Interview: Why Ex Machina’s visual effects will stun you in their simplicity

This isn’t Star Wars

With Oscars weekend upon us, we have the nominated flicks on our minds, and one standout film in particular. No, it’s not The Revenant.

Ex Machina, an independent film with a small cast, is up for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. It’s going up against big blockbusters Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant, though it stands as good a chance as any of winning.

To discuss its stunning visual effects, whether we should be scared of artificial intelligence (AI) and the role virtual reality already plays in storytelling, I chatted with Ex Machina’s visual effects (VFX) supervisor, Andrew Whitehurst, who may take the stage on Sunday night with his fellow nominees Mark Ardington, Sara Bennett and Paul Norris.

Whitehurst, who’s worked on big-scale films, like Troy, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, believes that, even as VFX has matured over the last decade to be a fundamental part of production rather than an afterthought, the industry is being pulled in two directions.

“The blockbusters continue to get bigger and brasher, and people love them for it. So, massive films, with huge crews and stellar budgets, will continue for the foreseeable future. I think that’s widely appreciated, though,” he says. “What perhaps many cinema goers don’t notice is that more lower budget, less spectacle-heavy films are making much greater use of VFX.”

Films like Ex Machina. By most accounts, the film stands apart when compared to the other VFX nominees. It’s smaller in scale than Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Revenant, and quieter than Mad Max: Fury Road, or even The Martian. It’s visual effects, though stunning, aren’t delivered as heart-pounding spectacles.

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“Perhaps, in as much as we should have a concern about any entity with intelligence and agency,” he replies. “I am far more worried about human intelligence though, or rather the lack of it. I think people are far more dangerous than machines.”

However, in terms of technologies being developed for storytelling, he’s excited for the possibilities of VR.

“VR is a medium that we, as a culture, don’t really understand yet. We don’t know how, or even if, it should be a storytelling medium,” he says.

“The first time you try VR that works and you get the sense of presence, of being somewhere other than your physical location, is tremendously powerful. To me, this is the most exciting area of technology-driven visual art.”