Meet the Woman Who Recreated the Machine That Helped Win World War II

Oscar nominee Maria Djurkovic spoke with Not Impossible Now about the challenges of rebuilding Alan Turing’s code-breaking machine for “The Imitation Game.”
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Oscar nominee Maria Djurkovic spoke with Not Impossible Now about the challenges of rebuilding Alan Turing’s code-breaking machine for “The Imitation Game.”

British production designer Maria Djurkovic has worked on numerous films in her career including Stephen Daldry’s “Billy Elliott” and “The Hours” and Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 remake of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”

She finally earned her first Oscar nomination earlier this month for “The Imitation Game,” the true story of Alan Turing, the World War II British cryptanalyst and pioneer of modern-day computing.

During the war, Turing led a group of scholars, linguists, chess champions and intelligence officers in a super-secret mission to build a machine that could crack the so-called unbreakable codes of Germany’s World War II Enigma machine. Racing against the clock as the war dragged on and the Nazis edged closer, this tireless team toiled at Bletchley Park (Britain’s code breaking center about an hour outside London) to create the code-cracking precursor to the modern computer.

The Imitation Game

Photo courtesy of the Weinstein Company

Their machine, the Bombe (or Christopher, as it was nicknamed after Turing’s childhood friend), helped shorten the war and, in turn, saved thousands of lives. In the film, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing who, after the war, was arrested and prosecuted for being gay, and Keira Knightley plays his trusted colleague Joan Clarke, who was willing to “cover for him” during the war so he could continue his work. Both also have received Oscar nominations.

It was up to Djurkovic and a team of artists and prop specialists to find period technology equipment or, if unavailable, create facsimiles based on drawings, sketches and photographs. She also conceived and executed the color motif and “feel” of the film, which is much brighter than most dramas made about this era.

On the set of “New World,” a Gus Van Sant-directed HBO miniseries filming in the Boston area, Djurkovic spoke by phone with Not Impossible Now about her Academy Award-nominated work on “The Imitation Game” and recreating a period of history that helped save thousands of lives.

NIN: When you were first asked to come up with building the Bombe prop, what did you do?

Maria Djurkovic: Bletchley Park gave us full access to everything. They have a replica of the Bombe there. Literally, on my first day (on the film) Morten Tyldum (the director) and I went to Bletchley. We stood there at this thing with all its rotors turning and spinning, and we decided then and there that the back of it was more interesting, where you see the inner workings, because the whole thing is inside this big box. We decided not to place it in its box but to show all that interior working. We decided to make it slightly bigger than the real thing. Those red wires that spill out of the machine that you see in the film are accurate. It actually has red wires. That was a bit of a gift. We amplified the volume (of wires) by quite a lot.

Maria Djurkovic

Maria Djurkovic was nominated for an Oscar for her production design work in “The Imitation Game.”

What was the biggest challenge for you?

Djurkovic: Number one, we had to create something that is visually arresting and interesting. I hope it is. It has a character of its own. Secondly, it actually has to look like it makes sense to people who know. I would be absolutely appalled if people who actually understood these things looked at it and laughed. So we based it very much on the reality so nobody will be writing in and complaining.

Who worked on it with you?

Djurkovic: I had a very technically-minded art director (Nick Dent) who was able to measure up the reality and take lots of photos, and, of course, we extrapolated, which is what we do all the time in movies. I had a prop buyer, Liz Ainley, who can ferret out almost anything. She found all these components that were period correct. And, because we didn’t have a big budget on this movie, I wasn’t able to send the thing out to prop makers. So we sort of made it in-house in the art department. One art director, who’s a very good model-maker, was taken off the drawing board and sent to the workshop with a bunch of interns, who spent hours soldering small elements together.

The other thing that we had to do — because in the film you see various stages of the machine, you see it when it’s still pretty skeletal, and you see it in a middle stage, and you see it complete — was we had to design our machine so that you could literally pull a section away or put a section in like building blocks that could move in and out very quickly, because you can’t keep the shooting crew waiting.

It was designed in such a way that you could add components and take components away. It really worked very speedily. All 11 sequences (involving the machine) were shot, I think, over two days.

Did you have a moment where you held your breath waiting to see if the machine would operate the way you intended?

Djurkovic: Absolutely, we did. The only bits we sent out to the prop makers were the actual rotors, which had to turn in a certain sequence.

Have you gotten feedback from historians?

Djurkovic: Bletchley Park (now a museum and heritage site) is exhibiting our prop. They have their facsimile and they have our version.

The Imitation Game

Photo courtesy of the Weinstein Company

You had to come up with the Enigma prop, too, right?

Djurkovic: No, that’s an actual Enigma machine in the film. Bletchley lent it to us. Obviously, a representative of Bletchley Park came down with it and they guarded it closely, but they let us use the real thing. The thing is with all the equipment, Bletchley was very cooperative in allowing us to use what we needed. For example, there is a scene where there are something like 30 radio operators using period radios, so we were able to the ones they had at Bletchley. They didn’t have 30 so our prop buyer scoured England for more radios. She put ads in magazines and found these collectors who had them as well as all the headsets that went with them. They each had to be marked so we could track which radio set belonged to which owner.

Did you build the second-generation machine in Turing’s Manchester home that audiences see in the film?

Djurkovic: That we departed far more from reality. We took more artistic license than with Christopher (the Bombe). Christopher is pretty accurate. The Manchester machine was not actually located in his house. It was located at Manchester University. Morten wanted it to look like it was the next stage of Christopher. It had to have a lot of Christopher about it, whereas the real machine is quite a different-looking thing.

Were you able to reference Turing’s sketches?

Djurkovic: Yes. For me, the really key thing is to find a character and a visual aesthetic for the film and for (London 1940s). We’ve seen this period so many times: England, World War II. It’s always brown and a little dreary. I didn’t want it to be that.

I went to the Science Museum in London, which just so happened to be doing an exhibition about Bletchley Park and Alan Turing when we started (pre-production). I saw this little drawing or sketch that Turing did in his post-war period at Manchester. I cannot even pretend to understand what it was about but it was this little graphic on a piece notebook paper. It was a red sphere, a black blob, and some little annotation. There was something about it that made me think, “Well, that’s it!” It’s all like code. Everything is dots and dashes and strokes and black and white … and red. So I extrapolated again, and I ended up using a lot of red. I painted the floor Hut 8 a very shiny bright red.

Since Christopher was the precursor to the modern computer, did the significance of that resonate with you? Also, were you moved by the fact that Turing’s invention helped bring the war against Germany to a swifter close?

Djurkovic: Yes. Absolutely. His story is so incredible and how he was treated so poorly (because of his sexual identity). I didn’t know a lot about Alan Turing or Bletchley Park before I started this film, but once I knew the story, I thought it was extraordinary and certainly worth telling. 

Top photo courtesy of the Weinstein Company