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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.

"The workflow was about getting the animation right within a space," Nicholson says. "We had to do highly detailed concept art in 3D before getting Alfonso to sign off and hand it over to Framestore. I had to have guys who could model and do composite renderings of interiors. At the same time, we developed models into a state that they could be given to previs so they could animate with our models of interiors. These were done to a much higher level.

"It was a successful circular process [with Lubezki pre-lighting the models after director approval], but you had to make sure everyone had the current version that was being textured and rendered."

In every instance, Nicholson and his team needed to determine what sets needed to be real or virtual, how that combination would work, and where the limits of each would be. There were only two physical sets (the interiors of the Russian and Chinese capsules), but portions of the space station interior were physical extensions for better maneuverability.

However, it was a good thing that much of the final output was fully CG because of the flexibility that was required in altering the size and detail of sets during the shoot. For example, the sequence toward the end in the Chinese airlock was initially conceived as a physical set but changed to CG because of the camera move and lighting requirements.

Shot composition and design were symbiotic as well. Take the dream sequence in the Russian capsule, which became a complicated ballet when the camera needed to pass entirely through the craft. Nicholson's team divided the main control panel into three sections, which were seamlessly moved in and out on rails, as needed, while still staying fully functional.

But if "Gravity" offers a new virtual production model as a result of greater front-end synergy between design and VFX, then maybe there's hope for even more imaginative and immersive experiences on the big screen.

This article is related to: Gravity, Immersed In Movies, Interviews, Awards Season Roundup, Awards, Awards, 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.