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How They Did It: Meet the Seductive, Sentient Ava from ‘Ex Machina’ (Video)

How They Did It: Meet the Seductive, Sentient Ava from 'Ex Machina' (Video)

Artificial intelligence has certainly become a hot genre, as dystopia was, yet Alex Garland (“Sunshine, “28 Days Later”) has no idea why besides our own paranoia with privacy. However, he’s made one of the smartest and most compelling sci-fi movies in years with his debut “Ex Machina,” a cleverly Pinteresque power-play between Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson with the beguiling Alicia Vikander as the sentient object of their desire, Ava.

And the introductory “Meet Ava” scene (watch below) has all the right visual and thematic cues to seduce us with color, light and space — exquisitely shot by British cinematographer Rob Hardy.

“There’s so much going on in that moment and it’s beautiful in silhouette as she walks on,” Garland said.  “And there are so many layers that you would never expect anyone to react to except on an unconscious level. There’s the presentation in the deep background of a little garden area, which is always behind glass, which is there to show her that there is an environment outside the glass box in which she’s trapped. And so the first time you see her, at the far end of all those panes of glass, there is that thing which becomes the object of her desire.”

READ MORE: Alicia Vikander on Playing a Robot in “Ex Machina”

In fact, when Ava’s asked by Caleb (Gleeson) to make a drawing to represent something important to her, she chooses that garden. 
“For me, this is an escape movie,” Garland added. “It’s proper filmmaking. Elysia is a ballerina and she walks with a preternatural precision. And Ava is a sentient creature and she’s an innocent, despite her [dubious] actions, from my point of view.”

For Hardy (“The Invisible Woman,” “The Forgiveness of Blood”), this represents a mainstream breakthrough and he seized the opportunity with aesthetic confidence. “It’s got to be no-holds barred [introduction to Ava] and we feel the same as Caleb,” he reflected. “At the same time, we’re not quite sure what this is and it was also important to introduce an element of unease in that scene. 
“What’s great is that it tells you everything you need to know very quickly about the environment that Ava is in. It’s a prison with many layers. It very much emphasizes the parameters of Ava’s world and how we can see through to this outside world, which, in many respects, is a construct like Ava,” Hardy said. “Once you understand the space, then you understand the scenes and things just present themselves. And instinctively you know if it’s right or wrong.”
Typically, when reading a script, an image, a sound or a piece of music comes to mind for Hardy, which he likes to carry over into the shoot. In the case of “Ex Machina,” his first image of Ava was looking at her through glass, her face semi-obscured by reflections.

“She was right up against the glass where I could see her eyes very clearly. And there’s a shift in her expression. In other words, you see a subtle human element that can be described as a moment of singularity. Luckily, we got to shoot that and it happens in the scene where Caleb is describing to her that his parents died in a car crash and we see this image of her looking through the glass and it’s the moment that she shows empathy. And it’s a key turning point in the way we view her.”

Hardy shot with the F65, which created very human, soft imagery that rendered color, tone and texture and perfectly read the glass. 

“I wanted to explore that space from every position with reflections and frames within frames. I could lock Caleb in using these light buttons I had built to reflect into the glass, to really shape the frame or to make him feel very open. For subtle shifts of light, I had all of the lights embedded into the set and could use them at will. I could almost shape the room very differently each time we were in there [by manipulating intensity and color].”

For Garland, the takeaway was confirming certain suspicions he had about the filmmaking process being more collaborative than auteurist. “For example, some people take a Calvinist approach. There needs to be an atmosphere of penitence in the production of it because only by a hard process do you get a good film. And, for myself, I thought that was bullshit because I’ve worked on toxic productions and I know how much energy gets wasted.

“This scene is a perfect example from my point of view of the different, semi-autonomous departments in film production working in a proper harmony and each elevating the moment…elegant yet bold.” 

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