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Oscar Winner Lubezki Talks the Virtual Cinematography of 'Gravity,' How a Peter Gabriel Concert Helped Him Visualize the Film and More

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood November 27, 2013 at 2:15PM

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.
The 'Gravity' light box
The 'Gravity' light box

When Lubezki discovered the magic of LED lighting after attending a Peter Gabriel concert at the Hollywood Bowl, he finally grasped how he was going to shoot "Gravity." Together with Webber, he made the Light Box: the 20 x 10 stage within a stage at Shepperton. Lined with nearly 200 panels fitted with 4,000 lights all separately controlled, they projected light on the actors' faces (which matched the virtual light programmed into the CG shots), while also allowing the actors to view the environment they were in.

"The problem is, with movie light, you're lighting Sandra with one color. You can use diffusions and gels to change color but they are awkward. When you suddenly put Sandra inside this box that has 1 million LEDs and each LED can do whatever you want, you have so many more choices and you can project the environment from the panels and suddenly Sandra is stuck in that box the way she would be stuck in space. For example, if you look at her eyes, you can see reflections of the Earth. And the funny thing is, the eyes are where a number of these movies fail."

Gravity set

Lubezki is even considering using LEDs as part of his arsenal from now on. Yet it was still driven by Bullock's performance. "If the machinery was going too fast or too slow, Sandra would let us know. She knew more about her character than any of us and she brought more to the role than we thought she would. So we had to learn to be flexible."

That's part of the brave new world of virtual production, in which there's greater upfront collaboration between cinematography and VFX (as well as production design). However, some are confused by digital blending between the crafts. In fact, at the recent Visual Effects Society Summit, former Academy president Hawk Koch said maybe it's time to consider a new visual imaging category, as the Academy explores continuing technological evolution.

But Lubezki insists that it's just a matter of better educating his fellow cinematographers and the industry at large about the impact of these new digital tools. "The technology is becoming cheaper and the appetite of the directors and writers for hybrid movies is growing. You can do the conquest of Mexico or travel to Mars or the center of the Earth with a level of realism we didn't have before. There shouldn't be a gap or a line between virtual and real-life capture.

"But I have to give Alfonso all the credit for letting me shoot it instead of relying on Framestore to create it. I don't see any difference. Just the tools are changing and evolving. And this movie could not have happened a year before we shot it because we did not have the technology. And this movie could not have happened without Sandra because she was strong and agile. She's a true performer and kept us in line. It's cinema."

This article is related to: Gravity, Emmanuel Lubezki, Alfonso Cuaron, Sandra Bullock, Interviews , Awards, Awards Season Roundup, Thompson on Hollywood, Immersed In Movies

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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.