Artificial Intelligence has become a popular topic in movies recently, ranging as far in themes from gun-toting Chappie to the loveable Baymax in “Big Hero 6.”
But “Ex Machina,” opening in limited release Friday, features an AI so realistic that you’ll be thinking about it long after the credits roll.
“Ex Machina” is the directorial debut of Alex Garland (best known for writing “28 Days Later” and “Dredd”) and follows young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who is invited to stay with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive Steve Jobs-like CEO of the company he works for. Once there, Caleb learns that Nathan has created one of the most sophisticated AIs and wants Caleb to test it to see how human it can be.
The AI, named Ava (played by newcomer Alicia Vikander), speaks and acts as any human being, but physically there’s no mistaking that she’s a robot.
This distinction was one Garland was adamant about.
We reached out to Mark Simpson, who previously worked with Garland on “Dredd,” to learn more about the physical evolution of Ava. Simpson, who’s known in the art world as Jock, was responsible for Ava’s concept art — the drawings and designs the production uses as a starting point in the creation of the characters and sets.
Jock shared six of his concept images for “Ex Machina” with Business Insider; taking us through his process for the creation of Ava.
To get Ava right, Garland and Jock spent a lot of time talking about what the movie’s AI should not look like.
“We went through so many variations in the early stages of designing Ava. I started out with a figure much closer to human, with internal lights and a few subtle oddities in the joints, but Alex really pushed for a far more robotic look; and of course his instincts were right. To present something that is entirely mechanical, and then ask how the viewer feels about it, that’s a really interesting question. These variations are somewhere in between those two initial ideas.”
Here we see the evolution of Ava.
“This image was one that got us closer to the final design. The breakthrough with Ava came when Alex came up with the idea of the mesh that would cover her entire body. In certain light, she’d look entirely mechanical, with her midriff and limbs missing — almost a typical ‘robot’ — but the light would catch the mesh as she turned, or in certain light would reveal a beautiful female form. I think it works incredibly well in the film — she looks completely seductive but entirely mechanical. This is obviously underpinned by Alicia’s amazing performance and Double Negative’s entirely convincing VFX.”
Though most of the movie is inside Nathan’s underground compound, Jock didn’t know that when he was creating his concepts. This gave him the freedom to place Ava in any world he wanted.
“Very early concept work is completely free from the constraints of budget, location, and sets — or at least when I work with Alex he encourages that mind set. The practicalities of getting it on film are a problem to overcome later, and he’s always keen for me to be free of any constraints in the conceptual stage. This image was obviously before production found the stunning Norway location where the exteriors were eventually shot, so it shows a different feel to the landscape.”
But sometimes the concept art can inspire the way shots come together when filming takes place.
“This proved a popular image in production, and you can see this shot in varying degrees in the final film. There are smoked glass doors all over Nathan’s mansion, providing glimpses of figures as they enter or leave. The metaphors are fairly obvious here, with Ava appearing slightly unseen and enigmatic.”
Concepts also help express the kind of tone the film should have.
“This is probably my favourite image, but perhaps not the most obvious. For me it sums up, tonally, what the film is about; It’s explicit, but has beauty. It’s very naturalistic, but we also see the inner workings of the robot, giving a mechanical quality to the figure. I like that juxtaposition.”
At the end of the day, the goal of the concept art is to be the first step of a character’s life and their world — sometimes, even, the world they dream of.
“Another thematic idea, rather than a specific shot from the script; ‘What would this robot look like in a natural environment?’ ‘What would it be looking for, once it was outside?’ More often than not the more successful images come from a simple feeling rather than trying to manufacture a look. And this was one of those, produced very quickly.”
Here’s a finished look of Ava as she appears on the poster for “Ex Machina”:
“Ex Machina” is currently in limited release and goes wide theatrically April 24.
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