Still, compared to typical classical films, Gravity conveys little sense of spatial stability. The disorienting simulation of weightlessness for characters and camera dominates the scenes outside the vehicles and creates a style that can truly be called experimental.
Take the brief segment about 14 seconds below, from the minute opening shot. Stone has been standing at the end of a large mechanical arm which gets knocked off the space shuttle by a piece of hurtling debris. It spins rapidly, with the camera framing it from long-shot distance. The camera is not entirely static, reframing slightly, but we can see the earth in the background fairly clearly. The fact that the light source, the sun, is offscreen left during this spinning segment suggests that the camera and hence our viewpoint are in a stable position.
Yet that position is maintained for only a short time. At this point in the shot, the camera is essentially waiting for her to draw near in order for it to execute a change that will govern the penultimate part of the lengthy shot. Instead of seeing the earth clearly, we see her while the blurred surface of the earth and the blackness of space alternate rapidly.
Being closer to Stone, we can see more clearly the shadows coming and going; her face is sometimes illuminated brightly by the sun and sometimes in near darkness:. The function of the attachment to Stone, apart from allowing us to see her fear and confusion, is to show us that her hands are working to detach her from the arm, as a tilt down reveals:. Yet these movements had to occur in a microgravity environment radically different from the earthbound surroundings of Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
This new constraint led to some technological innovations of remarkable originality.
Early on it became clear that moving the actors through space on wires would not create the desired realism of weightlessness, and obviously they could not be whipped about and tumbled in ways that the film ultimately achieved. The actors would have to be relatively static, with the illusion of movement created through other means. One of the main challenges was to have the lighting on their stationery faces support that illusion.
On Film (Thinking in Action) Paperback – May 11, In this significantly expanded new edition of his acclaimed exploration of the four Alien movies, Stephen Mulhall adds several new chapters on Steven Spielberg’s Mission: Impossible trilogy and Minority Report. I recently volunteered to write an article on the second edition of Stephen Mulhall's On Film. The first edition was part of Routledge's "Thinking in Action" series--a.
And it would have to be done perfectly in order to achieve the photorealistic depiction of space that the filmmakers were after. The problem was solved for Gravity using the LED Light Box, a device frequently mentioned in the press coverage of the film but seldom explained. See image at the top.
The concept is truly revolutionary, although I am not sure to what extent it would work for other films that did not present such peculiar challenges. That takes you out of the movie. The only way to avoid the uncanny valley was to use a naturalistic light on the faces, and to find a way to match the light between the faces and surroundings as closely as possible. Inside the LED Box, the CG environment played across the walls and ceiling, simulating the bounce light from Earth on the faces of Clooney or Bullock, and providing the actors with visual references as they pretended to float through space.
This elegant solution enabled the real faces to be lit by the very environments into which they would be inserted, ensuring a match between the real and virtual elements in the frame. This ingenious approach largely did away with traditional three-point lighting in the exteriors. As Lubezki explains in the AC article,. It was always complex, and that was the reason to have the Box. In other words, the moving images from the nearly finished special effects were used to light the faces of the actors, and those faces were later joined to those very same special effects, in a more polished form, to create the final images.
Lubezki gives an excellent description of the Box in his interview with Bryan Abrams , a series of responses which is worth quoting at length. Note that Lubezki refers to the Box as an LED monitor—essentially a giant television screen turned inside out and surrounding the actor:.
Can you touch upon some of the pieces of technology and equipment that were created to make Gravity possible? To make this movie we used many different methodologies.
So all the information and images that you input into this monitor lights the actors, and you can input all of the scenes that were pre-visualized to create the movie—all the environments that we had created—and you can input them into this large cube so space itself is moving around the actors. There were a lot of subtleties that you can capture with the box, subtleties that make the integration of the virtual cinematography and the live-action much better than ever before.
The harsh light in the right frame above is a real lamp. The LEDs could not produce a local, hard light intense enough to simulate the sun. The Box also contained a large video monitor, visible to the actor, which displayed the previs animation. The actor sees the environment and how objects are moving in that environment, and at the same time we can see the interaction of that light on the actor. The fact that almost everything in the film was created digitally—including the space suits in which the actors bob and spin in the exteriors—necessitated an extraordinary amount of planning and pre-production.
This was one reason why there was such a long gap between Children of Men and Gravity. Four and a half years were spent in developing the new technology and preparing to shoot. From there, the precise orbit provided Lubezki with specific lighting and coloring cues. Next, the filmmakers defined the camera and character positions throughout the story so that animators at Framestore could create a simple previs animation of the entire movie.
Lubezki was completely involved in planning the digital lighting. The reference material for the earth imagery came in part from NASA reference footage and photos. You can get a sense of these from the NASA films posted online, although these are mostly done in fast motion, unlike the ones the filmmakers would have used. A similar image of the Nile appears on earth as Kowalski and Stone slowly make their way from the space shuttle to the ISS, with him asking her about her hometown and any family she might have waiting for her.
I was also happy to see the area of the site where I work in Egypt, Tell el-Amarna, which lies about midway between the Delta at the upper left and the large bend in the river. This geographical plotting included some ellipses. Although commentators have suggested that the film takes place in real time, or nearly so, there are temporal gaps. That happens when she exits the Soyuz vehicle to detach its parachute.
She again sets her timer for 90 minutes, and the debris field shows up at the Chinese station, battering it to the point where it sinks into the atmosphere and breaks up into chunks melting from the friction of reentry. Thus a little over three hours should be passing in the 83 minutes of screen duration. In the film there are very few places where we can assume a significant ellipsis occurs.
Later, there is a cut from her inside the landing module, not in the suit, to her emerging from the hatch fully suited up—a gap we might assume to be ten minutes or so. Most notably, the cut from the nighttime shot of the earth that includes the aurora borealis at the right to the extreme close-up of frost on the window ellides a longer stretch of time. Stone has become hoarse in the interval as she tries to send a mayday message via radio. A lack of depth cues hampered the animators charged with creating the previs.
The absence of one major depth cue, aerial perspective the tendency of layers of space in the distance to turn successively bluer and blurrier due to the filtering quality of the atmosphere , caused problems. Visual-effects supervisor Tim Webber, of the effects house Framestore, remarks :.
And the lack of reference points [in space] can get you into trouble, like not being able to tell if the character is coming toward you or the camera is moving toward him. Presumably Webber is referring here to the movement of the characters and objects through space, not the camera movement. Naturally, since the actors were not standing on a floor or solid ground, the blocking was difficult, but it also had to be planned completely in advance:.
You start moving around her, and then you start to go back to George, only to realize that if you go back to George at that moment, you will be shooting his feet!
So then you have to start from scratch. Sometimes you find amazing things accidentally, but sometimes you have to reconceive the whole scene. Finally, after all the planning, the previs animations were made. The previs became so sophisticated because it evolved during preproduction. Then that kind of had a ripple effect back into the previz, because originally they were going to just be a model that we could look back at, but we realized that the previz was more than that.
That was something that [James] Cameron kept on talking about.
As a result, the movie changed very little during principal photography.