Artists from London’s Double Negative and Milk VFX took home the Oscar for Best Visual Effects for their work on Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. In winning, Milk’s co-founder, Sara Bennett, became one of two women to ever win the Academy Award for VFX — the other was Suzanne Benson for her work on Aliens during the 59th Academy Awards.
Bennett got the gold along with Double Negative’s Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris and Mark Ardington. This is Dneg’s second win in as many years, taking home the statue for work on last year’s Interstellar.
“I am beyond excited!! We are thrilled and honored to be recognized by The Academy for our work on Ex Machina,” says Bennett. “It was a privilege to work with Alex Garland and to bring his incredible vision to life, alongside Andrew Whitehurst and the Dneg team. I would love to see more women in prominent creative roles in our industry — I was a little shocked to find out I was the third-ever female VFX Oscar nominee.”
“I’m still in shock, I think, but what an incredible experience and what an amazing group of people to represent,” says Double Negative’s Whitehurst
Norris says, “It was an honor and privilege to represent out team at the 88th Academy Awards — it was an amazing experience that’s still sinking in!”
“The whole crew did an incredible job, and should be, rightfully, proud,” says Ardington. “Our work stands on the shoulders of every other department from day one — from reading Alex Garland’s amazing script, through to the beautiful cinematography, striking production design, ingenious costume and make-up, awesome soundtrack and, of course, the wonderful performances from Alicia, Oscar, Domhnall and Sonoya. What a journey this has been.”
Double Negative delivered 303 shots for Ex Machina, but that number is slightly deceptive due to the length of the shots — their average shot length was eight seconds and their longest shot was 1,800 frames.
According to Whitehurst, “The work on Ex Machina was focused around the creation of Ava, a robotic character, realized through the careful duplication of Alicia Vikhander’s performance mapped onto a fully articulated CG robotic body.”
Milk VFX, which worked on about 100 shots on the film, designed and created Ava’s CG brain, which is seen during the conversation between Nathan and Caleb in the construction lab. For the design of Ava’s brain, Milk was briefed to use jelly fish references while incorporating a computerized “tech” feel in its design.
Using Side Effects Houdini, the build was fully procedural with strong emphasis on the ability to quickly choreograph and combine major features to reduce the turnaround of versions during the look development phase.
Starting from a sculpted core mesh, a complex set-up was built to create the main features of the brain, including frills, tentacles, pores, antennae, wireframe cages and air bubbles. The Milk team opted for noise-driven animation over simulations in order to avoid having to rig and animate each shot separately. Collisions were solved by post deforming wires and meshes using volume collision approaches where necessary. The resulting brain asset was then brought into Maya for shading and lighting using Arnold and finally composited in Nuke.
Milk was also tasked with devising a look and style for Ava’s visual point of view — seen at the start of the film when lead character Caleb wins the office lottery, and in the bathroom scene. A range of supporting 2D shots was also created, including environment fixes, compositing and monitor inserts with animated graphics.