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Immersed in Movies: 'Gravity' Takes a Giant VFX Leap as Pure Cinema

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood October 4, 2013 at 12:39PM

Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron and VFX supervisor Tim Webber explore the reverse engineering that went into animating the Oscar-contending space adventure starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
Sandra Bullock in 'Gravity'
Sandra Bullock in 'Gravity'

Alfonso Cuaron smiled when I suggested that "Gravity" was pure cinema in the tradition of Hitchcock: the long, exploratory shots of Sandra Bullock floating in space with alternating points of view, tethered to a mise en scene of perpetual motion that's very musical: balancing primal terror with celestial beauty. The opening 13-minute shot alone will be studied for its visual and dramatic force.

While it took some new techniques to pull off such a realistic-looking adventure in zero gravity space (including the construction of the LED Light Box, cameras mounted on computer-controlled robot arms, and custom-designed wire rigs for rotating and tilting the actors like marionettes), the cinematic language fundamentally remains the same. 

"I was thinking about pure cinema and that it transcends narrative," Cuaron remarked. "An abstract language of being immersed in almost like a dreamscape. But the problem with visual effects is what looks amazing one day, two years later looks dated. And that was my only fear with 'Gravity.' I hope not."

I don't think Cuaron has to worry about "Gravity" looking dated. It's the "2001" of the 21st century and the obvious front runner for the VFX Oscar: breathtakingly photoreal and just as organic. And the great thing about photorealism is that it totally strips away the artifice, allowing greater immersion.

"I'm not a tech person," Cuaron admitted. "But we developed technology for 'Children of Men' and 'Gravity' to achieve the shots that I wanted. It's similar to Murnau, who would develop systems to achieve his shots. He invented cranes to go from here to here to here."

But to achieve such elastic visual poetry required a new kind of reverse engineering from Framestore in London, under the VFX supervision of Tim Webber. Remarkably, everything in "Gravity" was animated ahead of time and then the actual faces of Bullock and George Clooney were placed into the virtual environments. Even their suits and helmets were CG. The only practical sets were the interiors of the two capsules and parts of the ISS space station.

This meant that the entire movie was first prevised (the team was based out of Framestore in collaboration with The Third Floor) to work out the lighting as well as the compositions and camera moves. The previs was so good, in fact, that the daughter of cinematographer Emmanuel ("Chivo") Lubezki (interview here) thought it was the real movie.

Cuaron said the process was "like eating an elephant one spoonful a day." Normally, the director and Lubezki do all of their prep and then throw it all away when they arrive on set in order to discover happy accidents. On "Gravity," with all of the pre-programming, they had to break it apart and manufacture those happy accidents. (Cuaron also spoke to TOH! out of Toronto: Q&A here.)

This article is related to: Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron, Immersed In Movies, Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

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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.