Garland and his stalwart team—Set Decorator Michelle Day SDSA, whom everyone knows as “Meesh”, Production Designer Mark Digby and Producer Andrew MacDonald PGA have developed a deep friendship working together on all of Garland’s films, along with a group of other uniquely talented and creative adventurers, including Producer Allon Reich [Garland’s EX MACHINA] and Oscar Isaac in his second starring role for the writer director—willingly and eagerly joined in the collaborative process of film-making with Garland.
[Editor’s note: See Director’s Chair for an absorbing in-depth and candid interview with Garland re: the acclaimed EX MACHINA.]
Re: ANNIHILATION, his newest foray into mind-altering storytelling, he reveals, “The journey of the film...as we used to describe it among ourselves...was a journey from suburbia to psychedelia. We begin in the world we know, and we end in a world we don’t know, and we get there like a frog sitting in increasingly boiling water. It’s a journey from an objective state to a subjective state. And the people in this place go mad, which is, in some senses, falling deeper and deeper into your own subjective state.”
is a completely unknowable thing. Whatever lies on the other side is effectively a secret because every attempt to find out what’s inside by sending in previous teams or robots or drones, or light waves or radio waves—anything that’s gone in has effectively not come out. So, really, the most important thing about The Shimmer
...and the thing that’s causing the shimmer
...is that it’s unknowable, and its intentions, if it has intentions, are unknowable... it’s just a mystery.”
“I work closely with a team of people—the production design team, Meesh and Mark, we’ve been a team for over 20 years—and visual effects and camera, sound and music as well...and slowly in a sort of evolutionary way, we inched our way towards the thing it finally became.”
“We shot in order of the script,” says Day. “So every two days or so, we had to create something weirder and more extraordinary than the last. It was a challenge in many ways.”
Lena and Kane's house...
place, we tried to keep it relaxed, understated, almost restrained, to reflect both these characters,” Day explains. “We had many photos of them as a couple and a personal history of their lives together, frozen in time, just as Lena
seemingly is as she pines for the missing Kane
I placed a few items around that were a foreshadowing of the story to come. For example, a small hand-carved bear on her desk (Spoiler alert: There is a bear attack later in the film.) Japanese botanical woodblock prints whispered foreshadowing.” There was also a small grouping of art at the bottom of the stairs, which was somewhat mirrored in Ville Perdu
house. “This cluster was scripted,” Day recalls, “a snapshot history of Lena
relationship. We shot all these images in prep, which was a nice warm-up for everyone involved. We started with their wedding day, where they met on deployment as soldiers together, and all the other mundane but cherished moments of time spent.”
“For their whole house, we really focused on the kind of people Lena
would be: outdoors types, conscientious health-foodies, making the most of the moment. Then we find Lena
in this permanent pause of life.”
Day goes on to reveal, “The main focus of their house was that later in the story, it has an exact footprint and echo in the Ville Perdu
house. There, Alex wanted Lena
to sit in a chair in the same place Kane
does in their own kitchen. That moment...where she understands that she has passed the point of no return, that she is altered...chimes with the Kane
she met seated in their kitchen on the day of his return. And maybe in this moment she knows where he has been and where he is now.”
Area X – Fishing hut – The Shimmer...
“Since Alex wanted to shoot in chronological order, this was the first step into overtly strange.” Strange life forms in a seemingly normal setting...flowers of different species growing on the same stem, with heightened almost unnatural colors, spikey plants in the midst of a Spanish moss-draped forest marshland...strange lighting, strange creatures...
Digby points out that they created facsimiles of actual mutated plant life found around nuclear disaster sites. “We found reference for these near Fukushima and Chernobyl. A few years after the accidents, the plants started to grow in weird shapes and duplicate themselves. They still have the core essence of daisies or sunflowers, but they’re skewed. So we replicated that.”
Day adds, “One great thing about working with a director who also is the writer means we can very quickly respond and enhance an idea. As the story is based on an unspecified coast in the Southern reach,
Mark and I did some location scouting in Louisiana, as well as looking in the UK where we eventually filmed. While on the scout in Louisiana, we came across a semi-submerged hut and on return, the thought was that the encounter with the creature would be even more frightening if the characters were trapped inside this metal box.”*
“We ended up creating this set at Windsor Great Park, the ancient forest that is part of the grounds for Windsor Castle. We fabricated cypress trees and knuckles, then VFX extended the top half. Here we placed green wool as Spanish moss in the trees—with rain bedding it in, the effect was really successful. We added all other foliage that would take it from British woodland to southern North American swamp region. We were seeking a offness uniquely strange, the wrong made it right for our Area X
Natalie Portman, who plays Lena
recalls the transformation as astounding. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that, where an entire park is dressed. It was incredible. It was very Floridian in parts; the types of trees you see there, the swampiness of it. It was surprisingly realistic and strange at the same time.”
Abandoned army base...
As the expedition traverses further, trying to reach the center of The Shimmer
, they come upon an abandoned army post and more mutations, including unusual lichen covering part of the base approach, but this is just hint of what’s to come...
We won’t reveal exactly what they unearth, but Day does share, “We explored a lot ideas around how things in our known world would be changed and effected, themes such as rapid and uncontrolled abnormal tumorous growths. Our research included many things crystalline, microorganisms, fractals, Lichtenberg figures, lichens, spores, slime mold...and many of those influences can be seen in this fabrication. Our starting image for this particular scene with the pool wall was agate crystal stone, rings of growth pushing out. It is also has an echo of the birds eye view of this phenomenon as it journeys further, gaining ground.”
The remaining team stumbles upon an abandoned small town overgrown with heavy grasses and unusual foliage and plants, most of the structures in the process of being swallowed by the growth and lichens. Strange plants forming humanoid shapes...
Day recalls, “We found a site early in the scouting process which gave us a few broken down building structures to build from, but for the most part we built the houses. We took advantage of the time between finding it and shooting, so any grass cutting ceased from that moment. Our crew had to be extremely disciplined sticking to agreed paths as we attempted to preserve the untouched overgrown quality so needed. The main reference we settled on in our prep time was a prolific vine called kudzu currently taking over some places for real in Southern America.”
“This is where we find a house interior with the same footprint as Lena’s
, the kitchen table and chairs, while different, are in the exact same spot. And Lena
sees and experiences the connection, a deeper connection than one would imagine.”
The eerie light—the aurora borealis on steroids and beyond—increases, along with the other mutations, as the team goes deeper into The Shimmer
, to the point of a beautiful, yet ominous fractalized psychedelia at the lighthouse
, which holds the womb of The Shimmer
Incorporating the concept of the Mandelbulb—a three-dimensional representation of the fractal equation referred to as the Mandelbrot set where fractal figures are generated by an “iterative” procedure—a cross-section unveils the womblike interior.
“We filmed the lighthouse exteriors on Hunstanton beach, Norfolk,” Day informs. “Our research took us to frozen lighthouses on Lake Michigan. These mesmerizing ice formations, imposing giant icicles grown from the environmental conditions really lent itself to our needs that with our fractal-like motif combined gave us the look.”
Is it uncontrolled evolution through accelerated time folding back on itself yet thrusting forward simultaneously? Are the fractals purposely contorting as they expand, within us and without?
As Garland put forth at the beginning, “Is there intent...?”
He concludes, “My favorite things are the things that stay with you. They’re not full circles, they’re broken circles. And they have some afterlife. And that was precisely the nature of the book and it’s exactly what we would hope would happen with the film, that when the film is finished, it has a kind of clinging effect in terms of mood and some of the thoughts it provokes. In an ideal world, it would provoke a conversation or a dream, or something, and just continue to live in some kind of way.”
Director Alex Garland gives a fascinating account of this set, and credits Day [“Meesh”] for it, in an “Anatomy of a Scene” for the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/video/movies/100000005758332/anatomy-of-a-scene-annihilation.html?emc=edit_fm_20180223&nl=movies-update&nlid=60354414&te=1
** Editors note :
When we checked in with Day during this piece, she revealed, “I am working at the moment on some early research for Alex’s next project. I very much enjoy this part of the job, when you can push the practical thoughts to the back of your mind and focus solely on the big ideas first!