‘Ex Machina’ VFX Supervisor Reveals What It Took to Score an Oscar Nomination
As one might expect, the Best Achievement in Visual Effects category is dominated by films with sweeping visuals and grand-scale fight sequences, but then there’s the VFX team behind Alex Garland’s Ex Machina who put the focus on the minutiae, specifically the details necessary to seamlessly meld Alicia Vikander’s physical performance with her character’s robotic body parts. And, as you can probably deduce from the Academy Award nomination, VFX Supervisor Andrew Whitehurst and his team did a brilliant job.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Whitehurst about his work on Ex Machina, including what it took to nail Ava’s design and other important VFX elements he’s responsible for that you might not have noticed, and we also talked a bit about his job in general including how he scored the position, what his specific responsibilities are, how his work has changed over the years and much more. You can catch all of that and much more in the full interview below. We’ll see who snags the Best Achievement in Visual Effects Oscar when the Academy Awards air on Sunday, February 28th.
Question: Can you explain what a VFX supervisor does?
ANDREW WHITEHURST: A visual effects supervisor is the liaison between the production, be it the director or the producers, and the facilities who actually produce the visual effects shots. So, the VFX supervisor will be the person who goes into the meetings for the production and will say, ‘Well, I think if this is the result you want then we need to shoot it like this and we will need to be able to get this kind of data on set,’ and argue bitterly with all the other departments about what we need and then create some sort of consensus. And then meanwhile, I would then be going to the vendors and saying, ‘Well, this is how we’re gonna do shoot this. Do you have any concerns? Is there anything I need to know about the way you guys want to work with the data that we need to go and figure out?’ So you’re essentially a conduit for information and also you are responsible for leading the visual effects from an aesthetic standpoint and also, to a certain degree, from a technical standpoint. So I would be talking to the vendors more than the director would. It’s my job to make sure that whatever the director has in his or her mind is passed on to the vendors even if the director is not there personally to do it.
When is your workload most heavy? During pre-production, production or post?
WHITEHURST: It’s spread evenly throughout, and it’s different kinds of pressures at different stages of the production process. During prep, it’s probably the most relaxed. And I’d say it’s probably the most relaxed for everybody who isn’t actually building a set or making a costume at that point, too – inasmuch as it’s the ‘this is where we figure out how we think we’re gonna do it’ phase, and also get a good handle on what it should eventually look like. And then, the shoot is for everybody concerned, complete and utter carnage, because it just is. There’s always an awful lot to get done in not much time. So that’s just for however long it is. In the case of Ex Machina, I think we shot for six weeks, four weeks on the soundstage at Pinewood and then two weeks on location in Norway, which for a feature is pretty short. I’d just finished working on Spectre and that shoot was seven months, to give you a frame of reference and how they can vary. And then it tends to sort of ramp up over the length of the post-production schedule. And some projects are worse than others. Ex Machina was pretty good in terms of the workload. We remained pretty consistent throughout. Some other jobs just get progressively nuts-er and nuts-er and nuts-er until you run out of time and everybody runs away. But with this, it worked as well as you could possibly hope for.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about what you do?
WHITEHURST: I think probably the biggest misconception is that people think the visual effects supervisor is responsible for all of the visual effects and they’re not. It’s a team game. I am merely the talking mouthpiece for the hundreds of people who actually work on the film. I think that the biggest misconception would be that the VFX supervisor is somehow the be all and end all in terms of all the visuals effects decisions that were made and the way it looks and all that kind of stuff, and it’s not true. You offer a guiding hand when you can. I have opinions, so I’m going to say what I think, but it’s ultimately a team game and I am nothing without everybody else who’s working on it.
How big is the team you’re in charge of?
WHITEHURST: It varies over the production cycle so at the beginning when we were doing the initial concepts and building Ava, it’s small teams so there’d be 10 or 15 people perhaps, and then up to about a hundred I guess during peak parts of post production. It was not that huge a number for most of it because it was quite a long post-production cycle. It was like nine months, which is a pretty long time. So we tended to have fewer people but for a longer period of time while backend-ing it. And [then there’s[ just getting everybody to get it all done in two months, which is the other way of doing it. [Laughs] I prefer the longer post-production cycle. It’s less stressful.
What’s the hardest part of your job and the most rewarding?
WHITEHURST: The hardest part is probably just keeping on top of everything, in terms of keeping up to date with what all the other departments are doing. I can go into the art department and see that they’ve designed a wall to be a mirror for example, and I might go, ‘Well, that’s kind of a big problem for us because we’re then gonna need to put everything into the mirrors as well,’ and then they might go, ‘Well, tough. That’s what we want.’ And I go, ‘Okay, we’ll have to figure out how to achieve that.’ And then equally looking at it from the other way, looking back at the venders, they might say, ‘We are having difficulty rendering something,’ like metals or glass or whatever. I say, ‘Okay, what do we need to get written or build in order to solve that problem?’ I think it’s just that really, you’re keeping an awful lot of plates spinning at the same time and just making sure that none of them fall off. [It] requires all of your attention. And also, I think that’s probably one of the more rewarding aspects when it goes well. You feel like you have had input in quite a lot of places and ultimately you’re making pictures that you think look good. I get out of bed in the morning to make pretty pictures. I went to art college, I did fine art, that’s my motivating factor, that’s what I like. So if I can sit in the cinema and look at a screen and go, ‘Yeah, I think that’s a beautiful image,’ then that absolutely makes my day. And if I can think, ‘That’s a beautiful image that I helped make and I helped other people maximize their potential to do the work that they needed to do to achieve that,’ then that’s even better.
What did you have to do to train for the job?
WHITEHURST: It’s one of those sort of weird jobs where there are no formal courses to go and do it. My background is I did fine art and filmmaking at university, and then I worked as a CG artist so I’d done bits of graphic design. I’ve always drawn, which I think helps. Being able to communicate visually quickly is a very useful skill to have. Essentially, it’s if you can play nicely with other people because a huge amount of it is diplomacy and teamwork with other folks in other departments, keeping up to date with the technology, having a really good understanding of art history, film history, comic books, photography, whatever it is because directors tend not to be that technically minded. I can think of one example of a previous film I worked on where there was no concept art, nothing at all, big director came in and it was sort of a Victoria period film, and he said, ‘I really want the whole feeling of it to be like a German romantic painting.’ I said, ‘Well, you mean someone like Caspar David Friedrich?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ And then he said to me, ‘Do you know the painting scene where you’ve got this with the graveyard and then there’s a gate at the end of it and the tree behind that?’ Of course it’s a painting of Caspar David Friedrich’s of which I was aware, so I said yes and he said, ‘That’s kind of the look.’ So if you have a good knowledge of art in general, film particularly, it’s going to make for a smoother way because that’s the language that everybody else on set speaks. Most people are not very interested in what a bidirectional reflectance distribution function is or does and why should they be? So it’s being able to speak the language of all the various different departments. And that’s just something you develop over time. So it’s one of those jobs you kind of learn by doing. You just get chucked in the deep end and you either drown or you swim your way out of it and if you didn’t screw up too badly, they let you do it again.
How has your process changed throughout your career? I imagine you learn one piece of technology and then it changes to something else.
WHITEHURST: It does, but not as fast as you might imagine. Certainly when I look at the way that we made images at the start of my career, maybe 20 years ago, it is very different, but if I look at how we did things five years ago, not so much. A new piece of software comes along or somebody has a new idea every five years or so and then that tends to get adopted. It’s not that hard to keep on top of that kind of thing. I think that the biggest thing that’s changed as far as I’m concerned is there’s a motion of physically plausible rendering, which is a more accurate way of creating the picture. When I started my career we cheated like hell with everything because the computers weren’t fast enough to do proper reflections or proper shadows. In the last five years, computers have gotten just about fast enough that we can sort of do things almost properly now. And that has made a huge difference. It’s now not that difficult to make an image look like a photograph. What that means though is that you are now more focused on making it look beautiful rather than on it looking real, which I think is good, but I think it’s also harder because you can look at an image and go, ‘That doesn’t look like a photograph.’ It does or it doesn’t, it’s a little more of an objective decision whereas I think a lot of the things we have to do now are more subjective.
The Good Dinosaur is coming to mind right now. What’s your personal opinion on animated movies adopting the photo-real technique?
WHITEHURST: I think it can work. I certainly have ones that I like the look of more than others. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making it look photo real, but I find it weird when the aesthetic of the rendering doesn’t match the aesthetic of the rest of the production design. I haven’t seen The Good Dinosaur, but certainly previous Pixar movies, they have a look and I think they follow that through from the way that the characters are designed to the way they move to the way they’re lit. You’re never gonna look at it and think it’s a photograph, but it has a tangibility to it. You kind of do feel like you can reach into the screen and touch this stuff. You might not know exactly what it would feel like but it has that sense of solidity and I think that’s something that can be very powerful when it’s used well. I guess it’s the same as anything. The tools are useful, but when you look at an image, do they punch you in the face with, ‘Wow that’s beautiful,’ or don’t they? And that’s bound to be artists doing the work, not technology.
What’s the best advice you ever got about being a VFX supervisor?
WHITEHURST: I don’t think I’ve ever been given any advice other than, ‘Don’t do it you idiot.’ I’m trying to think now, if I was put in the same position, what advice would I give. I think probably the best advice is try and learn as much as you can about everybody else’s jobs because you ultimately are going to be asking them for favors and it’s nice if you can offer something back.
Switching gears and talking about Ex Machina specifically, where exactly did you begin with Ava? Was your first idea of what she should look like very different from what we see in the final film?
WHITEHURST: Yes, probably. I think so. I didn’t come into it cold inasmuch as I was given the screenplay and some initial concept art that Alex had done with a comic artist called Jock before they even came to us. I wasn’t in a situation of reading the screenplay and then everything being in my head until we discussed it further. So I started from the position of there being some existing imagery. There are aspects of what Jock did that are in the finished design, but if you look at his concept art, it’s not very much like what you ultimately see on screen, but that’s because that’s just the nature of the process. It’s an iterative process where not even just aesthetic concerns, but also we needed to do the work for a certain amount of money in a certain amount of time, which means that there are certain things we needed to make sure we incorporated into the design to enable us to work in an efficient way. The whole design process, which for us, I guess was about four or five months before we started shooting, and by the time we started shooting, pretty much everything of her was designed, apart from the robotic stuff on the back of her head and her neck, which we came to do later because essentially, we shot well, we didn’t have any reshoots and with the extra money available to put into more visual effects work, so we were able to do the head and the neck as well as the torso and the limbs, which was a good way of working I think. But certainly the whole process, because it’s so iterative and because there’s so many versions of every piece of design of her, it’s always evolution not revolution. So when I look at the first things that we did and I look at the final thing, it’s extremely different, but there wasn’t this sort of magic turning point when we went, ‘Oh, okay now we suddenly figured it out.’ It was always, ‘Okay, what if we try this?’
Working with Alex, what we would often do is take whatever our current version of the design was, print it out and then he and I would sit down with that, a bunch of sharpies and a stack of blank paper and go, ‘what if we tried this, what if we tried that,’ and just sketch ideas. That’s a really fast way of making good visual decisions and it’s also a very good way of communicating. We were able to make decisions and then I could go and sit with the artists who were actually doing the building of the robot and say, ‘Look, this is what we sketched.’ And they might offer suggestions so everybody feeds into the process. Ava doesn’t have one designer. Ava was designed by the influence of a huge group of people working towards a common goal.
So where does Alicia fit into this? Did you base these designs on her or did she come in later and then you had to adjust?
WHITEHURST: The very first concept that was done was done before anyone was cast, so they were much more generic. But as soon as Alicia had been cast, we had her cyber scans – so, you know, she went into a catsuit and went and stood and did a funny pose and we scanned her – so we knew what proportions her limbs were and all of that kind of thing. And then the design was much more focused around her body shape than being generic, so as soon as we knew who was going to be playing Ava, then we worked with that in mind.
Can you break down what she needs to be wearing on set to make it work in post?
WHITEHURST: We made a decision, partly practically and partly for psychological reasons not to use green screen, not to use lots of tracking markers. The practical reason for not doing that was because the shoot was extremely short, it was six weeks, and we were doing between 15 and 25 set-ups a day. There just isn’t the time to correctly light a green screen for each of those set-ups as well as lighting the actual set and everything else. So that wasn’t really an option. The psychological reason is that people tend to start to behave weirdly as soon as you start putting green screens up or if you start getting people to wear weird suits with pingpong balls stuck to them. Fundamentally for the film to work narratively, it’s a series of conversations between people, and you need to be able to put the actors and the camera department in a position where they can work with Alex to shoot something as you would shoot any other dialogue scene for it to work. We needed to make sure that we were not getting in anyone’s face while they were doing that.
However, we did need to make sure that we were able to track Alicia’s movements correctly. So what we actually ended up doing, and this is why collaboration is so important between the departments, we designed around her limbs and around her wrists, she’s got black rubber O-rings that have brass studs in them, and those are actually part of the design of the costume for what she was wearing on set, but they actually give us points that we can then go and track in post to help us stick our robot parts [in]. Same on the legs and the whole torso, so there’s studs everywhere and we can use those to make sure that our CG sticks to her physical performance, and that’s in the final design of the robot. So that was something that we felt needed to be put into the design from a practical standpoint for the work that we need to do, but we also came at it from the point of view of making it something that aesthetically worked with the rest of the design so we didn’t have to get rid of it in post.
How do things change when you go from wide shots to close ups? Do you have to add any pieces to this process or take some away?
WHITEHURST: You only track that which you see so if you’ve got a medium close up and were zooming out, you’d see that nobody would have bothered to do anything with her legs. You’re only going to work on what you can see. But no, the process is the same for all of the shots. Body tracking was the single hardest job on the whole movie because – well, two reasons, one because the shots were very long. The average shot length is about eight seconds, which is quite a long time to be sitting and looking at something. And the other reason is because the movement is so subtle. No human being actually sits still. We’re always moving, just really softly. It’s actually much harder to precisely copy that subtlety of movement than it is to do something much more action-centric. So probably the easiest shots of her to track was the one where she’s running down the corridor before she smacks into Nathan, and the hardest ones were the ones when she’s sitting still and holding a piece of artwork up for Caleb to look at.
That’s so counterintuitive.
WHITEHURST: I have to be honest that I had not really fully appreciated before we started how tough it was going to be on that standpoint. It’s one of the interesting and scary things about visual effects is when you start a project you honestly don’t know if you actually can do it or not. Maybe they want exactly what they’ve seen before or they want something new, so you’re always thinking, ‘I think we’re all smart enough and talented enough, we’ve got the right tools to do this,’ but you don’t really know until it’s done. I felt that the tracking was going to be pretty hard. I also thought making the lighting of the robotic parts to match the rest of her would be tough and that ended up not being as difficult as I thought. So you gain somewhere and you lose somewhere else. But the tracking, that was super, super tough. We were writing new software and we were doing a lot of development work on building the rig that the animators were using to track right up until we finished the production. We were continually refining that. And that’s probably where the majority of the R&D effort on the film from a technical standpoint was concentrated because that was our biggest problem even though we didn’t quite realize that when we started.
When people think VFX on this film, they probably think Ava, but I’m sure you were responsible for a lot of the other visual effects elements on it. Were there other challenging components that people might not think of?
WHITEHURST: The location in Norway is mostly real, but we added things like radar dishes, extra huts and other bits and bobs to make it feel more like a compound facility rather than a posh hotel, which is what it actually is. There’s some point-of-view shots with bits and pieces of distortion and some processing to make it feel like we’re looking through a web camera or Ava’s point-of-view, so there was a lot of work done on that. And there’s a lot of bread and butter type work. For example, most of the monitors that you see, that’s been replaced in post because we weren’t sure exactly what was going to play on those monitors. On set we just set them to a mid-gray so they were offering some illumination and then we replaced the content with what was appropriate in post. A small one that no one will ever notice, the mobile phone that Caleb has on set was a particular brand of mobile phone that we ended up not being able to use, so that was replaced with a CG phone, so we had to design a CG phone that didn’t look like anybody else’s. It’s only in five or six shots, but it’s there. I guess the other big aesthetic element which is sort of part of the robot but kind of not was her brain. There’s the scene in the lab where they’re holding her brain, and it sort of has this kind of jellyfish feeling inside. That was a big design effort as well. A company called Milk did that and Sara Bennett was the VFX supervisor there. So that, again, was a discussion of how do we make it feel not mechanical exactly, but not like a natural brain, but also having some sort of qualities of the organic to it as well and that was another design process of layering up different ideas and different shapes and how they were lit.