Saturday 29 October 2016

The Architecture of The Passion of Joan of Arc

Located in Glostrup, a quiet suburb of Copenhagen, the Danish Film Institute’s Archive is where a great portion of Danish film history, but also some unique prints of world cinema heritage, have entered a pleasant dormancy of minus 5°C.

The mundane looking front building is at the back attached to vaults, sheltering thousands of films and film objects. Inside, there is nothing as ear-pleasing as the silence of a film archive, where the continuous and vague hum of ventilators is the closest thing to the murmur of celluloid.

Mikael Braae, film historian and curator of the feature films at the DFI, generously took me on an tour of the Archive which, after passing through freezing vaults, arrived at a huge storage room where on a temporary platform my attention is brought to a wrapped object: the editing table of the spiritual father of Danish cinema, Carl Th. Dreyer, which looks as unglamorous and modest as my grandmother’s sewing table.

Only a few meters away, inside wooden boxes fresh from an exhibition in Paris, lay the architecture models of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), a reminder of one of early cinema’s greatest sets, famous (or infamous?) for being a sturdy single-piece construction with bearing walls built merely to set the mood for the actors.

Monday 3 October 2016

An interview with Mark Digby, the Production Designer of Ex Machina

From Sketch to Screen: 
Production Designer Mark Digby Discusses "Ex Machina"

A striking contrast in the outset: an abundance of glass walls and virtual images (monitors, mobile screens) in a modern office building is cut to an aerial shot of solid, glacial mountains. Immediately after arriving at the main location where Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) meets his hi-tech tycoon employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac), Ex Machina's production designer Mark Digby sets the tone for what follows in a series of spatial and design contrasts between virtual and real, organic and artificial. Every window in the film, whether an architectural one or a computer window, opens to new images, to landscapes, physical and mental.

Set almost entirely in one house, in Ex Machina the space of the film is also a parallel narrative supporting the main storyline. This is, among other things, a post-digital variation on the theme of “mad scientist.” There’s the eventual dysfunction of the scientist's over-designed laboratory, his competition with God, and the inevitable grandiose plans that go awry. It is Frankenstein’s lab channelled through Silicon Valley ambitions. Yet, Mark Digby deliberately eschews the design traditions that come with that whole genre. Instead, he opts for subtle paradoxes: there’s glass, but there’s no transparency, there’s concrete, but there’s no sense of security. Nothing is as it seems.

Digby’s close and lasting collaboration with British directors Michael Winterbottom, Danny Boyle, and recent screenwriter turned director Alex Garland has touched different genres and design styles, enriching the visual experience of films while always adding something new to the narrative. One evening at the BFI Southbank in London, I spoke with him about Ex Machina.