'Ex Machina': How to build the perfect robot
In the cerebral sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, Domhnall Gleeson portrays Caleb, a computer coder for a Google-like tech firm enlisted by his Steve Jobs-esque employer (Oscar Isaac) to undertake a make-or-break experiment. Namely, the wonkish Caleb must conduct a Turing test on Ava (Alicia Vikander), a gorgeous robot with a platinum-encased computer brain and an exposed panel of illuminated circuitry in her belly, to ascertain if this extraordinary machine can pass for human. Along the way, emotional boundaries between man and android are erased—is Ava flirting with him?—forcing certain discomfiting realizations about Caleb’s humanity as well as where his allegiances lie.
The directorial debut of Alex Garland, the novelist-screenwriter-producer behind such futuristic dystopian films as 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go, Ex Machina ponders humankind’s uneasy relationship with artificial intelligence in an era when no less a scientific eminence than Stephen Hawking has proclaimed that the development of AI “could spell the end of the human race.”
“There’s no ambiguity about whether she’s a machine or not,” Garland says. The challenge was to make audiences gradually forget about her mechanics and see her humanity. “Even though they’ve got visual evidence that contradicts it, increasingly what they feel they’re seeing is a girl.” That ambition drove the filmmakers to construct a character who was convincing as both. Here’s how they did it.
NOT A FEMBOT
For the duration of the $15 million movie’s six-week shoot, Vikander wore a metallic bodysuit with a webby skin. In postproduction, a visual-effects team digitally rendered a network of animatronic wiring and glowing tubes in the actress’ arms, neck, legs, and torso. “It’s grounded in what really exists,” says production designer Mark Digby (Slumdog Millionaire). “This stuff needed to be just within our grasp. We didn’t want it to be too Austin Powers-like. It’s all about believability.” Vikander notes of her bodysuit: “I looked a bit like Spider-Man without hair. It was not a pretty sight.”
SEE RIGHT THROUGH HER
According to Digby, Garland coined his own nickname—”wetware”—for the high-tech yet tactile machinery on conspicuous display in Ava’s transparent body parts. “We had to tread a very fine line, a fusion of hard materials and soft synthesis,” Digby says. “You don’t see lots of bare metal, sharp lines, or hard mechanics. It’s not circuit boards but organic and electrically driven things.” Adds Garland: “If she had been, say, an exoskeleton warrior-type machine, that would have stood as an obstacle [to] the kind of emotional contact I hope the audience feels.”
Sports cars—specifically, the voluptuous ’70s models of Garland’s youth (think a Jaguar roadster)—provided a key aesthetic influence for Ex Machina‘s robot build-out. Exhibit A: The smooth curvature of Ava’s lower torso was inspired by the type of tubing typically found on an engine manifold. “There were all sorts of subtle design elements that come from beautiful engines and beautiful cars as well as beautiful bits of tech like iPhones,” Garland says. “Even her spine and her organs have an ethereal quality. Her spine is a really beautiful piece of design.”
The filmmakers created an “audio grammar” as an understated sonic accompaniment to Ava’s exposed electronics. “They’re not the sounds of servers and gears,” says Garland. “It’s much harder to place—a semi-organic sound like gyroscopes in liquid that puts you in mind of a heartbeat. But it’s not a heartbeat. It just has the qualities of one.”
Before cameras rolled each day, hair and makeup specialists spent no small amount of time corralling Vikander’s shoulder-length hair into a bald cap. “They had to do it really finely and twirl it throughout all of my head, then push it down really tight and then build my forehead on top of that,” she says. “It took four and a half hours every morning!”