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Ex Machina 2014

Deus Ex Machina | God from the Machine

Ex Machina

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About the Ex Machina 💬

  • Production Information & About The Production

Alex Garland's first outing as a director might seem simple on paper. ''It’s about three people pitting their brains against each other,'' he says. ''It's about how they test each other, try to defeat each other mentally, and form allegiances with one another.''

But when one of the protagonists is a robot girl, things get a little more complicated. ''Ex Machina works on two levels,'' says producer Andrew Macdonald. ''At its heart, it works on a genre level - it's a psychological thriller - and then it's able to use these characters to explore very fundamental, human and psychological issues.''

Making his directorial debut with Ex Machina, Garland taps topics that have long fascinated him and plays on our fears and insecurities about technology and the role it plays in our lives. ''People are paranoid about Artificial intelligence (AI) and computers in general,'' he explains. ''It’s on people’s minds, as it should be. I approach it from a slightly different angle because I don’t exactly feel paranoid about it. With Ex Machina, my sympathies lie with the robot.''

Garland is keen to emphasize the collaborative nature of filmmaking and insists that Ex Machina has been made richer by the contributions of his creative team. ''Over the years I've had lots of different kinds of filmmaking experiences, and in my mind, it all led to this film,'' he insists. ''I've put into practice a lot of things I'd learned along the way. Mostly, it was about giving people space to do what they want to do in the best way they can.''

  • Shaping Science & The Evolution of Ex Machina

Alex Garland always conceived Ex Machina with a view to directing the film. He had worked with DNA Films for many years as a screenwriter, and producers Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich knew Garland had the talent and ability to take that next step. ''We said to him, 'Go away and write a script that anyone else would kill to direct, and you can direct it,' remembers Macdonald. ''He came back with Ex Machina.''

''We've worked together for so many years and he's completely ready for it,'' continues Reich. ''He's grasped it with a kind of calmness and sense of collaboration and I think all of the heads of department feel very supported and inspired. He has a vision of what he wants to do and he relishes talented people around him providing him with inspiration and ideas. It's a very precious commodity when making a film that there's a focus and everybody's excited about what feels like a very original piece of work.''

For actor Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Caleb in the film, the collaborative environment Garland creates pushes the entire team to do its best work. ''He has so much respect for, and takes so much interest and inspiration from, the different departments on the film,'' says Gleeson. ''He trusts people will come up with even better stuff when you test them, and that's what has happened here. People are firing on all cylinders.''

Adds Alicia Vikander, who plays Ava: ''The thing about Alex is I've never met a director who's as calm and who has as much time for everyone. He invited us all out for two weeks of rehearsal to talk everything through, and he wanted to know that we were feeling safe, and on the right page.''

What happens if we invent a machine that can think like we do, but one that never gets sick, and remains at the top of its game forever? ''It seems to me that quite quickly some kind of swap will start to happen,'' says Garland. ''At some point we become redundant, and you have to ask yourself whether that’s a good or a bad thing.''

Science fiction has explored these ideas in the past, with an emphasis on how humanity might be destroyed by the logical malevolence of a machine race. But Garland insists Ex Machina takes a different tack. ''I find myself weirdly sympathetic to the machines,'' he explains. ''I think they've got a better shot at the future than we do.''

For Oscar Isaac, who plays Nathan, the film is an allegory for human existence. ''It really delves into what it means to be a human, and what it means to think and have consciousness. How can you ever tell what the person in front of you is actually thinking, or if they think the same way you do?''

The setup is fairly simple. Gleeson plays a brilliant coder invited to his boss's country retreat, ostensibly just to meet Isaac’s Nathan, a billionaire genius and lately a recluse. When he gets there, he finds that he’s been called to interact with a new form of artificial intelligence, housed inside the body of a robot girl, Ava.

''Caleb's there to do a Turing Test,'' explains Gleeson. ''It's where a human interacts with a computer and if the human doesn't know that it's a computer they're interacting with - so they mistake it for another human being - then the test is passed.

''Caleb has no idea what he's walking into here, and then out of one of the rooms comes this kind of humanoid figure with a girl's face, but made of the most stunning mechanics he's ever seen.''

The Turing Test is deceptively simple and usually enacted in such a way that the person doing the testing doesn't know whether or not a computer is delivering responses. Many competitions are held annually to try and pass the Turing Test, but despite big headlines that occasionally announce passes, few stand up to much scrutiny.

''The Turing Test was set decades ago in the birth of computing,'' explains Garland, ''when Alan Turing understood that at some point the machines they were working on could become thinking machines, as opposed to just calculating machines. He saw that it would be difficult to know whether something was really thinking or just pretending to be thinking.''

It's that distinction that causes most failures and stirs the controversy that follows 'passes' of the test. Recent news stories suggested a chatbot named Eugene Goostman had passed the Turing Test by fooling a significant threshold of judges at a competition held at the University of Reading. But critics were quick to note that the bot, which took the form of a 13-year-old boy from an Eastern European country with only the most rudimentary understanding of the English language, relied on misdirection to fool the judges into assuming that the language barrier, and the subject's age, were what caused its machine misunderstandings.

But Ava, in Ex Machina, is different. Nathan's confidence in his robot's abilities is such that he leads Caleb in to meet Ava without trying to conceal the fact that she's a robot. If Caleb could be taken in by what is obviously a machine - with metallic body parts, servos and engines - could Ava represent the pinnacle of artificial intelligence? Could she really be thinking, as opposed to simply calculating?

''The question is whether or not she has a consciousness,'' says Gleeson. ''And I think we pretty quickly realize that she does.''

The implications of what that means, the mad brilliance of the man who built her, and the isolated environment in which the test takes place, combine to turn Ex Machina into a thriller like no other.

  • Ava from the Machine & Building an AI

For Alex Garland, science fiction is at its best when heavily rooted in science. The concept of building an artificial intelligence has intrigued and challenged scientists and technicians since the birth of the computer age, and it seemed an ideal topic for Garland to explore in his directorial debut. ''We clearly live in a world where computers are central to our existence and we also live in a world where advances in computers have incredibly accelerated in pace,'' he says. ''There has to be an interesting question about where it ends and what it means for us. At some point, machines will think in the way we think and there are a lot of implications to that. At some point, don’t we become redundant?''

It's an idea that is as prescient as ever. ''If some inventor came along,'' says Macdonald, ''and held a press conference to say, 'We've invented a robot girl and here she is,' I don't think anyone would be all that surprised.''

With Ex Machina, through Ava, Garland suggests a world in which man's creation of an artificially intelligent robot lays the foundation not necessarily for our destruction, but for our evolution into another state of being. Ava isn't simply a robot bent on human destruction, but rather something that we might see as enticingly human.

''Because I approach this on the side of the machines, broadly speaking'' he explains, ''I needed to house Ava - the idea of this machine consciousness - in something that people could fall in love with. The protagonist needs to fall in love with her for the story to function.''

''The impression of Ava is that she’s a real girl,'' continues Oscar Isaac. ''And although she's made up of metal and silicone and gel, she still exhibits all the traits of a human being and therefore should be treated as such.''

For Vikander, the balance comes in melding the human with the otherworldly. ''I could tap all the emotion and human aspects that I know myself,'' she says, ''and add things to it which made her a little off and a bit strange. She's unknowing, too; she's doe-eyed sometimes because she's new to this world.''

Her creation raised all manner of questions for the cast and crew. Says Gleeson: ''What is consciousness? How are you responsible for something if you create it? In a way, Ava is a really pretty version of Frankenstein's monster, but today we're closer than ever and going further and further into what is possible, combining mechanics and humanity.''

The film makes no attempt to conceal the fact that Ava is a robot. When we first meet her, at the same time as Caleb, her artificial composition is laid bare. ''The design itself is extraordinary; you can actually see through her to her workings,'' explains Isaac. ''You can see that she's a robot. But Alicia plays her with such warmth and gravity. She pulls you in so that you forget you're looking at a machine even though you can see it right in front of you.''

Conceiving the design for Ava was one of the biggest challenges of the pre-production process. Like much else in the conception of Ex Machina it was led by a desire not to repeat what had been done in the past. ''Her design was driven by Alex initially, and what he had in his mind as his concept for her,'' says production designer Mark Digby. ''In the early days we very collaboratively discussed this and I think he wanted something that was very different to anything else.''

''The design process started with a guy named Jock, who I'd worked with on Dredd,'' says Garland. ''We got on very well and so we sat down when I was planning the film and spent a few weeks trying to figure out what Ava looked like.''

Immediately it became clear that, in the vast pantheon of science fiction depictions of robots over the years, there weren't too many stones left unturned. ''Jock did one drawing of her where her parts were made of a gold-ish metal, and she basically looked like C-3PO,'' laughs Garland. ''A music video director called Chris Cunningham did a Bjork video that was very influential. Then there's a robot girl in Metropolis whose image has become iconic. It's very easy, it turns out, to make a robot girl look like the robot girl in Metropolis. We had to come up with something that didn't feel like it was just referencing robots in the past.''

The breakthrough, he remembers, was cladding her form in a mesh. ''If you imagined it as a spider web, in certain lighting conditions you can see straight through it to the skeleton structure, but in others, it caught the light, and so suddenly you'll see a torso appear, or the shape of a neck or an arm.''

''We didn't want her to be over-electronic or over-mechanical,'' notes Digby. ''There's an overlap between the organic and the computer-driven. It was less about robotics and more about this evolved machine.''

Vikander is impressed with the design the team came up with. ''It's a piece of art they've created. She's not only a machine, but she's also exquisite and beautiful and I think it'll look amazing on screen.''

Though the visual effects artists at Double Negative will have created much of what we'll see of Ava in the final film, realizing the robot girl began on set, with a costume designed by Sammy Sheldon Differ.

''We approached Sammy because she had experience making superhero costumes, and we knew we needed a costume that would be practical at times,'' Garland explains. ''The costume needed to have some overt design elements, but also maintain Alicia's silhouette without bulking her out at all. It was a surprisingly complicated job.''

Notes Vikander: ''I tried to visualize her when I read the script, and I remember when I first met Alex he showed me a few drawings he had made at a very early stage. I did my first camera test and I don't know how many weeks it took just to make this extremely tight-fitting body suit that I wear. The prosthetics take about four or five hours to apply each morning, and then the VFX guys took one of the frames we shot in the test and showed people what it was going to look like in the end. I've been carrying that photo with me every day, because I look like a fake Spider-Man, just running around in my silver suit.''

Augmenting the footage shot on set is the team at Double Negative, led by visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst. ''Andrew really took on the task of creating her, and continued the design process with us,'' says Garland. ''He took it to the next level, which was to make her a three-dimensional construct. She was refined and the machinery took on subtle organic constructs and shapes.''

Whitehurst is quick to insist that as much as possible of Vikander's on-set performance has been translated into the CGI model. His team spent countless hours matching their animation to her movements. It was a painstaking process, though it began with a carefully constructed model that paid close mind to the plausibility of Ava's construction.

''We were always looking at the images we were producing,'' notes Whitehurst, ''and thinking about how well does this work? Why does this work? What effect does it have on the audience? Do you believe this is a machine that someone could fall in love with? They're difficult questions to grapple with.''

''On top of that you have practical questions; how do we design something that works plausibly as a machine in that all the muscles and joints are connected in the right place and you believe that she would work? I think the film would fail, visually, if you had a character that didn't seem technologically plausible as well as emotionally plausible. That was a pretty narrow tightrope to walk, but a fascinating process to go through.''

Just as Garland had intentionally avoided designs inspired by robots that had come before, so Whitehurst charged his team to deliver something fresh. ''The only rule I put on the crew was that they weren't allowed to look at pictures of robots,'' he remembers. ''We had a whole load of reference imagery of sculptures by Brancusi, and a lot of modernist Bauhaus sculptures as well. On top of that we looked at things like Formula One suspension, high-end concept bicycles, hundreds and hundreds of images of those sorts of things where you can start to feel an aesthetic growing out and you can build that into a robot.''

It was contrasted with work the team put into researching human anatomy, to ensure that Ava moved just as we do. ''You get a very interesting synthesis of what feels like an evolved form, and what feels like an engineered and manufactured form,'' Whitehurst says.

Ex Machina shot for six weeks, but the post-production process on the film lasted six months, as the visual effects team worked to build Ava. ''For a British film, that's very unusual,'' says Macdonald. ''But it shows how important it is for us to get Ava right.''

Completing the effect is the film's sound design, which is similarly unprecedented. ''Glen Freemantle has designed the sound on all the films I've been involved in over the last 10, 15 years,'' says Macdonald. ''He was absolutely crucial in answering that question: What does a robot sound like?''

''Ava has a whole kind of language that has been invented,'' notes Garland of the work done by Freemantle. ''His team didn't record servos, which is what you'd normally hear with a machine moving about. They did things like spin gyroscopes in oil and the like, to get all sorts of odd noises. When you overlay the robot noises, she takes another massive step towards being a machine, away from being a human. That's very important.''

For Garland, getting the sound design right meant nailing the tone of the piece. ''At times this film functions like a horror movie,'' he says. ''It's sci-fi, but it has horror elements, and sound design is very important in horror. One of the jobs that was necessary in the sound design is that you have these very long conversations in the film that take place in stark, silent environments, and it's how to bring sound design very gently to that.''

Ex Machine Movie Details 🎥

Directed by

Alex Garland

Writing Credits

Alex Garland


Dohmnall Gleeson

Alicia Vikander

Oscar Isaac

Sonoya Mizuno

Corey Johnson

Music by

Geoff Barrow

Ben Salisbury

Cinematography by

Rob Hardy

Categories: Oscars, Oscar Academy Award Winner, Golden Globes, Golden Globe Winner, EEBAFTAs, BAFTA Award Nominee, EFA, European Film Award Nominee, WSA, World Soundtrack Award Nominee

Genres: Drama, Mystery, Romance, Sci-Fi (Science Fiction), Thriller

Country: United Kingdom

Ex Machina Official Trailer

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