Photo courtesy of A24.

“Ex Machina”

April 10, 2015

Valli Herman

For the second time in a year, Costume Designer Sammy Sheldon Differ has worked on a film concerning the life and ideas of computer visionary Alan Turing. Her World War II-era designs for “The Imitation Game” subtly referenced patterns found in math, geometry and computer science–plaids, dots and dashes. For her newest film, the techno-thriller “Ex Machina,” Differ zooms into the modern era in a story about artificial intelligence and a very captivating robot named Ava.

In “Ex Machina,” young computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a company contest to meet his boss, tech billionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his remote retreat. He learns that Nathan has built Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot with artificial intelligence. Caleb is to perform the Turing Test to determine if Ava’s intelligence is equal or indistinguishable from a human.

Differ said writer/director Alex Garland had very specific ideas about what he wanted in Ava. His vision results in a slim, shapely woman who seems a mix of flesh, bone, steel and circuits.

“They really didn’t want to do a prosthetic body,” said Differ. “It was a very short shoot and it’s very costly and difficult to get it to look right. They really wanted something that looked like it was beneath the skin of an android.”

The robot costume required a constant collaboration between departments for visual effects, makeup, costume design and the director. “We had to decide how we would be able to create areas to take out of the costume and put in digital robotic effects so that it would still look seamless,” she said.

Differ created a costume with bold, black lines that traced the boundaries between her see-though robot body and her opaque arms, legs and face. “You can still see straight through her, but you can see the mesh,” she said.

Her body was to look eerily unhuman–no bunched fabric at the joints– but also as if her parts were screwed together. None of the effects were achieved with a blue or green screen, but with digital technology and carefully engineered fabric manipulation.

The real-world costume construction began with the concept of a tightly fitted, stretchy body stocking to reveal the body’s contours.

“We experimented with a type of honeycomb fishnet over stretchy fabric, like something you would get for dancewear,” Differ said. She chose fishnet with a hexagonal structure to echo the feel of a diagrammed molecule. But they needed more substance: “We experimented with…this totally crazy idea of mixing polyurethane with metal powder.”

Differ dipped the mesh into the metallic urethane, laid the coated panels on Teflon to dry and emerged with flexible fabric, smooth on the back and net-textured on the top.

“I got someone on board who does paint effects and we went through all the different paints and urethanes so that it was really taut on her body and it showed every detail,” Differ said.

In the 10 weeks Differ had to make the costumes, she also considered how the robot’s bald cap would work with a facial prosthetic that makes “her skin look like it sits away from the mesh and is stepped into the metal,” Differ said.

“When [Garland] did close-up camera shots you could see the undulation of a collar bone and the rib cage and how it tucked under her breast. It was all very intimate, tiny details [Garland] wanted to capture of the female form,” Differ said.

The resulting costume is as high-concept as the film, even though the construction approach was, according to Differ, “low tech–but with maximum effect.”

“Ex Machina” is now in theaters.

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