The Envelope

'Imitation Game's' Maria Djurkovic details redesigning Turing's Bombe

'Imitation Game' production designer Maria Djurkovic details building Alan Turing's Bombe for the screen

Production designer Maria Djurkovic didn't need an engineering degree to build a replica of one of the world's first computers for the film "The Imitation Game." Called the Bombe by its real-life inventor Alan Turing, this 1940s proto-computer cracked the Nazi code encrypted by the German Enigma machines during World War II, thereby shortening the war and saving millions of lives, historians estimate.

Despite its complicated appearance, Djurkovic said of making the Bombe for the big screen, "It's not technical, that's the weird thing."

But that's not to say it wasn't challenging. The machine not only had to look accurate, it had to look accurate in various stages of its construction over a short shooting window.

"You see Turing [Benedict Cumberbatch] working on it at the very start, and then you see it halfway through and then the finished thing when the dials actually start moving," Djurkovic said. "But for us, we're shooting those things possibly over two days. So we have to be able to design it not just so it looks like it and the cogs turn. But we also have to design something that is like Lego blocks, fitting together so that you could just pull it apart [for an incomplete look] and push it together again without keeping the [production] unit waiting as you change from one scene to the next. So the pieces that you see in the film that turn around, they click on. You just click them on, and you pull them off again quickly, so it can look like a skeleton."

Djurkovic also had to design some 80 separate rooms and environments, including the United Kingdom's historical headquarters for code-breaking, Bletchley Park. To create a unifying style, she drew inspiration from one of Turing's own sketches, which was on display at London's Science Museum in an exhibition about the famed code-breaker, mathematician, computational biologist and computing pioneer.

"It's a little annotated diagram, which again, I have no idea what it actually even is," she said. "It was a red ring and a black blob and then some annotated notes. And I just saw this drawing, and there was something about the graphic-ness of it and the use of that color. And it's very difficult to explain, but I just suddenly thought, 'That's the key.'"

Below, a breakdown of the creation of the Bombe, which for the film is nicknamed Christopher after a childhood friend of Turing's.

"Bletchley Park has a replica and it's a working machine, and that was obviously available for us to look at and photograph and measure and the rest of it. It's a big dark brown box with dials stuck on the front of it. Not pretty. It's just not quite interesting enough. So our interpretation was: 'What would happen if we took that Bakelite off? Well, I guess you would be left with the metal framework.' So you say, 'OK, what if we build it in two parts, we show the skeleton of it, we show the innards of it?' So we decided to split it so that it opened out like a book. That is a contrivance of ours. We ended up just seeing the mechanics of it, which were very beautiful and came to life, the innards, the inner working of it."

"The dials, we replicated completely. We ended up sending the dials out to a prop maker, so they all turned. They obviously turn, and the rotors turn at different speeds, so we had to get that. That part got made by a prop maker specifically to our drawings. You know, there's that bit [in the film] where they all stand with bated breath: 'Will the machine work?' Well, we were a bit like that: 'Will it actually work?'"

"The real one does have red cabling coming out of it. Bright red. That's absolutely true. I didn't make that bit up, but I've added to it. I used the red wires abundantly, generously. There was a bit of artistic license there. I also painted the floor of Hut 8 a very bright glossy red color. But the use of that color has come from the machine, from the cables, from the fact that you've got military police in those uniforms with red hats. It's come from the material. I let the research give me the keys."

"The actual mechanics on the back part of the machine looked very much like the actual thing that you see at Bletchley. How it works, we don't even need to know. What it does, we don't even know. That whole gold latticework is something that is absolutely there in the original, and the weird piston things. And then I remember what we decided to do at the back was that we couldn't achieve quite that small scale, so we expanded the elements. So it turned into something that we practically could achieve."

"[Aside from the moving dials,] the rest of it was made like a big model within the art department. We had one young art director called Marco Restivo who was in the office — a particularly good model maker. We took him off the drawing board and had him literally wiring, soldering, fixing all these components together. And our prop buyer, who is just amazing, she finds things that you just don't quite know where she's managed to ferret these things out. And she found all these components that were period correct, so obviously that gives it a fantastic layer and authenticity. Everybody did their stint on the machine. We had a lot of interns coming whom we exploited hugely — my stepdaughter being one of them, who was very grumpy after having to plait endless bits of red wire. You want it to be dense, and that is just purely and simply and practically very, very labor intensive. I mean, it was a real labor of love."

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