Oscar Effects: Before Alfonso Cuarón could make ‘Gravity,’ he had to overcome it

Five films are nominated for an Academy Award in the “Visual Effects” category this year, and they each offer a nice look at the amazing tricks filmmakers and their effects teams can pull off on the big screen. In recognition of these five films and one of our favorite Oscar categories, we’re putting the spotlight on one “Visual Effects” nominee each day leading up to Sunday’s broadcast and taking a closer look at what made them stand out.

Previously, we explored the technology that brought a dragon to life in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the process of building the San Francisco cityscape of 2259 for Star Trek Into Darkness, the task of animating an army of automated suits of armor in Iron Man 3and the trouble with trains in The Lone Ranger. Next up is director Alfonso Cuaron’s tense thriller Gravity, which cast Sandra Bullock as a scientist trying to find her back to Earth after an accident leaves her stranded in outer space.

There is an amazing piece of filmmaking in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, where the fleeing protagonists have their vehicle set upon by an angry mob, culminating in gunfire from a shooter on a motorcycle. The entire scene lasts 247 seconds, and is a single take, during which the camera moves in and out of the car. To achieve this, Doggicam Systems invented a special camera rig, while a vehicle was modified with elements that would tilt out of the way of the camera. With his new film Gravity, which opens October 4 and stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, Cuarón takes his reliance on novel filming innovations many steps further and, in the process, created several new systems that allowed him to translate a vision of an astronaut stranded in the weightlessness of outer space to a movie screen.

“I have always had a fascination with space and space exploration,” states Cuarón. “On the one hand, there is something mythical and romantic about the idea of separating yourself from Mother Earth. But in many ways, it doesn’t make sense to be out there when life is down here.”

The film itself is based on an idea from Cuarón’s son Jonás, and they co-wrote the script together. “The concept of space was interesting to us both; it is a setting where there is no easy way to survive, thousands of miles from what we call home, so it was perfect for a movie about surmounting adversities and having to find your way back,” says the younger Cuarón. “We also wanted it to be a realistic story, which required us to do extensive research to become familiar with space exploration in order to depict a plausible scenario.”

“I have to say that I was a bit naïve; I thought making the film would be a lot simpler…”

In the past, filmmakers have relied on a variety of special effects tricks to depict characters in space, including standard wire systems and even the so-called “Vomit Comet,” which is a plane that follows a parabolic flight path to simulate zero g as it rapidly descends.

“With wires, you can see the strain on the actor; gravity is still pulling everything down. And the vomit comet only works for takes that are a few seconds long, and also not everyone copes very well with it. I have to say that I was a bit naïve; I thought making the film would be a lot simpler,” Alfonso Cuarón told us. “Yes, I knew it would require a certain amount of tricks, but it was not until we started trying conventional techniques that I realized in order to do the film the way I wanted to do it, we were going to have to create something entirely new.”

Before they could figure out how to accurately depict zero gravity, they needed to grapple with the most simple element in all of film making: light. The problem with light in outer space is that it tends to extremes of brightness or total darkness. Visual effects supervisor Tim Webber and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki tackled this problem by creating something they called the Light Box.

“I was at a concert and noticed that the lighting director had cleverly used LEDs to create beautiful lighting effects and projections,” Lubezki said. “I got very excited because I knew that could be the answer for us. The next day I called Alfonso and said, ‘I think I’ve found a way to light the movie.’”

Gravity VFX 007

The Light Box stood over 20-feet tall and 10-feet across, with a sliding door on one side that allowed access to the interior, and a gantry hanging overhead that tethered the box to a team of VFX technicians at a computer control center. The interior of the box was comprised of 196 panels, each measuring approximately two feet by two feet, and fitted with 4,096 LED bulbs that could cast whatever light or colors were needed and alter them at any speed. Images could also be projected onto the walls, including the planet Earth, the International Space Station (ISS), or the distant stars “giving the actor the perspective of what their character was seeing,” Webber says “It was primarily so we could reflect the appropriate light on them, but it had the double benefit of being a visual reference for them, too.”

Bullock, who plays astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone, spent many days within the confines of the Light Box, which Cuarón says, in some ways mirrored the solitude of her character. “She was essentially on her own inside this cube, secluded from the rest of the people on the set, with projections of the Sun and the Moon and planet Earth rotating around her. It was interesting because we had been concerned about how long we were going to be isolating her, but Sandra applied that creatively and was able to convey some of her own experience at that point.”

“There was no human connection … it made me feel so alone…”

According to Bullock, the Light Box, while isolating, contributed to her performance. “There was no human connection, other than the voices coming through my little earwig, which helped because it made me feel so alone,” she said. “I’m glad it was done the way it was done, as whenever I started to become frustrated or lonely or at a loss, I was like, ‘just use it … use it.’”

Bullock also spent an enormous amount of time in a special 12-wire rig designed to allow her to float as if she were in zero gravity. Created by visual effects supervisor Neil Corbould, this system  resembled a marionette, and the production brought in some of the best puppeteers in the business to play puppet master. Robin Guiver, Avye Leventis, and Mikey Brett were among the artists who brought to life the title character in the award-winning play War Horse. On the Gravity set, they helped Bullock float weightlessly in simulated space. Guiver says, “It’s very counter-intuitive for human beings to be weightless, but in the world of puppets, we are able to break the laws of physics in graceful and expressive ways. We were applying the same skills to this task — finding a freedom of movement that would not otherwise be possible.”

Computer animation was used to blend the Light Box and 12-wire rig together. There were limits, however, due to the exacting movements that required precise timing in order to sync up. “Tim tried to give us as much flexibility as possible, but most often, once we had made a commitment, that was it. Due to the technological process, the margin for improvisation and spontaneity was very small, which added to the challenge for Sandra and George. But watching their performances, no one will feel the limitations placed on them, and that is a testament to what amazing actors they are.”

Gravity VFX 009

Changing technologies also meant that the team had to change the way they thought about computer animation, and physics in a weightless environment. “In outer space, there is no up, there is no down,” says Cuarón. “It took a lot of education for the animators to fully grasp that the usual laws of cause and effect didn’t apply. It was a learning curve for all of us. It is completely counterintuitive.”

“You could tell the new animator in the room, because it would be the guy who was ready to quit, and was so stressed out. But eventually it became second nature.”

The entertainment industry and critics alike have praised Gravity, lauding the writing and the visuals. The film is already generating early Oscar buzz, with some going so far as saying that it changes the vocabulary of filmmaking. That may be a stretchg, but there is no doubt the film is compelling, groundbreaking, and gripping. “It was a total collaboration, combining all the different elements of the images and sounds and extraordinary performances. We want audiences to come along on this journey … to share in the experience of floating weightless in the stunning, but terrifying realm of space.”

(Images © Warner Bros. Pictures)

Check out our coverage of the other nominees

Former Digital Trends Contributor
Kevin Kelly is a writer and pop culture junkie with a fixation on video games, movies, and board games. His writing has been seen at io9, Film School Rejects, Machinima, TechRadar, Wizard World, and The Austin Chronicle. He lives in Los Angeles and does not know how to surf. Follow him on Twitter @kevinkelly.

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