the Sony F65 cameras, the lenses and other gear. Nearby screening rooms  allowed quick viewing of tests, which made communication easy.

Working with a first-time director: “Alex had written a lot of films, and had a lot of on-set experience with some great directors, like Danny Boyle and Mark Romanek,” Hardy says. “He had learned what to do and what not to do, and developed his own style to tell a story. This is a man who understands, on an emotional and intellectual level, what he is doing. I’ve been lucky with first-time directors like Alex, who was not precious about changing ideas. I think he was in his element. The only real pressure we had was time pressure.”

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