Have ever wondered how can a film guide your thought towards a specific direction, and afterwards surprise you with a plot twist? Even if you paid the utmost attention to it? Ex Machina (2014) can be surprising in a number of ways. However, Alex Garland and his talented crew leave a few tips and traces behind and, if your cinematic eye is sharp enough, you can pick up a few signs and anticipate some of the revelations the film offers. Well, we decided to briefly analyze the role of lighting and color used in the cinematography of the movie, so, for those of you who haven’t seen Ex Machina: SPOILER ALERT. Go watch the movie and then come back!
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Well, for those who need their memory refreshed, Ex Machina tells the story of a young computer programmer named Caleb (played by Domnhall Gleeson) who is summoned by the CEO of the company he works for — called Bluebook — to take part in an AI experiment. He goes to the CEO’s house, Nathan (portrayed by Oscar Isaac), to conduct a Turing test on AI Ava (Alicia Vikander) — he has to assess whether she has attained human conscience. Despite the moral and philosophical implications the film brings to surface, today we’ll focus on light and color.
When interviewed by several sources on his choices of camera and lighting fixtures, cinematographer Rob Hardy, BSC, came out as a fierce advocate of tungsten light. With the comfort that LED lighting offers, tungsten bulbs seem a rather old-fashioned choice. However, as Hardy explained, tungsten lights are more easily handled — he can add character to a space more easily, making it look enclosed or even claustrophobic. Those who have seen the film surely remember it happens mostly below ground. But the sense of seclusion is also due to the lighting — composing an atmosphere of suspicion and mystery.
On the other hand, tungsten light grants honesty to the photography of the film. If we bear in mind that Ex Machina is a movie about constructing Ava’s humanity, or rather convincing everyone of it, honesty is a key factor. And LED lights are clearly associated with sci-fi movies. Therefore, to get a more real ambiance, Hardy decided to go with tungsten.
Besides, tungsten offers a more subtle kind of light, so it never takes the “spotlight” from Ava or the story itself. Rob Hardy also decided to go with accent light, whether it was wall mounted lights or wall washers, to get a sense of translucence and gauziness and also to avoid distractions from the story. The source of light becomes untraceable. However, a question emerges: if the film uses a sort of low-key lighting, never “highlighting” a particular character, how can the audience figure out who to trust? Who is good, who is evil, who has the power, who will prevail?
The first time we see Ava, she appears in shadow. Everything is dark and she is merely a black silhouette. In Ex Machina, black is Nathan’s color and symbolizes, among other things, power, anger, guilt and evil. It can also represent imprisonment, opposed to the white and light outside — if we think of Ava and her great final escape. In this scene, light is also outside, as well as green. Green is the color of life, renewal and self-awareness, and doesn’t almost appear in the movie, except outside. Maybe the crew is trying to warn us of something about Ava.
On the other hand, when she comes closer, we can see that Ava has blue lights on her body. Blue is maybe Caleb’s primary color, although he oscillates from one color to the other throughout the film, which indicates he might be unsure of his convictions. However, Ava having blue on her might be a way of obscurely convincing Caleb to trust her and commit to helping her. Besides trust and truth, blue also indicates tranquility and permission: the positive access light are blue, opposed to the forbidden red lights.
Red is also a prominent color in emotionally narrating of the movie. Red bulbs are used for differentiating the rooms Caleb has access to from the rooms Nathan would rather keep locked. This is a basic function of red, like we have on traffic lights. Rob Hardy confessed the set of Ex Machina should have approximately 7000 bulbs on it. That probably explains why the whole scene goes full red when there are power cuts. The power cuts are the periods of time when Ava can talk sincerely to Caleb, warning him about Nathan and his true colors. However, the one who appears covered in red is Ava. The only time he becomes red is when he is stabbed. On the contrary, when Ava starts dressing up, she gradually chooses red colored clothes.
The dance scene is most hilarious and confusing. What do the colors mean? Red and blue, confusion, instability, ominous, on the verge of the climax. Who is right, who is wrong, who to trust? Although successfully seeming a human story, it might seem hard to define who is more human.
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