Fitting Sony F65/F55s with Vintage Glass to Craft Tones and Textures Redolent of Tarkovsky
Director and screenwriter Alex Garland's exquisite corpse of a film, Ex Machina, assembles its shape-shifting images and fluid perspectives with the deft hand of a talented novelist-turned-filmmaker. Produced by DNA Films/A24 Films, Garland's directorial debut tells the story of a reclusive tech CEO and the series of mind-bending labyrinths he constructs for one of his company's coders and the top-secret intelligent robot he calls Ava. The film's contrasting palette of luminous natural beauty and uniquely lit sterile interiors is enhanced by the camera work of Rob Hardy, BSC, who shot the film with the Sony F65 and F55. Hardy is known for Ralph Fiennes’s The Invisible Woman and Broken, directed by Rufus Norris, and also shot the recently released World War I drama Testament of Youth, a very different project from Garland's provocative thriller.
We talked to Hardy, who was preparing to shoot another project in Vancouver, about his camera, lens and lighting choices, the film's references, and the enduring power of an exceptionally well-written script.
StudioDaily: I can honestly say that this is the first time in a very long while that I've seen a film that was the true visual and spiritual successor of Solaris and the broader work of Andrei Tarkovsky. Were his films references?
Rob Hardy: That's wonderful you felt that, because we really didn't have that many references for this film but in fact, one of the three we did have was Tarkovsky's Stalker. The other two references were a still photographer and an artist. Stalker was the real cerebral inspiration, though, even if we weren't trying specifically to capture the same look.
How did you first get involved with this project?
I became aware of Alex Garland, the novelist, when I read The Beach many, many years ago. A few years back I had received one of Alex's scripts from [London's] DNA Films, for Never Let Me Go [directed by Mark Romanek]. It was such a beautifully written script, I was just blown away by it. I'm lucky enough to be able to read a lot of good scripts, but I read a lot of bad ones too. But Alex's writing is really on another level. In my own work, I flip between shooting art-house films and horror B-movies. I like having the best of both worlds, and Alex seems to straddle this very fine line between very accessible, watchable and, in his scripts' case, readable plots and characters that are instantly recognizable. But on the other side of that line, it's just really, really intelligent writing. His scripts are always about something bigger, and never just a simple plot. When Ex Machina landed on my desk I read it in half the time it usually takes me to read scripts and then I reread it immediately. I was in New York at the time. I was so taken by it.
Hardy's camera work brings a warm yet claustrophobically ominous mood to scenes shot in the upper level of Nathan's compound. Photos by Liam Daniel, courtesy of A24 Films.
What were some of the things you discussed during those early meetings with Garland about how he wanted the film lit and shot?
A lot of the things we talked about simply came off the page. The script was so rich yet it was also so immediate for me; I could see the film clearly right away. It wasn't written on the page in a literal sense but I think I connected with the material in such a way that I could immediately start to see imagery. One of the very first images that I saw was an image of Ava, and I was looking up at her through this sheet of glass with lots of reflections across it. But I could see her eyes. She was having this moment of singularity; the switch had been flipped within her, and she suddenly transcending from AI to human. There was also a great sadness in it, too. I carried that image of her as I finished reading the script all the way to the moment we shot that scene, in Ava session two or three, when Caleb is telling her about the car crash his parents died in. We were very much feeding off the material that existed, and those early discussions and prep period were like a workshop. It made sense to workshop it because we were at Pinewood Studios [where the window-less lower floor scenes were shot] and the camera department, art department and everyone was there as they were building the stage. We'd do some script work in the morning and the actors Alicia [Vikander], Domhnall [Gleeson] and Oscar [Isaac] came onto the set in the afternoons to walk around, try stuff out and just get a feel for the space. That whole process was the way in which the film developed for me visually. Early on I did bring up Saul Leiter, the New York street photographer from the 1950s, and Alex mentioned Stalker. Later, when composing the shots, I was personally looking at the art of a Russian geometric abstract painter called Malevich, with his strange compositions and frames within frames.
You were shooting through a lot of reflective glass, which is a major framing device of the film, not to mention an underlying theme. How restrictive was that?
In many respects, we embraced the reflections. I became very excited about what the reflections presented. We wanted each Ava session to be very different and very specific. Not self-consciously so, but however the narrative was moving and how the power shift was happening between the characters. When we were choreographing how those scenes would play out, the reflections became very much part of it. Often, these reflections and bounces of light would present themselves. It felt like a very liberating process. Each scene we would always shoot as one master. In other words, whatever angle we chose to cover the scene from two or three angles, we would cover it from beginning to end. And those scenes were long, like 12-page scenes. So the camera is constantly moving and the shot's constantly evolving and it is always based on where is Ava's head at or where is Caleb's head at. In some scenes there's a great stillness, and the camera doesn't move. In other scenes it is simply a very slow zoom in. In the earlier scenes there's a lot of motion and we move through the new space. We discover Ava and the way in which she's reflective. All those things play toward the narrative in the best way possible, in the way that we wanted.
Stars Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac shot within one of the film's main visual metaphors: layers of confining yet exposing glass.
Were you restricted at all by the visual effects elements during the shoot?
No, not really, and that's all credit to Double Negative and [VFX supervisor] Andrew Whitehurst, who could see what we were trying to do. We weren't out to make a big VFX movie. We were out to make a very human story. And whilst the VFX had to be utterly breathtaking, no one element should ever rise above any other element of the film. If someone says a film wasn't so great but it looked amazing, you know you've failed. That's what makes a film. All the elements have to come together. In servicing the story first, Andrew wanted to go along with whatever decisions we were making in terms of how we wanted to shoot it.
Did you have any green screen on set? And what was Alicia Vikander, who plays Ava, wearing during the shoot?
No, we had no blue or green screen. Alicia wore a sort of gray mesh suit, so Andrew and his team literally replaced sections of her body based on what we shot. If anything, we all fell in love with the reflections, in the physical shoot and in the recreated segments of her robot body. It was uncharted territory for all of us in that way. I think what's really interesting then is that you do very quickly buy the fact that she's a robot, but at the same moment you go on that journey with her, or certainly with Caleb, as she becomes more and more human. It all lets the audience very quickly get used to the idea of her as a robot. Her performance, too, plays a big role, but it is the way in which all these things combine to give you a very authentic, uninterrupted feel. I think audiences subconsciously switch off a little bit when confronted with too many obvious visual effects. You know, we've seen it all before. And with this project, we all felt it was recombining back-to-basics filmmaking with a sophisticated VFX element. The quest to make those things seamless.
Alicia Vikander stars as the emotionally intelligent robot Ava, lit here by the constantly shifting subterranean lights.
Did Alex Garland do many or very few takes for each scene?
Very few. Maybe three or four takes per shot, and that was simply because we didn't have much time to shoot it. We shot it in six weeks.
How long were you on location in Norway?
We were there for two weeks. They had scouted a lot of places prior to my coming on to the film. They'd scripted it as Alaska—and, being here in Northwestern Canada at the moment, I'm seeing elements of Norway.
Was it difficult to bring all the gear in, particularly to the waterfall and glacier?
We put everything in backpacks. For the glacier scene, we wrapped the shoot and traveled for two days to get to where it was. We took a boat for an hour, then walked for another hour to get to the actual glacier we wanted to shoot. It also took us an hour and half to get to the waterfall. We knew it existed, so why not just get there? You simply make the film footprint a little bit lower and smaller and you get your scenes. The easy way would have been to not walk as far and put the water in afterwards. But it just wouldn't have been as effective. You can see it in the eyes of the actors in the scene. You can feel the power of the water through their performances. It was a very powerful landscape. When you actually stood in it, it had a profound effect on all of us.
Director Alex Garland, Hardy (shown above), Gleeson, Isaac and a small crew filmed a pivotal scene at the remote Grondalen waterfall in Norway's Valldal valley.
You shot in 4K with the Sony F65 and F55 but used vintage glass. Did you decide to use the F65 first and the lenses after that, or did your kit evolve another way?
Very early on, we decided that with the majority of the budget going into the VFX element and also shooting in Norway, which happens to be one of the most expensive places to shoot, the idea of shooting film was very quickly put to one side. I usually fight that quite hard because I love film and I've shot film throughout my career. I think it's good to have a choice. But in this case, I thought a digital format could lend itself quite well to this film. I tested all the obvious digital cameras, from ARRI to Red and Sony, and tested them all with new glass, old glass, spherical lenses, anamorphic lenses, you name it, for a day under certain lighting conditions I thought would be similar to what we were going to shoot on the stage and also outside. I just kept an open mind, really. There's this thing, and this will sound slightly pretentious, but there's this thing that has happened to me every time I've done these tests. You are looking through the camera—I admit I'm not really a monitor person at all—and suddenly the film presents itself. And it just sort of happens. This is very much one of those occasions where, when we looked at the F65 and the old glass, I knew right then and there that we'd found it. We screened the stuff shot with these [JDC Cooke] Xtal Express prime lenses at Pinewood, and everybody was just astounded at the results. It was just so different looking. They picked up every single detail in the glass that I'd felt was right to tell the story with. The ARRI and Red did lovely things in their own ways, but they didn't seem to have the ability to really show the truth of the glass. Especially when working so much with digital now, glass has become the new emulsion. That's where one of the major choices is now. I didn't try to temper the digital with old glass; it's not about that at all. In this case—my god, these lenses and this camera together, that's Ex Machina.
A choice not motivated at least in part by your references?
Again, you look at something like Stalker or you look at some of Saul Leiter's photographs through all of those reflections he captured of the streets of New York in the 1950s and '60s, you can see very clearly the sensation those images give. And, yeah, it was something I was very conscious of when I was testing. I was indeed looking for that and I found it with the F65 and these old Xtal Express lenses from the 1930s and '40s that were anamorphosized in the 1980s.
Gleeson, framed under glass, faces the twisted reality of his visit to the compound.
What was it like for you moving between the two very distinct lighting setups, one outside or transitional and one on the set at Pinewoods?
Yes, they were distinct by their very nature. You've got very clean, almost clinical and very graphic lines in the sets, in all its simplicity and minimalism. Then you've got the complexity of the nature surrounding it. In some respects, a big part of my job was to bring those two elements closer together and try to negate the contrast in a way that would make them sit together nicely in terms of the narrative and not make it as jarring as it might be. To make it believable. One of the concepts I came up with, and I ran it by Alex, was that any time we were outside and looking at the landscape and we're studying it, it should feel as if we are looking at it through the eyes of Ava, as if we're seeing it for the first time—as if the landscape itself is almost binary. It was an attempt to find an order in the chaos of those frames of nature. I wanted to find an almost graphic way of photographing it, without losing the intensity or truth of what it was. I would have these visual manifestos for my second camera, who would often shoot a lot of the cutaway landscape stuff: "This is the lens you're going use today. Frame it with some kind of central element, whether it's a rock, or tree, or whatever. And come back with six amazing shots, not 12 or 14 great ones." It's almost like nature looking back at itself, in a way.
That's a rare, sublime moment to have when watching a film, to feel caught up in that kind of reverance for the natural world.
I think you described it perfectly. It's not a sort of cold stare, but a kind of breathing. You want to feel that landscape, but not in a manipulated or saccharine way. So then, in some respects, those things would connect quite well with how we shot the studio scenes. They became the same thing, which makes the film work much better as a whole.
Gleeson on location in Norway with Hardy close behind.
Those scenes in Nathan's subterranean lair could have been really harsh and cold. How did you make them so warm?
We always knew we wanted to have a sealed set, and we had three stages across Pinewood. It was ceilings on everything and one or two doorways in and, once inside, it felt like you were in a completely different place. The idea was to have a 360-degree set and to embed the lighting into the set. Initially, they thought Kino Flos or flourescent tubes would work. But I never really thought in those terms. I don't know why LEDs or fluorescents equal science fiction. Actually, what I wanted was a sensation of immediacy, like you get outside, but also real atmosphere that you can touch. For me, tungsten light does that. Unfortunately, we had to replace about 7,000 bulbs embedded into the sets. Everything was on a dimmer, so I would stand on set with my gaffer Lee, who had a handheld control panel and a radio that he could then go back to the dimmer desk guy or do it himself. That way, we could literally transform the space in seconds. It was like sculpting with light, in an instant. We could change the space to suit the mood of the scene. But all the while, when you're dimming these tungsten lights, by their very nature, they warm up. So I could have a sensation of light very near to where the camera was that was slightly cooler, and it could warm up. If you were looking down the corridor, for example, it would subtly change color.
Sonoya Mizuno as Kyoko and Ava face off in the Tungsten-dimmed hallway.
Makes sense that the character of Nathan would have that kind of dimmable control in his space to begin with.
Exactly. It's his space, so why wouldn't he control it? There's even a scene where he slumps on his bed and says, "Lights," and they go down.
And, spoiler alert, that out-of-the-blue dance scene was just so perfect in every way.
There's so much tension in the narrative up to that point, that when it comes, it just comes at the perfect moment. it was such fun to shoot that, because it landed in the middle of the shoot when we were at the studio and it was like having a day off. The film was so much fun to shoot anyway, but we literally spent the whole day shooting it. There's so much footage of that scene and it goes on for quite a while, I think there should be a special section in the DVD extras devoted to it! Sonoya Mizuno, who plays Kyoko, is a professional dancer. It was always in the cards that this scene was going to happen. When Alex pitched it, it seemed crazy and it was completely nuts. But it also made perfect sense.
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