Spoilers for Annihilation below.
The specter of Tim Burton loomed over the production of Annihilation. Writer/director Alex Garland and production designer Mark Digby were in the midst of adapting Jeff VanderMeer’s sci-fi novel about Area X, a plot of land where nature has been perverted, and they were grappling with a particularly tricky visual. About halfway through the film, the film’s leads come across a series of wooden growths shaped and sized more or less like humans. One of the people comments on how the alien presence that invaded Area X must have given the plant DNA elements of human DNA. It’s an arresting image, but Digby was worried about it for a very specific reason.
“It was really, really hard to make a representation of a human in a plant without thinking Edward Scissorhands,” Digby recalls with a laugh. “Without being a topiary. It has to give the notion that we wanted: that it was human-esque, but not human. Also, from a different angle, you don’t see them. But if you come up the right angle, they become people.” He lets out an almost imperceptible sigh. “It’s quite complicated.”
That’s the Annihilation design process in microcosm: make something natural, yet distinctly unnatural; make it hard to visually process, yet immediately impactful; and make it all seem like nothing viewers have ever seen before. It was no easy task, and, according to Digby, it took long discussions, diverse sources of influence, and a lot of outré mathematics.
The Philosophy of Area X
Digby and Garland had previously collaborated on Ex Machina, so they had an existing rapport, but knew this film had to be something sui generis. “I think Alex described it as going from suburbia to psychedelia,” Digby recalls. The story begins with Lena (Natalie Portman) in an ordinary college town, then moves her and a team of armed scouts to a swampland where the rules of biology and physics no longer apply. In crafting the latter environment, Digby and Garland started by more or less throwing away the visual descriptions from the book upon which the story was based. “We went off on our own to the script,” Digby recalls. “I think we took the rules [of the book], then took our own imagination of what things would be and how they would be.”
The keyword for everything Lena and her cohort sees is mixing. There are the aforementioned people-growths, there are animals hybridized with one another, there are crystals that have grown like trees, and there are walls that have started living. Digby says they wanted to take the concept of mixing to an extreme conceptual degree.
“These species are intermixing and they shouldn’t, but what if you took that a step further and it wasn’t just species, but it was substances or types?” he says. “What would happen if a plant acted like a sound wave? Or electricity or fire did? A mineral might grow in an organic way. Something organic might grow in a geometric or a crystalline way. They were doing much of what they do, but in the wrong way.” As such, Digby and Garland looked at the way cancerous tumors force the body to grow contrary to the natural plans of DNA.
The Cave and the Lighthouse
The two also looked to an unusual source of inspiration for filmmakers: fractal mathematics. Fractals can get a bit esoteric, but the basic idea is they’re replications of an object based on a given mathematical formula. The results can be gorgeous and unlike anything a human might dream up on their own. Digby and Garland were particularly fond of a fractal-related concept called the Mandelbrot set, and put it to good use.
Take, for example, the cave beneath the lighthouse that Lena arrives in at the film’s conclusion. It’s a claustrophobic tunnel area with rounded growths emerging from every inch of the wall, floor, and ceiling. It gives off a vibe almost like an insect’s hive, but Digby says it’s all numbers. “The cave is a Mandelbrot explosion,” he muses. “If you start off with a ball or a cube and you put in this formula and you let the computer run and it grows, these three-dimensional shapes grow out in an odd way.” Gradually, you get an image that looks like a berry. “If you allow this berry, it’s mutating outwards, then you get a void that’s left behind. That is our cave and its structures. It’s a repetition of a pattern in three dimensions.”
The exterior of the lighthouse features a gaping hole where a meteorite struck it, and from that hole creep gross-looking tendrils. Digby says the tendrils weren’t actually inspired by anything organic, but rather by ice. “If you look at a lighthouse in Alaska, frozen lighthouses in Alaska, what happens is, when there’s these amazing storms, the water freezes in mid-motion on the lighthouses and you get these tentacles coming off them,” he says. “It’s like a growth that’s overtaken these Alaskan lighthouses. That greatly influenced that whole growth on the outside.”
If designing the cave was a math class, and the hole was fluid dynamics, designing the Shimmer was a lesson in atmospheric phenomena. The Shimmer is the multicolored energy field that surrounds Area X, constantly shifting and warping like an oil-bubble in sunlight. Digby says “it was a long while into the film” before they had it nailed down. “There are some amazing cloud formations around the world, and we looked at several of those,” he says. “Of course, we looked at the Aurora Borealis. It went back to the fact you have this ether that we live in, and within that, there’s electromagnetism, there’s radioactivity, and there’s the seen and unseen light spectrums. I think we sort of put all of those together and then came up with this living presence, which has light but has matter.”
We have to talk about the creatures. Perhaps the most terrifying scene of the film comes when Lena and her group are attacked by a deformed, bear-like animal with a ripped-apart head and a roar that sounds like the horrified screams of a dying human. A key goal, Digby says, was to make it as sad as it was scary. “I think the starting point for that was a damaged creature, but we wanted it to be powerful, as well, and threatening,” Digby recalls. “We didn’t want it to be a bear. We wanted it to have that general shape, but then we forged in these other images and that sad-looking physiology, with some of its face disappearing. It had been destroyed and changed. Also, things had grown cancerously. Half its face is missing, as if you’d had cancer of the mouth.”
They also sought to make it look unwell by making it pale — something they also did for a shark/alligator hybrid that appears earlier in the film. “Another feature we looked at was changes in pigmentation,” Digby says. “The plants that they first see, a lot of them are white. The alligator-shark is white, it’s all devoid of its normal pigmentation. When we were [researching], we found some baboons, some other animals where they started to lose their pigment and their fur and they looked pretty ill.”
Another gross-out moment comes when the group finds footage of a previous expedition. In it, one soldier cuts another soldier’s stomach open to reveal that his guts have been replaced with slithering tubes that look like eels. Digby says the man hasn’t exactly been hybridized with any particular animal — it’s just “weird stuff going on inside of his guts.”
“We looked at decaying people and how maggots and other bugs overwhelm your body,” he says. “We looked at eels, we looked at all of those sort of animals, fish, microscopic worms, and stuff. It’s been able to take his DNA and his organs and they’ve mutated into something that’s a replica of some sort of animal, fish, eel, or bug, at some point. Where that knowledge has come from, I guess I’m not quite sure, other than that our genome history is mixed with so much else through evolution.” There was discussion of having the growths come out of his stomach or mouth, but they “thought it’d be far better if it’s living in there and that it’s growing from within.”
The man with the stomach-growths meets an untimely end, but his body doesn’t stop growing. Lena and the crew find that his corpse expanded out into a wall-sized explosion of color and branching lines. “That started off as a rock, a crystalline rock that’s been cut in half,” Digby recalls. “If you look at these beautiful minerals, when they slice them, you have these concentric circles of different-colored polished stones. They radiate out and they mimic the growth of trees and the rings of trees. Then we also imagined that it would have some organic growth, which is feathering out afterwards.”
That’s where Digby encountered another mathematical concept: a Lichtenberg figure. Roughly speaking, Lichtenberg figures are branched lines created by electricity (lightning is an example of a Lichtenberg figure, for instance). Digby and Garland opted for something like an organic Lichtenberg with the dead man’s expanded body. “It sort of looks like black mold, but growing in a sort of tree- or river-like way,” he says. “It’s very much like those pictures from space of rivers with all their tributaries coming out. We took that as an inspiration as well. It’s not an explosion, but it’s something that’s happened that makes it grow further and further away. Things get separated and things grow in odd and fearsome ways.”
Speaking of fearsome: Lena meets her greatest threat near the film’s conclusion, when the otherworldly forces of Area X create a humanoid figure that mirrors her every movement. It almost looks like a walking embodiment of the Shimmer in its color and translucence, and it’s faceless and featureless.
“It was about replication, but not full and exact replication,” Digby says of the humanoid. “It was having the feral-feeling similarity of a tumorous humanoid, but not fully. You feel it’s a physical ghost of humanness. It was always supposed to replicate and mirror what she does and what she is, but always leave in the mind the doubt of what it is, actually. It’s in a stage of becoming something else or someone else.” There were early discussions about giving it a face, but “we threw that out at some stage. We said it’s far more powerful if it was trying to become the other thing, the other person, but not quite making it.”
Location, Location, Location
And yet, despite all these mind-bending designs, when I ask Digby what his biggest challenge was, he lands on something unexpected: location. Area X was shot in England, but is supposed to look like an American swampland. “One part was shot in Windsor Park, which is the Queen’s grounds, part of her estate,” he says, laughing. “That whole swamp area where there’s the sunken trailer in the marsh, the floating house that’s hunkered down and where the shark-alligator attacks them? That was in a quaint little pond in a very British park owned by the queen. If it’s seamless and you don’t really feel like, Yeah, these guys did it in England, then that’s the best comment I can get.”