When Sara Bennett co-founded the visual effects production company Milk, she didn’t want to be the only woman in the room.
“I’ve always been aware of making sure we have a nice ratio of women to men in the company because it’s just a nicer work environment for starters,” she says. “I’m very aware if two people came in for the same job, a man and a woman, and they’re both equally skilled and both great at what they do, I’d naturally pick the female because it’s important to change the ratio up a little bit. I think we’re currently at 70% percent men, 30% women.”
On Sunday, Bennett will single-handedly raise the ratio of women nominated for a visual effects Oscar as the first female nominee in that category in more than a decade. What’s more, Bennett is the only third woman to be nominated for a visual effects Oscar in 86 years.
“I found it kind of a little shocking that … I’m only the third female nominee,” Bennett said over the phone from London. “I work with a lot of very talented and creative women in the industry. There’s only been three, so yeah it’s important to me”
Before Bennett, the last woman nominee in the visual effects category was Pamela Easley for the 1993 movie “Cliffhanger.” Bennett, nominated for her work in “Ex Machina,” hopes that the numbers will change.
And she’s not alone in this. Marvel’s executive vice president of physical production, Victoria Alonso, called out the lack of women at the Visual Effects Society Production Summit in 2014. “You’ve got to get the girls in here, boys,” she said in her keynote address. “It’s better when it’s 50-50…I have been with you beautiful, handsome, talented, creative men in dark rooms for two decades and I can tell you those rooms are better when there are a few of us in them.”
It’s not lost on Bennett that her Oscar nomination comes from her contribution to director Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina,” a film that examines gender bias. “Ex Machina” takes on the traditional love triangle trope by introducing Alicia Vikander as Ava, a feminine robot.
Created by self-aggrandizing genius Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac) and scrutinized by Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) a sympathetic savior type, Ava is the focal point for the male gaze (among other things). But this isn’t the same old boy-meets-bot affair.
“It’s great it really turned it on its head,” Bennett said. “It’s a really nice twist. You kind of felt sorry for her and you think they’re going to escape together and fall in love, but the poor guy gets trapped in a house and left to die. It’s quite interesting.”
Bennett and her fellow “Ex Machina” nominees Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris and Mark Ardington were tasked with melding the world of the fantastic with the very real actress Vikander.
“We worked alongside [visual effects provider] Double Negative. They actually created Ava, the robot itself,” Bennett explained. “We did non-Ava effects. Our kind of workload was really the brain in the lab sequence, Ava’s POV and then the supporting effects throughout the film.”
Shaping the world through a one-year-old robot’s eyes, Bennett incorporated modern-day software with a dash of traditional science fiction filters. Garland wanted to incorporate heat signatures and facial recognition into Ava’s point of view.
And then there was Ava’s artificial intelligence, housed in a beautiful android brain.
“Initially it was a prop they shot on set, with a jelly-fied liquid inside a sort of plastic container,” Bennett said. “After it had all been shot Alex quickly realized he wanted something a bit more relatable to Ava, a bit more beautiful for that whole scene. The shape is kind of related to a human brain. But if you look at the detail of it there’s a sort of mesh that gives it a computerized feeling that sits over the top of it. We also used the reference of jellyfish which gives [the brain] nice movement and an ethereal look.”
The work from the crew at Milk combined with the startling creation of Ava’s transparent robot form by Double Negative created an android the audience could fall in love with. And clearly the Academy fell in love with the work the VFX team spent on Ava.
But did Bennett see the nomination coming?
“To be honest I was in complete shock. When they were doing the nominations I actually went to an exercise class because I couldn’t face watching it. When I came out my phone went crazy, I got text messages and calls. I was completely just like numb for the first two days, but really thrilled.”