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Immersed in Movies: Designing Cinematic Jigsaw Puzzle and Game-Changer 'Gravity'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood November 20, 2013 at 2:48PM

"Gravity" production designer Andrew Nicholson, who will be at the Art Directors Guild Wednesday night and at USC on Friday, discusses why the immersive, Oscar-contending blockbuster is a model for the future of hybrid movies.
Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone in Gravity
Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone in Gravity

Ask production designer Andrew Nicholson why "Gravity" is a game-changer and he'll tell you it's because of the special design/VFX synergy. In fact, without it, the blockbuster (which has grossed $500 million worldwide) and best picture Oscar contender wouldn't have become arguably the most immersive movie-going experience of our time.

"It was a huge pleasure to work on something that's going to change technically how this kind of film is going to be done in the future, with visual effects working so closely with an art department and a construction department," explains Nicholson, who will present "The World of Gravity" Wednesday at the Art Directors Guild and Friday at USC, followed by a Q&A with me. "We all had to be part of that jigsaw puzzle."

Indeed, the only way to put this cinematic jigsaw puzzle together was through a unique process of reverse engineering between designers and VFX and complete previsualization. In other words, Framestore made a low-res animated version of the movie prior to shooting Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in simulated zero-g with the use of robotic cameras by Bot & Dolly and special wire rigs. Otherwise, Alfonso Cuaron's visceral thrill-ride and meditation on adversity and rebirth couldn't have been pulled off with such verisimilitude.

So while cinematographer Emmanuel ("Chivo") Lubezki and VFX supervisor Tim Webber came up with synchronized lighting, LED backgrounds, and precise actor poses, the art department provided the high-res 3D models of the sets and props that eventually were built and animated by Framestore. 

"There was the technical research for the geography and the architecture of the interior of the structures and the exterior of the ISS," Nicholson adds, "But along with that it was surfaces, materials, textures -- getting hold of physical samples of things to give the guys who were modeling it." 

Physical samples of props had to be built for Framestore's modelers, lighting, and texture artists. And what couldn't be fabricated was researched on the internet by Nicholson, who then provided fully annotated photographs of props to be built by Framestore in CG.

This article is related to: Gravity, Immersed In Movies, Interviews, Awards Season Roundup, Awards, Awards, Thompson on Hollywood

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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.