So how did A24's $15 million "Ex Machina" pull off the biggest upset Sunday night by snatching the VFX Oscar from frontrunner "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," let alone "The Revenant" bear, "Mad Max: Fury Road" and "The Martian"?
The answer: "The Danish Girl" Best Supporting Oscar winner Alicia Vikander, who was beguiling as android Ava. The entire effectiveness of Alex Garland's low-budget sci-fi thriller rested with her ability to make us believe that computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) could fall in love with her. In fact, that was the sales pitch by VFX supervisor Andrew Whitehurst that helped get "Ex Machina" nominated at the Academy bakeoff.
Double Negative — which earned its second consecutive Oscar and third in the last six years — designed and animated Ava so efficiently and cost-effectively that it never interfered with the spell that Vikander cast. What we failed to anticipate was the influence that she apparently swayed with the important actor's branch. The VFX was totally wrapped around her performance, and there's certainly precedence for awarding the Oscar to character-driven performances ("Life of Pi," "Avatar," "Benjamin Button," "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," "King Kong," "Spider-Man 2").
DNeg's Whitehurst, Paul Norris and Mark Ardington, alongside Milk VFX’s Sara Bennett, did outstanding CG work, first using Sharpies and paper to design Ava, and then relying on body tracking and parts replacement without ever resorting to green screen to save costs to better control lighting and to keep the actors focused and natural during the live-action shoot.
The result was simple, seamless, and elegant. For example, the first image of Ava was looking at her through glass; her face semi-obscured by reflections. And there's a shift in her expression, in which we witness a human moment of singularity. Later on, when Caleb confides that his parents died in a car crash, she even expresses empathy.
In the end, "Ex Machina" (which was shut out entirely by the VES Awards) offered its own hybrid of old school and new school tech in support of performance and storytelling. (And, compellingly enough, it was financed by DNA and Film4, which are rarely associated with genre films.) It's part of the latest throwback trend. We just figured it would go to J.J. Abrams' return to a galaxy far, far away.