Writer Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later) makes his directorial debut with Ex Machina, a science-fiction drama about computer coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who is recruited by Nathan (his reclusive CEO inventor boss, played by Oscar Isaac) to evaluate the artificial intelligence of Nathan’s latest creation: a beautiful robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander).
Shot in just six weeks, the modestly budgeted but ambitious film presented various challenges for make-up/hair department head Sian Grigg and prosthetic make-up designer Tristan Versluis, notably how to create the alluring but robotic Ava.
“We had to make her look as though parts of her were made out of this transparent material,” explained Grigg, “so it was quite complicated trying to figure it all out. The important thing about Ava was that she had to look very natural … but with beautiful, doe-like eyes. Alicia’s skin was pretty much perfect, so that was a major bonus, because she never had a single blemish and her skin texture was really good.
“Because Alicia’s make-up had to look exactly the same every day, I had continuity photos for her eye and her other eye [although they were made up the same way], because that was my focal point and I certainly tried to make them look 100 percent perfect. I had a bit more leeway with her wigs, because hair moves, so I didn’t worry so much about that, but I was obsessed with the eye make-up and her skin texture.”
Meanwhile, Versluis had the not-inconsiderable task of creating the prosthetics needed to complete the illusion that Ava was a robot.
“Mark Coulier was approached for the job but couldn’t take the project on,” he said, “so he kindly recommended me. By the time I started prepping, Mark had already lifecast the actress and run a couple of tests, so I collected the lifecasts and launched headfirst into R&D to figure out how to replicate the mesh pattern needed in the design of Ava’s outer robot layer.
“The major challenge was working out how to continue the same mesh design used in the costume over Ava’s head. It had to match the texture and color, which had a gentle, two-toned metallic finish. I remember going through at least three versions until I settled on something that worked and looked great.”
Breaking down Ava’s silicone prosthetics, “The pieces involved a wraparound cowl/neck with forehead and neck blenders, which overlapped behind the ears,” Versluis said. The blenders were made to create the stepped edge to Ava’s robot “face skin,” both of which were run in soft platinum silicone with cap plastic edges.
“The cowl piece was also made in platinum silicone, but run much firmer so it would hold its mesh shape much better without as much wrinkling. I think I managed to get the total application time down to an hour and a half. Once Alicia understood the process, we found a rhythm together that made the application much faster. It was important for the prosthetics to not cover much of Alicia’s face and become too overwhelming, because we wanted to keep as many of the actress’s natural features as possible without too much rubber.”
In the film’s climactic scene, Ava uses body parts from previous robots to create a more human-looking appearance for herself, a sequence that required a close collaboration between the film’s make-up and visual effects teams.
“There were a lot of meetings about how we were going to zip her skin together in that scene,” said Grigg, “but Alex was very specific and he wrote it, so he knew exactly what he imagined in his mind and how he wanted the material. And Tristan made the pieces so they would completely cling to the next piece, so that was really clever and as long as you do a bit of that, you can accept that she’s a real person.”
“The final sequence was great to be involved with,” Versluis said. “I created various elements that helped the visual effects team blend it together, so for example we made some textured ‘skin panels’ that were loosely tacked to the actress’ skin, which they were able to pull back, giving them something physical to grab onto. The visual effects team then blended the skin panel in, and did all the robotic detail behind the panel as it was revealed. We also made a realistic arm that Ava used to replace her own damaged arm. I believe that mixing of physical props and digital work works really well for those kinds of effects.”
With Ex Machina hitting U.S. theaters, Garland’s directorial debut has made an international splash.
“There’s nothing I love more than doing a clean make-up, so I loved making the girls perfect, and being absolutely obsessive about the continuity, all under the pressure of a six-week shoot,” Grigg said.
“It was very rewarding to be part of a talented team,” added Versluis, “combining our efforts to create Ava. Watching Alicia bring life to the role was just fantastic, and her performance really helped sell the character, especially when there were so many technical elements involved in delivering her look to the screen. It was fun to help create a strong concept for a movie character that takes such center stage in the story.”
Ex Machina opened April 10.