‘Gravity’: The Pain of Isolation and the Importance of Connection in the Face of Adversity

 

June 10, 2024

 
By Koraljka Suton

 
In 2013, a thrillingly ambitious, yet incredibly intimate science fiction drama set in space and revolving around just two characters became the highest-grossing movie of the year (over $723 million), went on to garner universal acclaim from critics and moviegoers alike, as well as win seven Academy Awards (out of ten nominations), including Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects. But when Alfonso Cuarón set out to make a new film, space was the last frontier that was on his mind, even though he has had an affinity for it ever since he was a child. In 2008, a road movie entitled A Boy and His Shoe he had co-written with his son Jonás fell through due to the expiration of funds in the wake of the Great Recession. Despite this unfortunate turn of events, the father-son duo did not resort to sitting idly by. Instead, they went to work and completed a draft for a new film in just three weeks’ time. However, this writing process did not start out with a story the two had instantly come up with, but rather with a very specific theme Cuarón senior had had in mind. And that theme was adversity. Knowing, as Carolyn Giardina of The Hollywood Reporter wrote, “when to fight and when to give up.” And clearly, the Cuaróns knew better than to give up.

The co-writers then started considering survival scenarios, using films such as Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) and Spielberg’s Duel (1971) as important points of reference. The existential subtext that permeates those two movies, both of which have zero to do with space, was what truly fascinated Cuarón. He and his son discussed isolated locations and hostile environments that could serve as the perfect setting for them as writers to explore the theme they had settled on. Like the desert, for instance, an idea they ultimately ended up deserting. But just for the time being—it was destined to resurface several years later, when Jonás went on to direct, co-write, produce and edit the 2015 desert film Desierto, with his father acting as co-producer. In the end, the setting they came up with for their survival movie was one of unparalleled isolation. In Alfonso Cuarón’s own words: “Then we said: ‘OK, let’s take it to an extreme place where there’s nothing.’ I had this image of an astronaut spinning into space away from human communication. The metaphor was already so obvious.” This was the inception of Gravity.

 

And while writing the script was one thing and required little to no labor pains, getting it made was a whole different ball game. Because much like the film’s main character, the director had to show quite a bit of resilience in the face of unforeseen adversity. Cuarón intended to develop Gravity at Universal Pictures, the studio behind his brilliant dystopian film Children of Men (2006), with Angelina Jolie in talks to play the female lead. But then the first blow was dealt—in 2009, chairman Marc Shmuger and co-chairman David Linde were fired, leaving the future of Gravity on shaky ground. So Cuarón went with his project to Warner Bros., the studio behind the third Harry Potter installment (Prisoner of Azkaban) which he directed back in 2004. Warner Bros. president Jeff Robinov took on the project, despite initial budgetary concerns—after all, female leads in action films had never been a big selling point. But with Angelina Jolie on board, along with Robert Downey Jr. as her male co-star, those concerns were soon alleviated.

Then came the second blow: Jolie had to leave the project due to scheduling conflicts with her directorial debut, the Bosnian war film In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011) and Downey Jr. also bowed out in favor of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), leaving the project hanging in the air yet again. Actresses such as Marion Cotillard, Blake Lively, Naomi Watts, Carey Mulligan, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Abbie Cornish, Olivia Wilde and Sienna Miller were all considered for the part, with Natalie Portman being offered the role without a screen test, and the Black Swan star turning it down due to scheduling conflicts. It was only then that Sandra Bullock was asked to portray Dr. Ryan Stone. And she accepted. Warner Bros. tried to replace Downey Jr. with the likes of Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks and Will Smith, before landing on George Clooney.

 

As if getting Gravity off the ground was not challenging enough, the question of how Cuarón’s vision would be turned into reality was one the director had no answer to. And even though his cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, who he had collaborated with on five films before Gravity, was there to help him work out the how of it all, that didn’t make the technical aspect any less challenging (fun fact: both Cuarón and Lubezki were kicked out of film school the same year for ‘being obnoxious’. According to the filmmaker: “We thought the way the National Autonomous University of Mexico was doing things and our way of doing things was not compatible.”)

So, how was Gravity made? For one thing, more than eighty percent of the film was shot in CGI (in comparison, James Cameron’s Avatar was ‘only’ sixty percent CGI). The whole movie was previsualized with precise computer graphics, meaning that the characters’ every move was already determined by the animation, giving the actors very little leeway in terms of improvisation. One of the challenges the director and his DoP encountered was the production of the interactive lighting i.e. simulating outer space when the characters are spinning. It was Lubezki who figured it out—in the middle of a Peter Gabriel concert, where he was taken aback by the LED stage lights. And even though LEDs are frequently used in films today, it had never been done up until that point. The actors were put inside a six-meter-high light box, equipped with 4,096 LED bulbs on its inside walls, which were programmed to project moving pictures of Earth and outer space. Robotic cameras that were placed inside the cube along with the actors would then shoot close-ups. That way, in scenes where Sandra Bullock’s character can be seen spinning out of control, the actress herself was not the one who was spinning—the lights were. Impressive as it may be, the filming process was very daunting for Bullock. She had to spend up to ten hours a day inside the light box, more often than not in total silence, apart from direction she would get through her headset. She was also in a lot of pain due to the demanding physical nature of the gig—certain scenes demanded that her movements be filmed underwater, others required her to be attached to a complex suspension system while performing choreographed moves. She later went on to say the following: “My situation was somewhat like the situation the character was in. There’s no one around, you’re frustrated, nothing works, you’re in pain, you’re lonely, you want someone to fix everything for you but they can’t—all those things I was feeling.”

 

But even after finding solutions to all of his technical problems, there were still more bumps in the road for Cuarón to hit—or satellite debris in space, if you will. Warner Bros. began doing test screenings of the unfinished film in the summer of 2012. Cuarón was against this because the version that was shown lacked special effects, with clumsy animation in their stead. Test audiences did not respond well, as they were left wondering why there were no monsters or aliens in the film. Cuarón felt disheartened, but did not give in to those wishes. Things started coming up roses at Comic-Con that same year, where the film’s uninterrupted thirteen-minute opening sequence was screened in front of 6,500 people who watched in awe before going wild. That’s when the studio knew they had this one in the bag.

Gravity follows medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone on her first stint in space aboard the Space Shuttle Explorer. She is to perform hardware upgrades on the Hubble Space Telescope, and is accompanied by experienced astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). But what started off as a standard mission quickly morphs into hanging on for dear life as space debris from a shut down satellite begins to rapidly approach them. With the Explorer destroyed, Stone and Kowalski soon find themselves its sole survivors and need to figure out a way to get back home safely. And they need to do it fast.

 

Before there is any hint of danger, Cuarón lulls us into a false sense of safety, making us feel the incomparable silence of space that Stone states she is going to miss most upon returning to Earth. But the director soon pulls the rug from under our feet, as the blissful endlessness turns into a living nightmare and the prospect of drifting into silent darkness, a horrifying way of drawing one’s last breath, becomes a feasible reality. From the moment the debris starts coming their way, Dr. Stone goes into survival mode, with Gravity magnificently and accurately presenting us with all of its stages—from total freeze to fight/flight and all the way back to freeze and beyond (i.e. shutdown due to sheer overwhelm), before our heroine ultimately musters up the energy to fight until the very end, no matter the outcome. Witnessing Ryan go through all these stops makes for a visceral, anxiety-inducing ride, with Bullock and Cuarón intending for us to feel every ounce of fear, panic, loneliness and loss that the character experiences during the film’s ninety-minute run time. But those are not the only feeling states that forcefully take over her entire being—there is also relief. And immense hope. After all of her attempts either backfire or lead to dead ends, leaving little to no room for a solution of any kind, she quite literally surrenders, embracing the futility of her endeavors and accepting her fate. At that exact moment, the seed of hope finds a way to bloom yet again. Life finds a way.

And the catalyst for that process is the polar opposite of the terrifying isolation she was forced to endure the moment Kowalski made a pivotal decision that saved her life. The catalyst for that process was connection. In the vastness of the ever-expanding cosmos that carries no sound, with literally zero ground to fall back on, a mere sliver of connection can do wonders for a human being’s neurobiology. In one’s darkest hour, that sliver can be enough to turn one’s life around. Or in the case of Dr. Stone: that sliver has the power to become the difference between life and death. Throughout Gravity, connection is powerfully displayed as the tether that keeps the characters both grounded and sane. Kowalski knows this, which is why he never once stops communicating with Stone, offering her reassurance and providing her with unwavering contact that pulls her back into reality and helps her orient to the here and now when it is most needed. Without the safe connection he provided and the orientation he helped her re-establish, Stone would have been a goner.

 

This experience with Kowalski was what ultimately enabled her to find the solution in the aforementioned darkest hour and reignite the flame of hope—because even after he was long gone, it was the memory of him, his goal-oriented demeanor and the feeling flavor of their back-and-forth that her subconscious employed so as to show her the key that wasn’t accessible to her while she was in fight/flight. Yes, the answer was inside her all along, she came up with it. And yes, the way she was able to do that was by connecting with another human being—even if he was a hallucination. Connection to that which was other (even if that other was inside of her) was what gave her hope. The same way that, moments before she gave up, the sliver of connection she managed to grab and hold on to thanks to an attempt at radio communication with a non-English speaker on Earth provided her with comfort and a link to the small joys that comprise the human experience.

Be it another person’s voice, a hallucination of a friend, the barking of a dog via the radio or a physical tether— she needs something or someone to relate to, otherwise she remains alone, adrift in space. We need something or someone to relate to, otherwise we remain alone, adrift in our own microcosms that yearn to be filled with meaningful connection. Just like a baby can’t survive without the consistency of a grown-up’s touch, so too are we as grown-ups highly dependent on interpersonal contact. We cannot survive emotionally and mentally without connection to something or someone other than the ‘I’ that inhabits our singular bodies. Stone needs to feel that she isn’t (quite literally) alone in the universe if she is to regain the strength necessary for her to get back home.

 

And her hero’s journey is, quite unsubtly, one of rebirth. Her life on Earth had been a lonesome and solitary existence ever since the tragic death of her daughter. Still, she always had gravity ensuring her connection to the ground beneath her feet, even though she probably never paid it much mind. But in space, with the promise of ultimate isolation and subsequent death staring her in the face, the tiniest bit of connection to that which is ‘other’ becomes essential, especially after the loss of Kowalski. It is after that loss that the process of her rebirth begins, as signalized by the scene where she finally gets to take off her gear and rest inside the space station. The shot we are presented with is that of her floating like a fetus in utero, with one of the wires mimicking the umbilical cord. But her gestation period is a rather short one, as she makes her way through the metaphorical birth canal in ways that are incredibly painful. Nevertheless, the hope and strength she ultimately finds thanks to the fact that she has kept herself energetically and emotionally tethered to the experience of connection are what enable her to be reborn. Not just to be reborn—but also to evolve. For she is no longer a shadow of her former self whose life has lost all meaning, but emerges a resilient human being who went to hell and back in order to walk this Earth once again.

And just as Stone wouldn’t have survived had she given up, so too would Gravity never have seen the light of day had Cuarón backed down at any given moment, in the face of all the struggles that came with making this picture. As the director himself said: “When you’re working, you have more detachment than in your life. So the way of addressing adversity at work starts informing how to address adversity in life. Being able, like Sandra’s character, to put your feet on the ground is very gratifying. It’s like Schopenhauer said, people tend to believe that adversity is this extraordinary thing in humanity; adversity is the norm. It is extraordinary when you don’t experience adversity. Adversity shapes who you are and how you deal with life.” These themes of adversity and triumph, rebirth and evolution, isolation and connection form the backbone of Cuarón’s deeply moving, highly visceral and profoundly unsettling space opera. And what better way to explore such universal themes than by telling the story against the backdrop of the universe itself. Gravity pulls us in with incredibly ease, only to cut us open and leave us stranded in space. Cuarón masterfully captures this inherent dichotomy of the cosmos, its beauty and its horror, and in doing so, confronts us with the dichotomy of the human experience. Its horror. And its beauty.

Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »

 

 

“Dramatically, the moment in Gravity that was hardest to nail down is when Ryan is in the Soyuz capsule and she realizes that she’s out of fuel. That’s when the character’s arc gets defined. At the end of that scene, she completely loses any hope and faith, and she shuts off the oxygen, leading to the hallucination in which George’s character Matt comes back and she gets the will to live again. It was a hard chunk of the screenplay to write, because so much needed to be conveyed and you only have one character. The challenge was to reconcile this sudden will for life with the backstory we developed about Ryan’s dead daughter. I have to say, this is the one scene where I’m most proud of Sandra. It’s a lengthy single shot, and the camera must stay on her, but she’s conveying the whole arc and all of these emotions.” —Alfonso Cuarón

 

 

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón’s screenplay for Gravity [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 

 

“In the writing process, we knew that we wanted to express the things not in a rhetoric way, but through visual metaphors. The possibility of rebirth as an outcome of adversaries, and Earth as a constant presence reminding us where we come from and where human connection is, where life is.” —Alfonso Cuarón

 
Alfonso Cuarón shares insights into his storied career, discussing his favorite writing spot, how he keeps focus, and the toughest part of writing a screenplay.

 

 
Alfonso Cuarón and NASA astronauts discuss the intense and raw cinematic experience of Gravity and the preparation that went into delivering a true-to-life space exploration.

 

 
Writer-directors Alfonso Cuarón and Gaspar Noé talk about Cuarón’s 3D sci-fi masterpiece, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year.

 

 
For all the directorial prowess and performances, the key to Gravity’s success lies in an office on Wells Street in Soho, where the visual effects team behind FrameStore developed the groundbreaking visuals for a film that brought in more than $700m worldwide. GQ asked the team how they did it, focusing on the astonishing, 13-minute opening scene when satellite debris hits the space shuttle, sending Dr. Stone (Bullock) and pilot Matt Kowalski (Clooney) careering into space. —An oral history of Gravity’s incredible, 13-minute Space Shuttle Impact scene

 

 
Cuarón elected visual effects guru Tim Webber, the man behind Avatar and The Dark Knight, to help him visualize a gravity free film set. So how exactly did they make it look like Bullock and Clooney are floating in space? Alfonso Cuarón and Tim Webber spill their making-of secrets for box office blowout Gravity. —How to film Gravity

 
Framestore has produced truly remarkable footage and done more than just enhance the story—their work is central to the story, the emotional isolation, and the drama of the film. In their in-depth coverage of one of the most important visual effects films, fxguide’s Mike Seymour spoke at length with Webber about Gravity and also highlighted some of the other history, elements, and computer-controlled rigs. —Gravity: vfx that’s anything but down to earth

 

 
A glimpse into Oscar-Winning Visual Effects Artists Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, David Shirk and Neil Corbould’s creative process for Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.

 

 
Oscar®-winning VFX Supervisor Tim Webber and members of the visual effects team at Framestore talk about their experiences creating Gravity. The team talks about the challenges that the CG-heavy film presented and discusses the unique blend of cinematography and post-production.

 

 
When making his science fiction thriller about an astronaut stranded in space, the director Alfonso Cuarón was met with several challenges. One was how to shoot a feature that takes place in an environment where everything is in constant motion. In this video, Mr. Cuarón narrates an early sequence from Gravity with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and discusses some of his ideas behind the structure and layout of the scene. —Mekado Murphy, Anatomy of a Scene

 

 
Sandra Bullock and Alfonso Cuarón talk about their collaboration on the film Gravity.

 

 

EMMANUEL “CHIVO” LUBEZKI, ASC, AMC

 

 

“Chivo is my co-filmmaker,” says Cuarón. “He is not just doing what most people think of as the cinematographer’s job. On Gravity he was everywhere, collaborating every single step of the way.”

 
Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC and his collaborators detail their work on Gravity, a technically ambitious drama set in outer space. By Benjamin B, American Cinematographer.

~ ~ ~

Gravity begins with a memorable 13-minute continuous take: a breathtaking view of Earth from space that slowly reveals a sunlit space station with three people in spacesuits floating peacefully around it. Suddenly, a mass of fast-moving debris from an exploded satellite pummels the station, killing one person and leaving the other two, astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), marooned in space. The rest of the movie follows their struggle to survive with a dwindling supply of oxygen as they try to make their way to the nearest space station.

The 3-D feature is enhanced by long takes and fluid camerawork that immerse the viewer in the beautiful but dangerous environment of space with a groundbreaking level of realism and detail. It is the fruit of a five-year collaboration involving director Alfonso Cuarón; cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, ASC, AMC; visual-effects supervisor Tim Webber, and their talented teams. Longtime friends Cuarón and Lubezki have worked together on six features to date, including Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men. Webber supervised visual effects on the latter.

The technical and aesthetic accomplishments of Gravity become all the more impressive when Lubezki reveals that the only real elements in the space exteriors are the actors’ faces behind the glass of their helmets. Everything else in the exterior scenes—the spacesuits, the space station, the Earth—is CGI. Similarly, for a scene in which a suit-less Stone appears to float through a spaceship in zero gravity, Bullock was suspended from wires onstage, and her surroundings were created digitally. (Most of the footage in the space capsules was shot with the actors in a practical set.)

In many ways, Gravity provides a new paradigm for the expanding role of the cinematographer on films with significant virtual components. By all accounts, Lubezki was deeply involved in every stage of crafting the real and computer-generated images. In addition to conceiving virtual camera moves with Cuarón, he created virtual lighting with digital technicians, lit and shot live action that matched the CG footage, fine-tuned the final rendered image, supervised the picture’s conversion from 2-D to 3-D, and finalized the look of the 2-D, 3-D and Imax versions. “I was doing my work as a cinematographer on Gravity,” says Lubezki. “In the process, I had to learn to use some new tools that are part of what cinematography is becoming. I found it very exciting.”

Lubezki says Cuarón initially told him that zero gravity would afford them great freedom in terms of camera moves and lighting. He recalls, “Alfonso said, ‘You’re going to love this movie because you can do anything you want.’ But that turned out to be untrue once we decided we wanted the film to be as realistic as possible.” The cinematographer notes that in addition to naturalism, the filmmakers’ goals included respecting the physics of space, and involving the viewer with long takes and “the elasticity of the shot.” He explains, “We wanted to keep a lot of our shots elastic—for example, to have a shot start very wide, then become very close, and then go back to a very wide shot.”

“We wanted to surrender to the environment of space, but we couldn’t go there, so the only way of doing it was through all of these technologies,” notes Cuarón. “In a fantasy world, we would have shot the whole film in space. If we had, not much would have changed in terms of the visuals.”

Webber, who led the visual-effects team at Framestore in London, convinced Cuarón that his desire for long takes with a zero-gravity camera required that they go virtual. “We needed the freedom of a virtual camera,” says Webber, “so we created a virtual world and then worked out how to get human performances into that world.”

The space setting offered three main sources for the lighting design: the distant sun’s hard light, the soft bounce from Earth and, occasionally, the bounce from the moon. “The settings are either outer space or the interior of a capsule,” says Lubezki. “In space, it’s mostly [the characters] against black with a piece of the Earth, a piece of the sun and sometimes the moon. That’s not enough [visual] variety to keep you excited for 100 minutes, so Alfonso and I decided to make the lighting constantly change.

“It was very exciting to deal only with the quality of light—how harsh or soft it would be, the amount of bounce and its color,” Lubezki continues. “Those few elements made it possible for us to create many different environments. We were also lucky that these spacecraft move so fast; they go through many days and nights in 24 hours.” Indeed, there are rich and dramatic variations in lighting throughout the film, motivated by the rotation of the camera and the characters, as well as the 90-minute sunset cycles in orbit. One stunning sunset scene ends with Stone twirling into the darkness of a field of stars, barely illuminated by the lights in her helmet.

The filmmakers began their prep by charting a precise global trajectory for the characters over the story’s timeframe, so that Webber and his team could start creating the corresponding Earth imagery. Cuarón chose to begin the story with the astronauts above his native Mexico. From there, the precise orbit provided Lubezki with specific lighting and coloring cues. The cinematographer recalls, “I would say, ‘In this scene, Stone is going to be above the African desert when the sun comes out, so the Earth is going to be warm, and the bounce on her face is going to be warm light.’ We were able to use our map to keep changing the lighting.”

Next, the filmmakers defined the camera and character positions throughout the story so that animators at Framestore could create a simple previs animation of the entire movie. Lubezki and Cuarón employed a decidedly low-tech method to initially block the actors. “The camera moves are really complex, but we started in the most simple way—first with storyboards, and then with a bunch of puppets and toy versions of the International Space Station and the space shuttle Columbia,” Lubezki explains. “We talked about them in the most primitive terms with the animators. It was great to start with some puppets, then have the animator come back with a black-and-white block animation, and then start to add volume, color and light. It’s truly about layers and layers of work.”

Cuarón laughs as he recalls the surprises inherent in blocking characters in a zero-gravity environment. “The complications are really something, because you have characters that are spinning. Say you want to start your shot with George’s face and move the camera to Sandra, who is spinning at a different rate. You start moving around her, and then you start to go back to George, only to realize that if you go back to George at that moment, you will be shooting his feet! So then you have to start from scratch. Sometimes you find amazing things accidentally, but sometimes you have to reconceive the whole scene.”

Webber adds that the camera moves for a few of the shots were motion-captured with a small rig that the filmmakers moved in a real space to create moves within the CG environment. “We wanted the camerawork to have a natural feel,” says Webber. “So, rather than have everything key-frame-animated, we did some virtual camerawork in a small motion-capture studio. Alfonso, Chivo and I could take the rig and just wander around, controlling the camera and framing up shots, and we later tweaked it a bit to make it feel more like zero gravity.”

Lubezki believes that the long take (plano sequencia in Spanish) brings the audience into the movie in a striking way. “The main thing about the plano sequencia is that it is immersive. To me, it feels more real, more intimate and more immediate. The fewer the cuts, the more you are with [the characters]; it’s as if you’re feeling what they’re going through in real time. This is something Alfonso and I discovered on Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men.”

Cuarón notes that whenever he was tempted “to do a camera move just because it was cool, Chivo would not allow that to happen.” He cites the example of the opening take, which ends with Stone drifting away toward open space. “When we were doing the previs, as she started floating away, I said, ‘We don’t need to cut. We can keep following her in the same shot, so the first two shots would be just one shot.’ But Chivo said, ‘I think when she’s floating away is the perfect moment to cut. If this were the chapter of a book, this would be the last phrase of the chapter.’ And he was right. Otherwise, we would have started calling attention to the long take and creating an expectation that that’s what the film was about. But that’s not what it’s about. The camerawork serves… I don’t want to say it serves the story, because I have my problems with that. For me, the story is like the cinematography, the sound, the acting and the color. They are tools for cinema, and what you have to serve is cinema, not story.”

In another memorable camera move, the frame starts on Stone’s point of view, looking through her helmet and its reflections, and then goes through the headpiece glass, ending on an external wide shot. Cuarón explains, “There’s a purpose there. At the beginning of the film, we wanted to present a kind of objective reality, where we just see a routine mission. After disaster strikes, we continue to follow Stone objectively until we grab a POV and go to a subjective experience. The interesting thing is that from the moment it comes out of that helmet, the camera is no longer either objective or subjective. It becomes an immersive experience, as if the viewer is right next to her.”

After the creation of the previs animation with virtual camera moves, the next stage was the prelight, when Lubezki defined the CG lighting in concert with the team at Framestore. “Working with a lot of digital gaffers, I was able to design the lighting for the entire film,” says Lubezki, recalling that there were about a dozen people working on the lighting of different scenes.

Paul Beilby, a CG lighting supervisor, notes that the prelight with Lubezki was designed for speed and was much more involved than the process had been on any previous Framestore project. “We worked directly with Chivo,” he says. “We used rough interpretations of very primitive objects because he is used to very quick feedback in terms of what the light’s going to look like.”

Senior visual-effects producer Charles Howell explains that Gravity’s lengthy shots required the filmmakers to make many decisions early in the process. “I think there were only about 200 cuts in the previs animation, [whereas] an average film has about 2,000 cuts. Because these shots had to be mapped out from day one, many of the lengthy shots didn’t really change in the three years of shot production. Because we did a virtual prelight of the entire film with Chivo, the whole film was essentially locked before we even started shooting.”

Lubezki emphasizes that Gravity’s blending of real faces with virtual environments posed a tremendous challenge. “The biggest conundrum in trying to integrate live action with animation has always been the lighting,” he says. “The actors are often lit differently than the animation, and if the lighting is not right, the composite doesn’t work. It can look eerie and take you to a place animators call ‘the uncanny valley,’ that place where everything is very close to real, but your subconscious knows something is wrong. That takes you out of the movie. The only way to avoid the uncanny valley was to use a naturalistic light on the faces, and to find a way to match the light between the faces and surroundings as closely as possible.”

This challenge led Lubezki to imagine a unique lighting space that was ultimately dubbed “the LED Box.” He recalls, “It was like a revelation. I had the idea to build a set out of LED panels and to light the actors’ faces inside it with the previs animation.” Lubezki conducted extensive LED tests and then turned to Webber and his team to build the 20′ cube and generate footage of the virtual environments, as seen from the actor’s viewpoint, to display inside it. While constructing the LED Box, the crew also solved problems involving LED flicker and color inconsistencies.

Inside the LED Box, the CG environment played across the walls and ceiling, simulating the bounce light from Earth on the faces of Clooney or Bullock, and providing the actors with visual references as they pretended to float through space. This elegant solution enabled the real faces to be lit by the very environments into which they would be inserted, ensuring a match between the real and virtual elements in the frame.

For Lubezki, the complexity of the lighting from the Earth source was also essential, giving nuanced realism to the light on the faces. “When you put a gel on a 20K or an HMI, you’re working with one tone, one color. Because the LEDs were showing our animation, we were projecting light onto the actors’ faces that could have darkness on one side, light on another, a hot spot in the middle and different colors. It was always complex, and that was the reason to have the Box.”

Lubezki also needed to add a moving hard light that would serve as a sun source and match the CG sun in the prelit animation. To achieve this, he had his crew place a small dolly and jib arm alongside the actors, with a lightweight Robin 600E Spot on a remote head. Key grip Pat Garrett moved the dolly and jib during each take according to the progression of the virtual sun, and camera operator Nick Paige controlled the head to keep the light trained on the actor.

Lubezki used a technique similar to the LED Box for a live-action scene in which a fire breaks out in the space capsule. To light Bullock, the cinematographer diffused an LED panel that displayed the CG fire, ensuring a perfect match of the color and rhythm of the firelight source and how it played on Bullock’s face in the final scene.

Lubezki shot most of the live-action material in the film with Arri Alexa Classics and wide Arri Master Prime lenses, recording in the ArriRaw format to Codex recorders; the package was supplied by Arri Media in London. (Panavision London provided a Primo Close Focus lens that was used for a single shot.) He filmed a scene set on Earth on 65mm, using an Arri 765 and Kodak Vision3 500T 5219, to provide a visual contrast to the rest of the picture.

“The Alexa allowed me to shoot ASA 800 native, and it still looked great if I pushed it to 1,200, which made it possible to use the LED sources,” Lubezki notes. Also, the Alexa’s latitude enabled him to “deal with the overexposure of a harsh, hard sunlight. We didn’t want to lose any of that detail.”

To shoot the actors in the LED Box, the crew put an Alexa on a modified Mo-Sys remote head, which in turn attached to a large, motion-controlled robot arm that could be moved around the actor in a preprogrammed trajectory. This system enabled the filmmakers to take advantage of the relative motion between objects in space. Because there is no “up” or “down” in zero gravity, shooting a moving object with a static camera is visually equivalent to shooting a static object with a moving camera, and the filmmakers elected to make the camera perform most of the motion.

The robot arm was originally designed to assemble cars, according to Webber. He explains that Warner Bros. executive Chris DeFaria read about a San Francisco design-and-engineering studio, Bot & Dolly, which had used the arms to move a camera. Webber adds that the production worked with Bot & Dolly to add increased flexibility to the system, including the ability to adjust the speed of the preprogrammed moves so they could be adapted to the actors’ performances. To create even more options, they added a special remote head that was manned by camera operator Peter Taylor. Based on a Mo-Sys head, this remote unit was adapted to make it smaller and lighter, partly so that it would block less light. It could be operated live or set to play preprogrammed moves driven by the previs.

Gaffer John “Biggles” Higgins, who also worked with Lubezki on Children of Men, marvels that he has “never seen anything like the set of Gravity.” Apart from the LED Box, he notes, there were also other, slightly more traditional setups. For interiors of the space capsule as it hurtles to Earth, for instance, the filmmakers used an Alpha 4K HMI without its lens to simulate the sun, moving the source around the stationary capsule with a crane and a remote head. Higgins says they selected the Alpha because “it is the only head that can be operated shooting straight down.” He adds that Lubezki would provide ambient light by punching powerful tungsten 20Ks through 20’x20′ frames, using two layers of diffusion, Half and Full Grid Cloth, as well as green and blue gels, to simulate sunlight. “These diffusions were mainly used on the real capsules,” explains Higgins. “The green and blue filters were stitched to the back of the closest diffusion, the 20-by-20 Full Grid.”

As the production footage of the actors was integrated into the CG imagery, some modifications were made to the virtual elements to reflect the actors’ performances or changes in the lighting on their faces. Lubezki adds, “I suggested to Tim that we add lens flares and chromatic aberrations in the CG so it would look as if the [entire] image had been captured with a camera.”

Once Framestore finished the rendering process to the filmmakers’ satisfaction, Lubezki and Cuarón supervised the final grade at Technicolor with supervising digital colorist Steven J. Scott. Scott, an ASC associate member, was struck by the duo’s passion for detail. He recalls, “Chivo and Alfonso would start with something that would look brilliant to 99 percent of the audience, but they’d say, ‘There’s a little too much cyan in the top of his backpack as we pass by.’ So, we’d do a rotoscope animation to isolate that area, then fade the cyan adjustment in for the brief moment it was needed, and fade it out as we went by. When you work with Chivo for weeks and weeks, you see that all those seemingly minor adjustments make a huge difference. The cumulative effect is inevitably a revelation.”

In turn, Cuarón enthuses that Scott “understands and completely respects and honors Chivo’s vision, but at the same time, he is also an artist with amazing technical resources. Steve has a great eye, and he understands what naturalism is all about.”

Looking back at Lubezki’s work on Gravity, Webber offers, “I’m not aware of any other prelight done anywhere near this level. I think this was a first. It was great working with Chivo, who is not only an incredible talent, but also very willing to use this new technology and embrace lighting within this new environment. Even though very little of the film is physically lit in the way Chivo would normally do it, his touch is all over everything.”

Cuarón and Lubezki share an appreciation for “the genius” that Webber brought to Gravity. They also note that cinematographer Michael Seresin, BSC filled in as director of photography when Lubezki had to leave the set for personal reasons. “Michael came into a very complicated set and adapted to it wonderfully,” Cuarón says.

Reflecting on his relationship with Cuarón, Lubezki offers, “The truth is that ever since I met him, Alfonso has always been one of my most important teachers. I worked with him in film school as his gaffer when he was the cinematographer, as his boom man when he was sound mixing, as his second AC when he was a first AC, and finally as his cinematographer when he became a director. I know him well. He’s my teacher and also one of my favorite filmmakers. I’m very lucky to work with him.”

“Chivo is my co-filmmaker,” says Cuarón. “He is not just doing what most people think of as the cinematographer’s job. On Gravity he was everywhere, collaborating every single step of the way.”

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Temple Clark, a storyboard and concept artist based in London, created the Gravity storyboards. He has worked on over 100 feature films and television productions, collaborating closely with directors, production designers, DoPs, action units, and the VFX and Previs departments. The storyboards can range from quick thumbnails to tie down ideas with the director to finished shooting boards, or they can extend to highly finished illustrations for pitches or presentations.

 

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. Photographed by Susie Allnutt, Nick Wall, Julian Broad © Warner Bros., Esperanto Filmoj, Heyday Films. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 

 
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