Practical Magic: Behind the scenes on Ex Machina and Macbeth with Artem SFX
Andrew Jones | On 03, Jun 2015
With Ex Machina out now on DVD, Blu-ray and digital platforms, we take a tour of Artem’s studios, who were behind some of the film’s special effects.
Artem have been working in the background of cinema for many years, with CEO Mike Kelt and his team credited on such works as Hot Fuzz, X-Men: First Class, Prometheus and the upcoming Michael Fassbender/Marion Cotillard Macbeth.
Their works spread from miniatures and animatronics to rain, snow and other weather effects, bringing life to scenes and, in some cases, characters. For Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller (about a coder who wins the chance to test a new robot, designed by his reclusive boss), Artem were asked to provide a futuristic range of props, ranging from the characters’ ID cards to surveillance cameras and a specially-constructed multi-functional phone. The work included four card reader units lit by red and blue LED lights with inbuilt screens inside CNC cut-acrylic casing, all designed as fixed parts of the sets to add to the atmosphere of confinement and control.
“For Ex Machina I required very specific and practical futuristic props made to a high level of detail and finish. This was achievable because of the expertise, hard work and flexibility of the team at Artem,” says production designer Mark Digby.
Kelt adds: “Ex Machina is a dynamic and intelligent film, which draws on a range of special effect techniques to create an authentic futuristic universe that engages with ideas and fears about artificial intelligence. With low key naturalisation alongside high-tech stylisation, it’s been really exciting for us to work on the project.”
How, though, does this practical magic happen?
In the west of London sits their home base, a large building in the middle of an industrial park that seems normal, mundane, but the minute you step in and are greeted by a tall Master Chief, and a few Gremlins – plus a vast array of creatures and memories from games, TV, films and adverts of the last few decades – things start to get a little crazy.
Before setting about the entire warehouse, we sit down to get an overview on Artem’s work, including some nice glimpses of Ron Howard’s upcoming The Heart of the Sea and recent Cannes hit Macbeth, whose prominent smoke visions were all Artem’s creation.
“We had to cover the hills and mountains and areas we were filming in with mist, mostly because they wanted a mysterious Scottish feel, and nobody thought it could be done,” says Kelt, while explaining Macbeth’s misty effects, which mixed Artem’s portable smoke machine with small pipes and a fan.
“Different people had different views. You’re overcoming what people think is impossible. We had to plum up the countryside, in a way.”
Filling up the highlands looks like a long process, however…
“In essence, you set the fan down, you connect it up to a generator. If there’s no power, you set the smoke gun going and fire up the fan and the roll of plastic just inflates at 100mph.”
We are given a tour of the facilities, seeing people hard at work in the sculpting department, which houses a torso full of carvings that was used in a film called Dread. “At one point a character opens a briefcase and takes out a person’s skin” is how this sight sitting in the middle of the room is explained – no doubt a family classic for the ages.
Molds of winged beasts, faces and small creatures adorn the shelves, overlooking other buildings, where more standard industry work is taking place.
Going to the lower levels and into the physical workshops, we are given an inside look at two modern insurance icons: Churchill and Confused.com’s Brian, both fully functioning within a minute of getting them out of their boxes, although neither is willing to give us a quote without a detailed medical history. Moving away from the insurance giants, a glimpse deeper into the production; most excitedly of all, a giant robot hand carving away and changing tools for the job.
Who can remain still at the sight of a functioning machine creating? The mind boggles at the sheer evolution that has gone into it. It certainly distracts from the Homepride man’s giant smiling head staring across the room.
The visit goes out with a suitable bang, as a jacket full of squibs is presented. “Who wants to get shot?” we are asked. As sad as it is to say, we fair folk at VODzilla.co balk at the opportunities to be blasted apart – there’s yet to be confirmation about streaming services in the afterlife – so we stand back and watch, with our camera set to slow motion.
It seems silly to think that a squib, a small explosion, wouldn’t be so loud, but it catches us off-guard for certain, and we suspect the kindly tester is a bit surprised at the events as well.
While we never see the cameras and ID cards that Artem made for Ex Machina, props that bring a lot of weight to the sci-fi thriller, the company’s craft, talent and love for their work shines through, with staff members talking about projects they worked on with joy and love.
Luckily, we don’t need an ID card for the door to let us out at the end.
Ex Machina is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. Read our review here. For more information on Artem, visit www.artem.com