Ex-Machina is fantastic sci-fi. It uses a near-future vision of artificial intelligence to create a taught, claustrophobic psychological thriller full of moral complexity. From a visual perspective it is very engaging in the way it presents the three main characters through the eyes of Caleb. Over the course of the film lighting, colour correction but most of all framing creates an undertone of mistrust for our surroundings and the characters which inhabit it. This is crucial to the film’s pacing as the film’s tension comes from nuances and suggestions up untio the final ten minutes where it rises to an ear-splitting crescendo. The cinematographic techniques used by Rob Hardy keep the audience engaged by little up until the final act where the dialogue and narrative begins to speak more for itself. This is not to say that this small scale isn’t fascinating but it certainly helps. Having only worked on small, alternative films and period pieces in the past, this is a break-out performance by cinematographer Hardy as he experiments with unfamiliar techniques that he has selectively borrowed from well established contemporaries.
The film was shot with the Sony F65, the favourite camera of DP Claudia Miranda. This camera resolves very well, it has great resolution for the time and has fantastic colour science. Rob describes tryign to capture using film which had an organic feeling but he used master-primes to capture it in a clean way – the F65 being clean he used organci or dirtier lenses to balance the two. The camera was sharp adn the lenses were fuzzy. As an inexperienced DP Rob looked for shortcuts for manoueverability of equipment. He did this by using an orange strap with a speaker and RODE case with a monitor so that the crew could get as many shot of the scene as possible over the course of the day. The lenses used were the Cooke XTAL Express which are 1930s spherical lenses that have been rehoused in the 80s to be anamorphic with a front element with a 2x squeeze. Rob liked that each focal length and lens had so much character and individuality. Another x50 from the same series would look very different allowing rob to choose his flare characteristic or focal length/field of view. He used the 75 ML Cooke for some shots.
Director Alex Garland, did a lot of the previs so that the model for Eva was clear and the coloru palette had a foundation. It is powerful when a director is able to create visuals to communicate what they have in their head and what they see as the goal for the DP and visual effects. He used a two shade system where there was no true black implying that there was an ambient daylight source makign everything blue under a warmer sunlight source. A lot of the set was rendered by the art director in 3D to give a clear direction for constructing the set. Mood drawings were reconstructed. When we look at the process for designing Nathan’s room you can see the steady progression from script to mood-board to architectural rendering. From a wider perspective the previs team was able to create a conceptual elevation view to connect all of the elements together.
The first time we meet our protagonist we se a very affected colour correct with the highlights being tinted from white to be toned down and turne very blue which feels very electronic and vibrant. The POV shot that follows is at it’s maximum anamorphic distortion horizontally for a web cam effect. The shot has a lot of flaring and blooming with a blead of light over his cheek. This effect comes from the choice of lenses by Rob. Then we switch to a computer vision shot that captures the eyes, nose and mouth to foreshadow the big brother element in the upcoming acts. This is underlined by a clunky web camera to underline this sentiment. This essentially daylight looking scene uses the aery light gearhead with a book-light. Rob’s preference for Tungstun with this lighting ssytem is present in this scene as he introduces the Maxi-Brute with a half CTB balance to create a closer, warmer ambient.
When Caleb arrives at the estate the door closes behindhim in ominous composition. We clearly see him in silhouete through a sliver which is scary and claustrophobic. He is small in the frame and the computer seen in the shot has the power to allow or prevent him from leaving as demonstrated by the bright blue dot. When he arrives and walks down to the living room he is obscured by the reflection of glass and we see a tree in the foreground in focus. When Caleb first meets Nathan we clearly see the 35mm in use as seen through the blooming, distortion and softness in the lens which adds a haze over everything. Hardy uses this focal length for the effect on the scene which is a softness and distortion to add a feeling of something being very off about the setup. When we see the reverse shot of Caleb his face is very intentionally put in half-light to underline a glance from him saying I am freaked out. All of the shots followed the same structure except for two which a T2.8 for a different effect.
When we are introduced to the basement floor we feel claustrophobic all the lighting is built-in to the structure which feels both high-tech and prison-like. The walls are made of cement. There is something more inviting about a wooden door with a brass handle that you can use yourself compared against this steel, computer-operated door. When Caleb arrives in his room Rob moves into a profile shot to make it feel more contemplative. When Hardy used to shoot 35 mm it would turn someones face into a landscape. This shot is returned to a lot throughout the film as Caleb considers somethign important. The next day when Nathan reveals the reason for Caleb’s visit we see some very interesting composition and blocking as all focus is drawn to the right third of the frame and as Nathan sits on the table looking down at Caleb, framed so that he is in his personal space. This adds a lot of physicality.
Moving into Act Two we see a wall of post-it notes in Nathan’s study. This an interestign choice as Nathan, a tech entrepeuner chooses to organise his thoughts on paper rather than digitally. This adds a little bit of beautiful mind to the feel of this character. We then see the interview space for the first time. It has a glass divide between the subject and interviewer which has been damaged by a blow. This is lined up against Caleb’s face as a metaphor for the shattering of an illusion. This is foreshadowing. The first time we see Eva we see her put against a presumably naturesque background surrounded by concrete with daylight streamign through. In this lightign you clearly see through the body and she is clearly robotic yet when it is soft side lighting or front lighting the mesh picks up the lighting from the front and it looks more opaque and like a human form. This lighting is adopted differently when narratively appropriate by Hardy. The exposition continues with a shot of caleb, the silhouette reflection of Eva seen on the glass to show that she is a robot. The combination of cinematography, art direction and CG is incredible alongside the blue backlighting.
When Eva walks into the scene we are aware that Caleb is there to watch her, however the lighting tells us otherwise. We see a large LED light toplighting Caleb to sew doubt into this sentiment. It is later revealed that the tst is on him and how he will be manipulated into helping her. Moreover, he is in the smaller box being judged by her advanced knowledge of human emotion as emphasised by the camera angle looking up at her with Casleb’s box filling a small amount of the left third of the frame. He is powerless. We then skip to a scene back outside with the same distorition and flaring as before and as abscent from the previous scene. As a moment of reflection this adds to the unsettlign feeling. The concrete behind Nathan is perfect. It is reflective at certain angles, it is manmade as it is carved but it is also from the earth. Therefore the texture is very visually captivating alognside the green colour correct.
Overall, Rob Hardy has demonstrated an expertise in framing and choosing of lenses in creating visually meaningful and insightful strings of shots. Collectively they convey underlying thoughts and signs with a boldness and viscerality that is not overstated yet very potent at the same time. He understands how the use of a certain, lens in terms of focal length and flaring among other factors can elicit a feeling of unease or capture a sentiment more clearly. From a lighting perspective, Hardy has proven himself as an accomplished cinematographer. He has an awareness of techniques new and old for lighting a scene and sticks to his preferences when deciding on this. Furthermore, Hardy examiens the photography techniques of more accomplished DPs to extract the techniques and visual approaches that suit him as he explores which techniques suits him best and begins to innovate in his own. Ex-Machina is a big step forward in his career as a DP demonstrating a sensitivity to narrative structure and purpose that is truly admirable and worth adopting in future projects.
WRITING WITH IMAGES: THE CINEMATOGRAPHY OF ‘EX-MACHINA’