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Anatomy of a Scene: Dissecting the Bravura 'Gravity' Opening

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood February 14, 2014 at 2:45PM

The extraordinary 13-minute opening of Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" is like a mini-movie, setting up the zero-gravity world in space, the two astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, the mood, the tension, the crisis, and the metaphor. I break it down with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Emmanuel (Chivo) Lubezki, production designer Andy Nicholson, VFX supervisor Tim Webber, sound mixer Chris Munro, and editor Mark Sanger.
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Gravity

The extraordinary 13-minute opening of Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" is like a mini-movie, setting up the zero-gravity world in space, the two astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, the mood, the tension, the crisis, and the metaphor. I break it down with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Emmanuel (Chivo) Lubezki, production designer Andy Nicholson, VFX supervisor Tim Webber, sound mixer Chris Munro, and editor Mark Sanger.

"That opening shot is like the overture to a symphony, so we had to come up with the overture before knowing the rest of the movie," explains Lubezki about the most difficult shot in his prestigious career. "It is a series of shots that are very objective and very wide and presentational that become subjective. The idea was to grab and immerse the audience in the movie as soon as possible, and to sell the idea of this micro-gravity, who these characters are. They are so tiny and when you look at the Earth from high above, it looks like an organism that is alive. 

"It talks about tiny particles in a massive universe, mortality, rebirth, many emotions that you can go through throughout your life. So there's that layer of the thematic and then thee's the visual that has to do with what we call 'the elastic shot.' You start really wide that become subjective shots that you're seeing through Sandra's POV. And then they come out and become objective again. 

Emmanuel Lubezki
Emmanuel Lubezki

"Something that was so exciting for me was, as the ISS is spinning around the world so fast and the shuttle is spinning, things are changing very fast. The composition is changing, the lighting is changing, the textures are changing -- what you see on the Earth is changing. You see day and night and dusk in the same shot. The color temperature of the light is changing and, funnily enough, her internal world is changing, so it is related to the world."

But in reviewing the scene in a screening room after it was complete, Cuaron decided to flip the opening image of the shuttle upside down to not only improve it compositionally with the Earth in full view but to make it more disorienting for us. "That's what happens with a movie like this," Lubezki adds. "You engineer it so long like an animation that it's very hard to know what's working and not working."

Putting together this elaborate jigsaw puzzle fell to production designer Nicholson and his art department in very close collaboration with the director and the other departments. "Once we knew where it was going to be, we then spent a long time deciding what part of the Earth it would be over, what part of the Earth you'd see passing below us to see specific shots," explains Nicholson. "Originally we did a flight path over the whole Earth. But because of the orbit of the ISS and the space shuttle, you only see about a 600-mile diameter surface. We start off with an opening which is just over Mexico and then we move into the Pacific Ocean. 

"And it was all about embellishing the background of what was going to be played at the time and the placement of where they all are. In fact, in the original design of the Hubble, the drawers that Sandra's working on were tucked away a bit more. But we used the same kind of engineering, the same kind of computer panels, the same kind of circuit boards so that it wasn't science fiction but the same kind of robust, military-grade circuitry that's actually used."

This article is related to: Gravity, Cinematography, production design, VFX, Sound, Editing, Immersed In Movies, Interviews , Awards, Awards Season Roundup, Thompson on Hollywood


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.