From Sketch to Screen:
Production Designer Mark Digby Discusses "Ex Machina"
A striking contrast in the outset: an abundance of glass walls and virtual images (monitors, mobile screens) in a modern office building is cut to an aerial shot of solid, glacial mountains. Immediately after arriving at the main location where Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) meets his hi-tech tycoon employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac), Ex Machina's production designer Mark Digby sets the tone for what follows in a series of spatial and design contrasts between virtual and real, organic and artificial. Every window in the film, whether an architectural one or a computer window, opens to new images, to landscapes, physical and mental.
Set almost entirely in one house, in Ex Machina the space of the film is also a parallel narrative supporting the main storyline. This is, among other things, a post-digital variation on the theme of “mad scientist.” There’s the eventual dysfunction of the scientist's over-designed laboratory, his competition with God, and the inevitable grandiose plans that go awry. It is Frankenstein’s lab channelled through Silicon Valley ambitions. Yet, Mark Digby deliberately eschews the design traditions that come with that whole genre. Instead, he opts for subtle paradoxes: there’s glass, but there’s no transparency, there’s concrete, but there’s no sense of security. Nothing is as it seems.
Digby’s close and lasting collaboration with British directors Michael Winterbottom, Danny Boyle, and recent screenwriter turned director Alex Garland has touched different genres and design styles, enriching the visual experience of films while always adding something new to the narrative. One evening at the BFI Southbank in London, I spoke with him about Ex Machina.