With three out of the last four Oscars for cinematography going to hybrid movies, is it any wonder that Emmanuel ("Chivo") Lubezki won Best Cinematography for "Gravity" at the 2014 Oscars? Especially after Lubezki and his collaborators devised a brilliant new lighting system for simulating the physics of space in the game-changing and emotionally-gripping blockbuster.
But for Lubezki, his introduction to virtual cinematography for Alfonso Cuaron's existential space thriller was essential, given the demands of the zero-g recreation and the need for Framestore to animate nearly everything in CG.
"The most challenging part for me was the integration between the virtual cinematography and the live-action [using the Alexa]," the cinematographer recalls. "And so the first thing we did was to storyboard, then do a previs of the entire movie, and then to add all of these layers into the previs. That was out of necessity as a working methodology and to light all of the animation. And when we finished the previs with sound and some effects, I showed it to my daughter and she thought it was the actual movie."
Lubezki says Cuaron had been trying to use the tools of cinematography and, frankly, all of cinema to create a strong emotional bond between the viewer and Sandra Bullock's grieving scientist lost in space. His experiment with pure cinema, in fact, is very musical, and the director recently suggested that Bullock provides the melody in this symphony in the stars.
Cuaron also mentioned that the "Gravity" experience was great for Lubezki because it gave him such control of lighting and composition. On what other movie could he move the sun 300 miles? "And at the same time, I had to create limits for myself because I didn't want the movie to become stylized," Lubezki concedes. "So we created real-world guidelines such as original source light and keeping it the actual size. And we created an orbital flight path of the Earth directly connected to Sandra. This gave us the right bounce light while allowing us to see oceans and landscapes and cities at night."
Lubezki admits that going inside Bullock's helmet was extraordinary and that he never could have pulled off the movie without the close collaboration of Framestore's VFX supervisor Tim Webber. "You need somebody that is a scientist and a nerd and also a tremendous artist. I didn't make any decision without consulting him and Alfonso."