"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.