With Alfonso Cuaron receiving the Visionary Award this Wednesday at the 12th annual VES Awards at the Beverly Hilton, it's the perfect time for him to reflect on the significance of Gravity in terms of animation/VFX and pure cinema. Oddly, though, Cuaron insists that he's not a techno geek. His six-year journey to make Gravity (four years in production) was always first and foremost about the rebirth of Sandra Bullock's Ryan. And it is our emotional connection to her as part of a thrilling space spectacle that accounts for its global success.
As producer David Heyman suggests, Cuaron captured Harry Potter being alone and overcoming adversity so well in Azkaban, which is so central to Gravity. "Alfonso shifted everything and allowed us to grow up: it became a more mature series," Heyman adds. "The thing that connects Gravity to his other films is that it's about living in the moment because you never know what's going to happen to you in the future. Don't live in the past -- live now and fight for life!"
It just so happens that the nature of the director's vision (a NASA doc gone bad) and getting the weightlessness in space to look believable necessitated a process of reverse engineering that occurred at Framestore (under the VFX supervision of Tim Webber).
"We had to do the whole film as an animation first," Cuaron explains. "We edited that animation, even with sound, just to make sure the timing worked with the sound effects and music. And once we were happy with it, we had to do the lighting in the animation as well. Then all that animation translated to actual camera moves and positions for the lighting and actors."
Cuaron also found the perfect opportunity in Gravity to experiment with his love of long, exploratory shots while smulating zero gravity in space. And never more breathtakingly than in the opening 13-minute shot (the longest in the movie), which sets in motion the adversity and rebirth that Bullock experiences.
"I was thinking about pure cinema and that it transcends narrative: an abstract language of being immersed in almost like a dreamscape," Cuaron continues. "You have the luxury of doing the previs, which gives you the sense of rhythm and timing. What happens is you get the musical flow -- it's like a symphony and Sandra's the melody. You have all the freedom to be metaphorical and play with the iconography. But the problem with visual effects is what looks amazing one day two years later looks dated. And my only fear with Gravity was I hope not."
But with the photoreal you strip away the artifice and that's what they did on Gravity with the "The Light Box," robotic-controlled cameras from Bot & Dolly and special wire rigs. They relied on animation and other CG to create an entire virtual world in space and then added the faces of Bullock and George Clooney.
"The issue was when you're reverse engineering, it was like eating an elephant one spoonful a day," Cuaron recounts. "So first you do your previs, and then you break it down to decide how can I achieve this moment? Now this is connected, join it to connect all of these pieces."
The long take is fittingly elastic: the objective wide view of the universe that slowly moves in closer to Bullock’s face and amazingly into her helmet, which transforms into a subjective perspective and then moves back out to another objective panorama.
However, Cuaron and his Oscar-nominated cinematographer Emmanuel ("Chivo") Lubezki discovered that after a while the continuous shot calls attention to itself. In fact, he cut back the opening shot from 17 to 13 minutes after it became apparent that a cut was needed when Bullock detaches and floats away.
Still, after all that planning, and the animation was done, Cuaron decided that the space shuttle position in the opening shot needed to be flipped upside down to create more of a sense of disorientation. That required more rendering work at Framestore.
"I'm used to doing it in a different way," Cuaron says. "This was the biggest challenge. With Chivo, we're used to prepping like crazy and then arriving on the set and forgetting everything and allowing accidents to happen that Chivo calls 'the miracles.' But in a film that you have to pre-program we turned it in pieces and said, 'Let's create our accidents.'"
The big concern was the integration between CG and real life and CG light with real light. That's why they created "The Light Box." "With LED and plates, you have different colors and frequencies like real life. You can see the breath she takes and the reflection in her eyes and you can see the plates moving in front of her [and so can she]," Cuaron emphasizes.
And, as with the single shot, Cuaron didn't want to push 3-D. He wanted a sense of observation. "We started 3-D planning as soon as we finished seven minutes of previs. We got the depth we needed but were careful about not overdoing the miniaturization." Even the tear drop was a scripted 3-D moment. The script was originally called Gravity: A Space Suspense in 3-D.
Still, as with all of his movies after they're done, Cuaron will never watch Gravity again. He only notices the flaws. But they linger in his memory. "For Guillermo [del Toro] and Alejandro [González Iñárritu], their films are like babies. But for me, they're like my ex-wives: I love them so much, they love me so much, and now we part ways."
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld and the owner of Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com). He's a contributor to Animation Scoop and Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire, and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which is now available on Kindle with a new Skyfall chapter.