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A character stands in a golden room, gazing at something behind glass Image: FX

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Creating the stunning, surprisingly realistic world of 2020’s most underrated sci-fi release

Reality is often stranger than fiction

Director Alex Garland makes movies where the characters’ external surroundings might as well be the insides of their minds. His films tend to center on subjects and characters that have the power, expertise, or money necessary to force their exterior reality to try to match their internal reality.

Think of the house where the experiment of Ex Machina takes place, the pearlescent , seemingly alien intelligence of the shimmer in Annihilation, or the golden, almost holy computer lab in Devs, which is available to stream now in its entirety via FX on Hulu.

But those visuals aren’t Garland’s work. The set designs of many of his film and TV projects come from production designer and art director Mark Digby, who worked with Garland on each of those three projects, as well as films such as Dredd (which Garland wrote) and Rush.

I couldn’t get Devs out of my mind after watching it, however. The show tells the story of a computer magnate with seemingly unending wealth (Nick Offerman) who sets up an elite team of coders from his company, Amaya, in a secretive, sealed-off lab in the woods to work around the clock on a project that he hopes will return something he lost.

There’s a murder mystery, a love story, and a slow reveal about what the project — code-named “Devs” — is actually doing. Devs tells a complete story in a single season, and much of the story revolves around the lab that houses Amaya’s quantum computer, which looks like a glittering, decadent church of the mind.

Those golden visuals, completed by the unsettling sound design and score, gave the show its own soul during a time when most looks at the future tend to blend together. The lab in Devs is, as the cliché goes, its own character. I had to know how they did it.

I recently spoke with Digby about Devs’ awe-inspiring workspace, one of the show’s most striking visuals, and how so much of it was inspired by the realities of quantum computing and modern information security.

The future needs to be secure

Film is a collaborative medium, but viewers often talk and write about movies as if the writer and director deserve sole credit for the end product. Digby doesn’t seem to mind that Garland gets so much praise for his visual style, even though that style largely comes from Digby and his team.

“I can’t be frustrated by it, because even within my own department, it isn’t me that does all the work and comes up with all the ideas.” Digby told Polygon. “So I think to be fair, you have to take that onboard and just be happy that something you’ve created has been recognized and people are getting some joy out of it.”

On Devs, one of the biggest challenges for Digby and his team was the lab where a team of the best coders in an Apple-style software company works on an almost unimaginably difficult challenge. So how do you design an environment where the impossible is routine, and security is of utmost importance?

“The seed we were given was what was scripted, and it was building a floating city in a vacuum cavity,” Digby said. “That, essentially, was it.”

That initial idea gave Digby and his collaborators a lot of room to maneuver. No signals of any kind were to get out of the structure they needed to build, and nothing was to come in. And the typical thoughts that description might inspire had to be the first to go. No one wanted to put an obvious, foreboding structure on the screen that looked like every other secure lab in pop culture.

“We needed a building that would be protected from electromagnetic waves, interference, from light, from sound, from earthquakes, and from geophysical interruption,” Digby told Polygon. “And there are materials and patterns and things that do that. One of those is gold — gold and other metals in a mesh form … And you’ll find them in the components of much of your electronics. So, one of the things we did originally was just opening up and looking into electronic machines, and we found all these beautiful things which were often gold or aluminum or titanium.”

Inspired by the gold and the irregular textures, Digby wanted to design something that would suggest an effort to shield the structure from communication efforts, in or out. Within the show itself, the implication was that the lab designers considered security and functionality first, beauty second. But from Digby’s perspective, starting with a golden palette wasn’t just realistic, it was visually arresting.

For the shape of the interior structure itself, Garland himself brought up the Menger sponge, a 3D fractal pattern based on repeating patterns of nine squares.

It was a similar idea to what the team created under the lighthouse in Annihilation, in fact. The establishing shots of the golden lab in Devs showed just how alien and imposing, yet also symmetrical and beautiful, this design made the workspace.

But that establishing shot could be deceptive. Garland wanted the offices built as a practical set, because even the most beautiful structure still has to be functional if it’s going to be used as a film or TV set. Garland wanted to be able to put actors in the structure, and give them room to play their roles and their reactions as naturally as possible.

“One of the reasons I avoid storyboarding is to avoid prescribing to the actors where they need to stand or what they need to do,” Garland said in a recent interview. It’s important to him that his actors have the freedom to explore the space, to react to it and feel its power. Building something so large and strange is a huge challenge, but it gives actors something to understand and work off.

“So the remit from the beginning was that he wanted the whole thing, which just knocks you to the ground, because it’s quite a task to build a full-cube building,” Digby explained to Polygon. “I think we ended up being 60 feet cubed, and then the outer walls are placed at 90 feet, and he wanted it all covered in the pattern we use, which is real gold leaf. So we lined the studio with a cuboidal interior of 90 by 45 times four walls of gold leaf … but that was quite magnificent to do.”

The lab couldn’t just be a home for an otherworldly computer system, however. It also needed to be a human workspace.

“We came to the conclusion that it would be the bare minimum of what they needed,” Digby said. “And that would be a workstation, a cable for want of a better word, and a screen. And of course, an input device, your keyboard or mouse. There are no slots, you don’t need to bring data in on cards, you don’t need any other laptops. You’re not bringing in memory cards and bringing them out or anything like that, because everything is contained and secure within that floating building. And there’s only one way in and out. It was a long discussion.”

The unfriendliness of the space was part of the story — there’s a sense that the lab barely tolerates human wants and needs, apart from the desire to do the necessary work for Amaya. “[The lab] is floating in space. It’s a contained unit,” Digby said. “Out of this world in inverted commas. Separated from everything else, it might as well be a spaceship in one sense for these folks. They are separated from everyone else up there.”

Unlike most shows or movies set in this kind of environment, the lab actually existed in the real world. “Pretty much 99 percent was practical,” Digby said. Even the floating “elevator” that delivers people from the outside world into the world of the quantum computer was practically built, then pushed along a track to simulate the floating motion. Which brings us to the quantum computer itself.

When real is strange enough

Devs’ quantum computer is golden, and covered in small pipes and what appear to be thin wires of even more precious metal. But this wasn’t an exercise in creativity or world-building, the team just kind of created a larger visualization of a quantum computer.

“It looks like that because that’s what quantum computers look like,” Digby said. “If you look at the images on Google, you will see where that comes from. All we’ve done, essentially, is make it bigger.”

You can see an image of the real thing below:

“They’re normally encased In a protective sleeve, but when you lift that sleeve up, you get these chandelier-like machines full of gold, titanium, and aluminum, etc, and glass tubing,” Digby said. “So they have these chandelier shapes, or almost orchid strings, because the technology in those computers needs to be supercooled down to, I think, a few degrees Kelvin. So they are very sensitive to almost everything.”

You can see the final design from the show below:

That’s the remarkable thing about Devs’ design: Staying true to reality made the sets seem fantastic, even though the production was just trying to create a believable world. “It was quite a torturous process for us, because we fight against anything that’s too out of this world, too fantastic, and perhaps too distracting, visually, from the drama or from the reality we want to base in reality,” Digby said. “So it was quite a step outside our comfort zone, and it was great. Alex said ‘Go ahead, let’s have a look, let’s be a little more specific. Let’s see how we can push the limits.’”

It helped that, according to Digby, they were unaware of how much Devs’ religious undertone, or blatant religious imagery, would inform the work. That made for some happy accidents, such as the halo-style lamps that illuminate the trees near the lab. There had to be something there to provide lighting, but how to light a forest in a way that doesn’t look forced?

Set director Michelle Day came up with the answer that made it onto the screen: They would wrap each tree in a ring of light. The entire thing was designed and executed at the last second, resulting in some unintended magic on the set.

A character from Devs stands under a light, resembling a halo around his head Image: FX via Polygon

“Alex [Garland] as well worked out that if you’re in the right position, you get this iconic imagery,” Digby said, explaining the shots that seem to give certain characters angel-like halos, whether their in-universe actions earned it or not. “It all came about in the journey of filmmaking, I guess. It wasn’t scripted like that. But that’s the beauty, you know. That’s the beauty of what we do.”