ANNIHILATION

  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    The Shimmer Area X,
    Fishing hut…


    “We begin in the world we know, and we end in a world we don’t know...a journey from suburbia to psychedelia...”
    —Director Alex Garland

    Natalie Portman. Image ©2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Southern Reach Facility, holding cell…
    Lena [Natalie Portman], a biologist and former soldier, finds herself in an intake interrogation...

    Set Decorator Michelle Day SDSA explains...
    “We wanted the space to be ambiguous the first beat into it, confusing and disorienting for our character. Is it a prison, psychiatric hospital or military installation? All of which I referenced to design the furnishings of the facility interiors, which were custom fabricated...”

    Image ©2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Lena and Kane’s home…

    Lena [Natalie Portman] remembers the day her husband Kane left to go on yet another secret mission, this one more intense than any in the past...

    Image ©2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Lena and Kane’s home…
    Natalie Portman and crew prepare for a scene conveying the loss and disorientation she is going through re: her missing husband.
    Day describes...
    “The choices we made were understated, almost restrained, as this reflected both characters. We went for natural fabric, neutral tones, almost quiet. We felt they are discerning and conscientious...and then we added whispers of foreshadowing, such as the Japanese botanical woodblock print.”

    Image ©2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Lena and Kane’s home…

    After over a year, Kane suddenly appears.
    The scene’s layout becomes significant later...we find the same footprint in a house on the other side of The Shimmer...

    Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac.
    Photo by Peter Mountain ©2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Southern Reach Facility Platform,
    at the edge of Area X…


    The director prefers practical sets over CG whenever possible, so this is a combination. Day notes,
    “We fabricated all the various large scale environmental measuring equipment—our research was influenced by Arctic research stations. We built the interior and balcony of the platform and VFX extended on the wide view here.”

    Image 2018 Paramount Pictures.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Southern Reach Facility,
    intake cell…


    “We wanted it to read as an area of quarantine with clean room protocols...”

    Image 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Southern Reach Facility,
    intake cell…


    “We played with tinted glass. Alex preferred the blue color.”

    Image 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Southern Reach Facility,
    intake…


    “Lena gives a debrief on her experience.”

    Natalie Portman. Image ©2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Southern Reach Facility,
    rooftop…


    Lena [Natalie Portman] joins the expeditionary team....

    Gina Rodriquez,, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson.
    Photo by Peter Mountain ©2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    The Shimmer, Area X…

    Lena [Natalie Portman] crosses through and into The Shimmer....

    Image ©2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    First camp…
    Tessa Thompson as physicist Josie Radek tells the team they’ve immediately lost all contact with the outside world...

    Day imparts,
    “We filmed this in ancient woods near
    Pinewood Studios London.
    Here we placed green wool as Spanish moss in the trees. With rain bedding it in, the effect was really successful.”


    Image ©2018 Paramount Pictures.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Fishing hut…

    “Alex wanted to shot in chronological order of the script...so this was the first step into overtly strange.
    This is the set in progress...
    We fabricated the cypress trees, with VFX then extending the top half.”


    Image 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Fishing hut…

    Director Alex Garland and actress
    Natalie Portman work out the details of the upcoming scene in this half-submerged trailer...

    Photo by Peter Mountain ©2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.



  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Fishing hut…

    Former soldier Lena rescues the young physicist Josie who had been pulled under the swamp waters by an enormous mutant alligator...

    Natalie Pope, Tessa Thompson. Photo by Peter Mountain ©2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Fishing hut…

    “We ended up creating this set at Windsor Great Park, the ancient forest that is part of the grounds for Windsor Castle. We actually partially submerged this metal trailer in the pond there, based on location research Mark and I did in Louisiana. This, again, is the set in process of being completed...”

    For more details, see below!

    Image 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Swampland watch tower…

    “Again, we fabricated the cypress trees and stumps, the Spanish moss, and added 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.”


    Image 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.



  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Abandoned Army base canteen…

    The team has reached the Army post where the last team had headed...and discover a disturbing film left for whomever came next...

    Tuva Novotny, Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriquez.
    Image 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.




  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Abandoned Army base canteen…

    Day points out,
    “Our main work here was Greens adding all the encroaching plant life.
    That’s Rob Hardy our Director of Photography, with the viewfinder—he also shot EX MACHINA, members of our AD depart and Greens in the background.”


    Photo by Peter Mountain ©2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Abandoned Army base drained swimming pool…

    See below for details!


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Abandoned Army base approach…

    “Here is a detail of the mutations lichen on our set location in Oxfordshire. 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.”

    Image 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Ville Perdu, abandoned small town…

    “We found a site early in the scouting process that 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 lapse between finding it and shooting, so any grass cutting ceased from that first moment.”

    Image 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Ville Perdu, Victorian house interior…

    Dr. Ventress [Jennifer Jason Leigh], psychologist and expedition team leader, tries to assess the volatile situation.
    Note the kitchen layout/footprint echoes Lena’s...

    Image 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Ville Perdu, Victorian house interior…
    Ventress wearily ponders their next step. Lena will eventually sit in the chair across from her.
    “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.”
    Jennifer Jason Leigh, ©2018 Paramount


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Ville Perdu, Victorian house interior…

    The remaining team members barely survive another surreal situation, psychological drama and monstrous attack...

    Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson. Image 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.



  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Ville Perdu, Victorian house exterior…

    Lichen and mutating organic plant life...

    Image 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Ville Perdu…

    Plants take on humanoid form...

    Image 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Ville Perdu, Victorian house exterior…

    Humans are taking on plant form...mutations and new convolutions accelerate...

    Image 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Lighthouse…

    “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.”

    Image 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Lighthouse, chamber…

    “For the interior of this space we cued off of a file from Andrew Whitehurst, the VFX supervisor who was working on the Mandlebulb entity that Lena encounters.”

    Image 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Lighthouse, chamber…
    “Another work in progress...
    Andrew created for us a full-size 3d Mandelbulb object, which we sliced along the lines where it repeats, then had that segment milled out of dense foam to create the inner surface of one segment. It was huge, obviously, so the segment was milled in several pieces of which we made molds and then cast 8 repeats in spray foam and covered the final chamber in polyurethane to make it waterproof and hard-wearing for crew and actors.”



  • set decorator
    Michelle Day SDSA

    production designer
    Mark Digby

    Paramount Pictures


    Lighthouse, chamber…

    A cross-section of the Mandlebulb unveils the womblike interior, beyond that iterative fractal-like tunnel are terrors to come...

    Image 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.



 
Lena [Natalie Portman], a biologist and former soldier, joins a mission to uncover what happened to her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) inside Area X, a sinister and mysterious phenomenon—The Shimmer—that is expanding across the American coastline. Once inside, the expedition discovers a world of mutated landscapes and creatures—a world as dangerous as it is beautiful that threatens both their lives and their sanity. The anomalies within The Shimmer defy the laws of the natural world. Everything from the behavior of animals and the properties of light to the passage of time and the perceptions of the human mind are radically altered. From visionary writer and director Alex Garland, based on the acclaimed bestselling SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY by Jeff VanderMeer...          --Paramount Pictures
 
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.”
 
The Shimmer 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.” 

BRIDGE PROPS ATL | NY | LA
 
Lena and Kane's house...
 
“For Lena and Kane's 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 and Kane's 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 and Kane 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.”
 
Ville Perdue...
 
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.”
 
Lighthouse...
 
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...still undefined...
 
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.”
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
*Editor’s note:
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 [2]:
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!
 
 
 
 



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