Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama, Thriller
Running Time: 91 minutes
Synopsis: Gravity is a heart-pounding thriller that pulls you into the infinite and unforgiving realm of deep space.
Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a brilliant engineer on her first shuttle mission, with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney). But on a seemingly routine spacewalk, disaster strikes. The shuttle is destroyed, leaving Stone and Kowalski completely alone"tethered to nothing but each other and spiraling out into the blackness.
The deafening silence tells them they have lost any link to Earth…and any chance for rescue. As fear turns to panic, every gulp of air eats away at what little oxygen is left.
But the only way home may be to go further out into the terrifying expanse of space.
Release Date: October 3rd, 2013
At 600km above planet Earth, the temperature fluctuates between +258 and -148
There is nothing to carry sound.
No air pressure.
Life in space is impossible.
'I have always had a fascination with space and space exploration," states Alfonso Cuarón, the director, producer and co-writer of the dramatic thriller 'Gravity." He continues, 'On the one hand, there is something mythical and romantic about the idea of separating yourself from Mother Earth. But in many ways, it doesn't make sense to be out there when life is down here."
Right now, orbiting hundreds of miles above the Earth, there are people working in a place where there is very little separation between life and death. The inherent dangers of spaceflight have grown in the decades since we first began venturing beyond our own atmosphere…and those increasing dangers are manmade. The refuse from past missions and defunct satellites has formed a debris field that can cause disaster in an instant. NASA has even given the scenario a name: the Kessler Syndrome.
David Heyman, who produced 'Gravity" with Alfonso Cuarón, attests, 'This is a real issue. Every screw or piece of junk that has been dropped or left behind is orbiting at an incredible speed and if, or when, they collide, they create still more debris. It is life-threatening for the astronauts, the spacecrafts and possibly for us here on Earth, too."
Starring in 'Gravity" as novice astronaut Ryan Stone, Sandra Bullock learned about the problem from those most affected by it. She offers, 'I used to think that astronauts wanted to go into space for the thrill and adventure. When I spoke to them though, I was so moved by their deep, deep love of that world and the beauty of Earth from their perspective, seeing the oceans and mountain ranges and the lights of the cities. It's amazing to realise how small we are in this massive universe."
George Clooney, who co-stars with Sandra Bullock, adds, 'I grew up with the space race; I am a child of that era. I have always loved the idea of space exploration and am in awe of the people who do it. They really are the last of the great pioneers."
But that exploration has also had its consequences. Sandra Bullock affirms, 'It is heartbreaking to think about not only the destruction of this planet, but also about what we don't see: the trash that is literally orbiting above us."
That premise becomes the catalyst for a harrowing fight for survival in 'Gravity," which transports you into the awe-inspiring but forbidding vacuum of space.
The film opens in the silent abyss above the Earth's atmosphere, where the Shuttle Explorer is in orbit. Mission Specialist Ryan Stone, attached to a robotic arm, is installing a new scanning system on the Hubble Telescope. Dr. Stone's obvious discomfort in zero gravity is in stark contrast to Mission Commander Matt Kowalski's apparent ease. On his final voyage into space, Matt Kowalski, played by George Clooney, is having a fine time testing the mettle of a new jet pack that lets him fly unrestrained by the usual tethers.
On the other side of the planet, the intentional demolition of an obsolete satellite has sent sharp fragments hurtling into space, setting off a chain reaction that puts the fast-growing debris field on a collision course with Explorer. The inescapable impact is catastrophic, destroying the shuttle and leaving Stone and Kowalski as the lone survivors. All communication with Mission Control has been lost…and, with it, any chance of rescue. Adrift in the void, the two must find a way to see past their own limitations and escape their inertia if they are ever going to get back to Earth.
'Gravity" was co-written by Alfonso Cuarón and his son, Jonás, marking their first official collaboration. 'I was inspired by Jonás's ideas for the movie," Alfonso Cuarón says. 'I was very intrigued by his sense of pace in a life-or-death situation that dealt primarily with a single character's point of view. But, at the same time, placing the story in space immediately made it more expansive and offered immense metaphorical possibilities."
Jonás Cuarón adds, 'The concept of space was interesting to us both; it is a setting where there is no easy way to survive, thousands of miles from what we call home, so it was perfect for a movie about surmounting adversities and having to find your way back. We also wanted it to be a realistic story, which required us to do extensive research to become familiar with space exploration in order to depict a plausible scenario."
Early on, Alfonso Cuarón reached out to producer David Heyman, with whom he had collaborated on 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." David Heyman says he relished the opportunity to work with the director again. 'I was so honoured when he asked me to get involved. Alfonso Cuarón is one of the great filmmakers, a man of endless creativity and imagination. He is so inspiring and just makes everybody around him better at what they do.
'What I loved about the script was that it was in certain ways a genre film, and yet it was so much more," David Heyman continues. 'How could I not leap at it? Then the practical reality of what making the film would entail began to set in."
The filmmakers soon discovered that they would need to push the boundaries of moviemaking to tell a story that transpires wholly in zero gravity. 'I have to say that I was a bit naïve; I thought making the film would be a lot simpler," Alfonso Cuarón admits. 'Yes, I knew it would require a certain amount of tricks, but it was not until we started trying conventional techniques that I realised in order to do the film the way I wanted to do it, we were going to have to create something entirely new."
To accomplish that, Alfonso Cuarón called upon cinematographer Emmanuel 'Chivo" Lubezki, and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber of Framestore. 'From the get-go, Chivo, Tim and I decided we wanted everything to look like we took our camera into space. That would have been my dream, but, of course, that's not feasible," Alfonso Cuarón smiles.
Simply put"though there was nothing simple about it"the filmmakers did not want anything akin to a sci-fi fantasy world, but rather to depict the stark realities of being marooned in the harshest environment known to mankind.
That objective turned out to be a game changer.
The filmmakers invented entire systems to generate the illusion of being in space in ways that were both totally convincing and utterly visceral.
Webber had suggested to the director that the only way to do it right was to create a completely virtual setting. Alfonso Cuarón reveals, 'I was initially skeptical; I wanted to achieve as much practically as possible. But after testing different technologies, it was clear that Tim was right."
As a result, 'Gravity" is a hybrid of live-action, computer animation and CGI, with sets, backgrounds and even costumes rendered digitally.
The most crucial element in conveying the sensation of being in space was replicating zero gravity. Given Alfonso Cuarón's preference for long, fluid shots, the tried-and-true method of traditional wires was not viable, nor was the use of gravity-defying parabolas in the aptly named 'vomit comet""a plane that climbs and then plummets, causing momentary weightlessness. The director elaborates, 'With wires, you can see the strain on the actor; gravity is still pulling everything down. And the vomit comet only works for takes that are a few seconds long, and also not everyone copes very well with it."
Instead, the filmmakers employed a combination of groundbreaking techniques to bring the characters"and, by extension, the audience"into the breathtaking realm of space. Wires were used, but veteran special effects supervisor Neil Corbould and his team devised a unique 12-wire rig, which, with the help of expert puppeteers, enabled them to 'float" Sandra Bullock for specific sequences.
For other scenes, the actors were secured onto specialised rigs that could rotate or tilt them at different angles. Alfonso Cuarón and Lubezki were able to take advantage of more extreme angles with cameras mounted on giant computer-controlled robot arms, the type used in automobile manufacturing.
Perhaps the most ingenious new tool was a set piece dubbed the 'Light Box," which was conceived by Alfonso Cuarón and Webber. Resembling a hollow cube, its interior walls were made up of large, flat panels, each fitted with thousands of tiny LED lights. As its name suggests, the purpose of the Light Box was to cast the appropriate illumination on the character, even, for example, in the pulse-pounding scene in which Ryan is spinning uncontrollably through space. With conventional lighting, that effect would have been impossible.
The lights, robot-mounted cameras and tilt rigs could all be synched with the aid of computers, allowing Alfonso Cuarón and his colleagues, in essence, to move the universe around the actors, thereby giving the impression that the characters are moving through the universe. Through being the operative word.
'Gravity" had been envisioned from the beginning as a 3D cinematic experience. Jonás Cuarón says, 'The concept was always to do this movie in 3D because we wanted people to be truly immersed in the imagery as well as the narrative."
That said, Alfonso Cuarón emphasises, 'We didn't want it to be 3D for the sake of things flying in your face. We tried to be subtle…to let you feel like you're inside the journey."
Despite all the technological breakthroughs developed in making 'Gravity," the journey that remained the most vital to the cast and filmmakers was the personal one at the heart of the story"particularly that of Ryan, who is alone for a large part of the film. Sandra Bullock remarks, 'I think it's a story about what makes us try when it seems there is no light at the end of the tunnel. What is it that makes you go that extra step just in case it was worth the effort to try?"
'It is very much a woman's passage from a place of loss and being in an emotionally numb state to a place where she rediscovers her purpose and reason for life…and then fights for it," Heyman adds.
'So for us," Jonás Cuarón offers, 'the meaning of -Gravity' isn't just what keeps your feet on the ground. It's the force that is constantly pulling you back home."
The director affirms, 'Throughout the film there are constant visual references of Earth as this beautiful, nurturing place. And floating above it is a woman who is cut off from her nurturing self. We wanted to explore the allegorical potential of a character in space who is spiraling further into the void, a victim of her own inertia, moving away from Earth, where life and human connections reside. Amidst all the tools and effects, we were always clear that Ryan's struggle is a metaphor for anyone who has to overcome adversity in life and get to the other side. It is a journey of rebirth."
In casting Ryan, who is in nearly every frame of the film, Alfonso Cuarón knew he needed an actress who could handle both the physical and psychological demands of the role, which were equally daunting. He found her in Sandra Bullock, whom Heyman calls 'a brilliant actor working at the height of her powers. She brought such truth and conviction to her performance."
When we meet Mission Specialist Ryan Stone, she is all business, concentrating on the task at hand and not engaging in the playful exchange between the other astronauts and Mission Control. Even Matt Kowalski's unending tall stories"all-too-familiar to those back in Houston"fail to distract Ryan Stone as she works to implement her new scanning system on the Hubble Telescope. However, her focus and detachment are not driven by the job but by a personal tragedy.
'Ryan Stone suffered a devastating loss," says Sandra Bullock. 'When I started delving into the character, I had to ask myself what I would do, and I'd probably do exactly the same thing she did. She withdrew. When Alfonso and I started talking about the character, it was clear we shared an understanding of her and also had the same questions. Why do we retreat when tragedy strikes, when being with others is what can save you? How often are we hit by life and won't ask for help? In a way, what Ryan goes through is a compelling allegory for -Be careful what you wish for.' She wanted to be alone and she got it."
'One of the major themes of the film is that element of isolation," Alfonso Cuarón relates. 'But it can be very scary for an actor to spend huge chunks of screen time on her own, not interacting with another human being. Sandra Bullock and I had many discussions about finding the balance between what she would say or not say, or by what actions she would express what Ryan Stone is feeling. We agreed there should be a level of ambiguity to her character, but we also needed to anchor her emotionally. I think Sandra Bullock dug into some really dark corners to deliver what she did in her performance. I was more than thrilled and extremely grateful to her."
Sandra Bullock has equal praise for her director. 'It was the most collaborative experience I've ever had. I've admired Alfonso Cuarón for so long, but working with him exceeded all my expectations. He is a master filmmaker and collaborator, who makes everyone around him want to give their best. He's also an extraordinary human being…I mean, someone who is not involved emotionally, philosophically and spiritually could not have made something so profound."
While aspects of her character evolved through Sandra Bullock's conversations with the director, there were several constants that remained, beginning with Ryan Stone being female. Jonás Cuarón says, 'It was always important to us that the central character be a woman, because we felt there was an understated but vital correlation of her being a maternal presence against the backdrop of Mother Earth."
Apart from that, the screenwriters needed Ryan Stone to be an untested astronaut, who was there for her scientific expertise. 'She, of course, had some training," Jonás Cuaron notes, 'but she is a mission specialist, not a pilot, so when the shuttle is destroyed, she is unprepared to deal with such an extreme situation."
The elder Alfonso Cuarón observes, 'The thing about adversities is that they take us out of our comfort zone. In order to do that with Ryan, we needed her to be new to spaceflight. But for the rest to make sense, we also needed a mentor figure"someone who could guide her through the process and help her figure things out."
In 'Gravity," that mentor is Matt Kowalski, portrayed by George Clooney, who says he had a list of reasons for wanting to do the film, starting with the script. 'I loved the screenplay, which is the first reason you ever want to make a film if you're an actor. And I liked the character a lot; I thought he would be fun to play."
George Clooney continues that 'Gravity" also presented the chance to team with two people he admires greatly. 'Sandy and I have been good friends for very long time, but we never found the right vehicle for us to do something together. I have always had tremendous respect for her, and I couldn't ask for a better partner to act with. And I think Alfonso Cuarón is one of the most interesting and talented directors we have. I honestly thought -Children of Men' was a masterpiece, and have wanted to work with him. So everything about this seemed like a great opportunity to me, and I was proud to be a part of it." Alfonso Cuarón describes George Clooney's character as 'the counterpart to Ryan. Matt is very much at ease in that environment; he is as expansive as Ryan is insulated. If you were going into space, Matt is the guy you would want with you."
Those on the set felt the same way about the man. 'George Clooney is a life force," states Sandra Bullock. 'In many respects, he does parallel his character because Matt is the one who breathes life into every single moment; he loves nothing more than seeing the world from the vantage point of space. But what's so electric about George Clooney isn't just his face, it's his voice. He has that voice that makes you feel like he's a friend; he's someone who has been there and can make you believe everything is going to be okay. It's like that for Ryan with Matt. And that's how George Clooney is to work with…until he starts causing trouble and then you have to watch your back every minute," she teases.
George Clooney's practical jokes have, in fact, become the stuff of Hollywood legend, but the parameters established by the production's technology forced something of a moratorium. 'It required a certain discipline because of all the elements that were already in place," the actor acknowledges. 'So I just put myself in the hands of the smartest guys in the room, beginning with Alfonso Cuarón. But working with Sandy made it fun, so there was truly a lot of laughing."
Heyman comments, 'Both Sandra Bullock and George Clooney have a wicked sense of humor and were playing off each other. No one was safe from their ribbing. It was such a pleasure working with these two actors. They are not only totally committed and immeasurably gifted, but respectful of everyone and truly a joy."
Prevising the Vision
Apart from the actor's performances, almost all of 'Gravity" was accomplished with a seamless fusion of CGI and computer animation, requiring the total orchestration of man and machine.
Production began with a process called previs"short for previsualisation"wherein the entire movie was meticulously mapped out in the computer, encompassing everything from blocking, to camera angles and lighting, to design.
Visual effects supervisor Tim Webber says, 'Previs can be very basic, but on -Gravity,' we went much farther down the line. We needed to work out all the shots in great detail because so much was going to be computer-animated"the notable difference being that the CG-animated portions had to look completely photo-real. It's not a cartoon and not a sci-fi fantasy; everything had to feel like real life, so we needed to have a precise idea of how it was all going to look and move together. We mostly used keyframe animation for the characters and camera, but we also gave Alfonso a camera and he was able to watch a virtual picture on the screen. As he moved around, he could frame the shots and plot all the action of the movie."
Alfonso Cuarón confirms, 'We didn't have the usual freedom of animation, as we had live-action elements that had to blend with the animation, and the live action was limited by what was preprogrammed in the previs. Tim Webbertried to give us as much flexibility as possible, but most often, once we had made a commitment, that was it. Due to the technological process, the margin for improvisation and spontaneity was very small, which added to the challenge for Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. But watching their performances, no one will feel the limitations placed on them, and that is a testament to what amazing actors they are."
Senior animation supervisor David Shirk and animation supervisor Max Solomon and their department were also faced with the juxtaposition of live action and computer animation, adding in the rules of zero gravity, where what goes up doesn't ever come down. 'We had to relearn physics since we were all used to motion arcs that are determined by weight," David Shirk remarks. 'We had to forget all that and assume, for instance, if something is spinning, it will keep spinning forever until it interacts with something that changes that spin."
'In outer space, there is no up, there is no down," states Alfonso Cuarón. 'It took a lot of education for the animators to fully grasp that the usual laws of cause and effect didn't apply. It was a learning curve for all of us."
One learning tool that the animators used was called a ragdoll simulation because, as Solomon explains, 'it's basically a floppy character that we could throw in virtual space and it simulated how a body might move. It was quite useful to get people's heads around how a character would fly. Where it was not useful was that people aren't ragdolls; they have arms and legs that react to things," he smiles.
During the previs phase, Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki could also establish the extended shots that have become a signature of the director"a prime example being the opening sequence that introduces Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski against the magnificent vista of space.
'From the beginning," says Emmanuel Lubezki, 'Alfonso Cuarón wanted to do very long, continuous shots, which is something we have had success with on other films, but -Gravity' was the first time I'd be doing virtual photography. With the substantial amount of CG, we found we could take that approach to the extreme. It allowed us to do what we called -elastic shots,' where we went from an objective wide view to an extreme close-up of Sandra's face, and then into her helmet to a subjective POV angle and then back out again to a more objective shot. It gives the audience that feeling of claustrophobia and a better understanding of what the character is going through."
Tim Webber adds, 'Alfonso Cuarón made good use of the camera's capability to float around, rotate and spin in a virtual environment. Characters could roll upside down and the camera could go above, below or around them. In particular, when you have those extended shots, it meant you could keep everything going very fluidly and there was plenty of opportunity for uncommon camera moves."
The Light Box
Over the course of previs, the filmmakers recognised a number of other obstacles that would have to be addressed. In some cases, technology had to catch up with the ambitions of the filmmakers for how they wanted to tell the story. One pioneering invention was the brainchild of Lubezki and Tim Webber: the Light Box.
Lubezki notes, 'We had to solve a very complicated lighting situation, which became clear during previs. Once we determined how the lights would affect the faces of the characters in the computer, we had to be able to match it in order to composite the live action and animation perfectly. I needed lights that could move fast and change colors in an instant."
As often happens, inspiration struck where Lubezki least expected it. He recounts, 'I was at a concert and noticed that the lighting director had cleverly used LEDs to create beautiful lighting effects and projections. I got very excited because I knew that could be the answer for us. The next day I called Alfonso and said, -I think I've found a way to light the movie.'"
Lubezki contacted Tim Webber and they started doing tests, which, the cinematographer admits, were far from perfect. 'There were glitches we had to sort out, like flicker and color hue aberrations. I have to say, it was Tim Webber who came up with solutions to all the problems and brought the whole idea to life. Then Manex Efrem and his special effects guys built the box based on the specifications of what Tim and I needed. It was a true team effort. And when the Light Box came together, I knew it was not only going to be the way I could light -Gravity,' but would impact the way I light movies for years to come."
Standing on Stage R at London's Shepperton Studios, the finished Light Box was constructed on a raised platform and stood over 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide. On one side, steps led up to the sliding door that accessed the interior, and on the other was a gantry that connected the structure to its own 'mission control""VFX technicians positioned at a bank of computers. The glow from the monitors was the only illumination, apart from the Light Box itself, permitted on the soundstage.
'It's quite a feat of geometry," Manex Efrem describes. 'We built it so they could change the shape: bring in the walls, bring the ceiling down or change the configuration of the floor. Some of the individual panels were also hinged to allow them to open and close." The interior of the box was comprised of 196 panels, each measuring approximately two feet by two feet and fitted with 4,096 LED bulbs, which could cast whatever light or colors were needed and alter them at any speed.
Tim Webber expounds, 'They essentially worked like the pixels on a TV screen or a computer monitor. The terrific thing about the Light Box was that it didn't just give us the ability to make lighting adjustments in a way that would be physically impossible otherwise, it enabled us to add a huge amount of complexity to the lighting, with subtle variations to both colour and texture."
The added advantage was that any image could be projected onto the walls, whether the planet Earth, the International Space Station (ISS) or the distant stars, 'giving the actor the perspective of what their character was seeing," Webber continues. 'It was primarily so we could reflect the appropriate light on them, but it had the double benefit of being a visual reference for them, too."
The filmmakers had to take into consideration where characters were in relation to the globe in determining the shade and brightness of the Earth's bounce light. Alfonso Cuarón says, 'As much as possible, we tried to follow a course that made sense in terms of sunrises and sunsets and day into night, as well as the different environments"from the blueness of the Pacific, to the concentration of city lights, to the northern lights over the Arctic. We cheated a bit because we wanted to create an eloquent voyage that captures the breathtaking beauty of our planet."
Fortunately, as Tim Webber relates, they had the best possible reference material. 'We were very lucky that NASA was willing to share much of the information they've gathered, particularly in the form of photographs and film footage. Astronauts actually make very good photographers; we got some truly stunning images. We would look at the time lapse shots they did from the ISS and say, -Gosh, if we did something like that, no one would believe it was real.' It was just so amazing."
Sandra Bullock offers, 'What blew me away is how they are able to show this world of ours to the viewer. I'd never seen it like that before and felt guilty that I had never appreciated it as much as I do now."
The actress spent many days within the confines of the Light Box, which Alfonso Cuarón says, in some ways, mirrored the solitude of her character. 'She was essentially on her own inside this cube, secluded from the rest of the people on the set, with projections of the Sun and the Moon and planet Earth rotating around her. It was interesting because we had been concerned about how long we were going to be isolating her, but Sandra applied that creatively and was able to convey some of her own experience at that point."
'There was no human connection, other than the voices coming through my little earwig, which helped because it made me feel so alone," Sandra Bullock attests. 'I'm glad it was done the way it was done, as whenever I started to become frustrated or lonely or at a loss, I was like, -just use it…use it.'"
Robotics, Rigs and Flying by Wire
While the Light Box solved some technical issues, it also posed the question of how to film the actors inside, without compromising its function. They had to devise a camera that would be small enough and flexible enough to fit inside a two-foot gap and then move as directed.
Once again, necessity was the mother of invention for Alfonso Cuarón and his team.
The production utilized robots"the type used in automobile manufacturing"from a company called Bot & Dolly. A customised motion-controlled camera head was fixed to the end of the large robotic arm, which extended to position the camera inside the box at different speeds. Multiple axes provided the filmmakers with the ability to adjust the pan, tilt and roll of the camera via computer controls.
Alfonso Cuarón comments, 'The robot camera gave us unparalleled accuracy and consistency. Once the shot was programmed into the computer, the camera would hit the same spot on every take."
The mobility of the lights and cameras did not mean the actors could remain stationary while everything revolved around them. In the floor of the Light Box the special effects team installed a turntable on which they could assemble an assortment of rigs that twisted, turned and lifted the actors, depending on the needs of the scene. 'It was very versatile," Manex Efrem says. 'We had one configuration that was relatively gentle, called the -heart-to-heart' rig, which allowed Sandra Bullock and George Clooney to interact face to face while turning through space. Then there was the -tilt-plus' rig, which was like putting them in a gyroscope."
The tilt-plus rig resembled a cone of concentric metal rings encircling the body from the waist down. Once the actor was secured, the rig lived up to its name, turning and tilting them at extreme angles and at different speeds. However, it had to stop short of completely inverting the person since 'it would put an obvious strain on the body that would ruin the appearance of weightlessness," Efrem explains.
The semblance of weightlessness was key to the film. Executive producer Nikki Penny states, 'One of the biggest challenges in making -Gravity' was gravity; in other words, how to create the illusion of a lack of gravity and maintain it throughout."
Different techniques of simulating anti-gravity were employed for different sequences, including a variety of rigs, as well as some traditional wire work. But for several scenes"including one where Ryan is traveling through the passageways of the ISS"it, in fact, took a great deal of effort to make her appear to glide effortlessly.
Conventional wires were not an option because they did not give the impression of floating that the filmmakers were after. To accomplish that, special effects supervisor Neil Corbould developed a breakthrough 12-wire system that could either be operated manually or remotely controlled by way of a computerised miniature replica of the 12-wire mechanism.
The dozen individual wires triangulated down from a complex pulley system called the head, with each of the wires having its own motor and capstan, which is a kind of spool. The wires were strung down and attached to an ultra-thin carbon fiber harness that had been molded to Sandra Bullock's body and could be invisibly worn under even a tank top and shorts. Three wires on each side were fastened at her shoulders and three on each side were fastened at her hips, all to suspend her in air with no pendulum effect.
Ten months in the making, the intricate 12-wire system was equipped with separate servos that could propel Sandra Bullock in any direction or angle her up or down. It could also move at quite a clip"up to 75 meters per second"although, in the interest of safety, the drives were programmed automatically to shut down if it started to go too fast or put too much torque on the body.
The 12-wire apparatus resembled a marionette"albeit a very high-tech one"so the production brought in some of the best puppeteers in the business to man the controls. Robin Guiver, Avye Leventis and Mikey Brett had been among the artists who brought to life the title character in the award-winning play 'War Horse." On the 'Gravity" set, they helped Sandra Bullock fly.
Robin Guiver notes, 'It's very counterintuitive for human beings to be weightless, but in the world of puppets, we are able to break the laws of physics in graceful and expressive ways. We were applying the same skills to this task"finding a freedom of movement that would not otherwise be possible."
Sandra Bullock says she and the puppeteering team cultivated both trust and an instinctive connection over the course of filming. 'We got into a nice sync where they could tell the instant I turned my head which direction I wanted to go. They are true masters of the art."
The wires and rigs could suspend and support Sandra Bullock, but she was aware that spending hours on end in them, day in and day out, would be physically demanding. To prepare, she engaged in an intense training regimen that began in the months leading up to production and continued throughout filming. 'I pushed my body to the extreme," she reveals. 'Strength-wise, I had to know I could do anything Alfonso asked of me at any given point, so not a day went by that we didn't train. It was part of what I could contribute to what these brilliant minds built to execute Alfonso Cuarón's extraordinary story."
The actress also worked closely with movement coach Francesca Jaynes, who helped teach her to move as if in zero-g. The two watched footage of real astronauts, noting how every motion appears more measured. Francesca Jaynes says, 'The speed at which you move in space has a rhythm that's more balletic."
That rhythm presented a different kind of challenge for Sandra Bullock: she had to move more slowly but speak in a normal cadence, a disconnect that is harder than it sounds. 'It's not how your brain would naturally talk and move," she relates. 'I had to retrain my body to react in the way it would react in space. Every single part of my being had to be used to execute zero gravity in a way that was poetic and lyrical."
That goal is perhaps best reflected in a shot of Ryan in the airlock of the ISS. The sequence was one of the most intricate to film, requiring the synchronisation of three robots: one with a revolving camera; a second holding the main light source, representing the sunlight streaming in; and a third that caused the air lock porthole to circle around the back wall, adding to the perception of rotation. Amidst the cutting-edge mechanics, there was also a very human element to the making of the scene. Under Alfonso Cuarón's direction, Sandra Bullock"who was secured by only one leg to a special bicycle seat rig"had to time her movements perfectly while smoothly transitioning her upper body and free leg without the aid of wires or puppeteers.
The result is a moment that is breathtaking in every sense of the word"one that, without a word, fluently expresses the film's central theme of rebirth.
A large majority of the sets in 'Gravity," including the passageways of the ISS and its air lock, are virtual. Production designer Andy Nicholson remarks, 'I was used to interfacing with visual effects in terms of extending physical sets and generating background plates and so forth. This was completely different for me because entire sets were fabricated only in the computer, but we would need to achieve photorealistic details throughout." Since the design team was largely replicating existing and well-documented structures, Nicholson and his department engaged in extensive research. 'Without the huge amount of NASA photography and technical data in the public domain, nothing could have been as detailed. We wanted to base as much on fact as possible and then adapt as needed," he says.
Andy Nicholson began designing during the previs stage, where, he says, 'we would start by developing the CG environments in a basic blocking manner. We then got feedback on what worked and what didn't and we'd take that, roll it back and make the changes. Anything Alfonso approved, we would move forward on, all leading to the final -build,' which was done by Framestore."
Supervising art director Mark Scruton recalls, 'It was hard at first to get our heads around designing things that would only ever be CG but that had to look like the real deal. We also realized that many of these things are in the public consciousness, which meant getting everything as bang-on accurate as we possibly could. We wanted it to look like we actually went to the shuttle or the ISS."
Each of the hundreds of props, from large hand tools to the smallest bolt, was painstakingly studied and designed and then computer-modeled, generating a library of props that could then be used to digitally 'dress" the sets. Taking into consideration that the ISS has been occupied by people of different nationalities, Andy Nicholson added a few subtle touches to the set to reflect their diverse cultures.
They also had to reflect the fact that, even in space, there is wear and tear. 'The space station has been continually occupied for almost 13 years so there are sections, inside and out, that show their age. We incorporated a degree of texture in the design and passed the information to the texture artists at Framestore. Every surface you see has a tremendous amount of layered detail, even if you're just moving past it," says Andy Nicholson. Equal attention to detail went into all the physical sets built for the production, including the Russian Soyuz space capsule. Nicholson confirms, 'We found enough reference material to do a pretty faithful reproduction of the real Soyuz capsule, with a few intentional departures, like the side hatch. We were fortunate to get excellent guidance from real astronaut Andy Thomas, who taught us about the Soyuz computer interface and commands and about many of the internal features of the capsule. It was crucial for us to understand as much as we could about the way everything worked."
Sandra Bullock had the same questions. 'I wanted to know exactly how they operated and what would happen when I hit a certain button," she remembers. 'Everybody was very dedicated to making sure everything we did looked authentic."
The Soyuz capsule set was built in segments to accommodate long, continuous shots, including a pivotal conversation between Ryan and Kowalski. Scruton illustrates, 'We had five sections of the set on individual tracks so as the scene progressed, each piece would be moved out of the way to let the camera travel past. Then, on cue, each section would be quietly slid back for when the camera looked back at where it had just come from."
Andy Nicholson adds, 'It was complicated because it was a lot of camera movement in a very small space. For some shots we had up to 16 people quietly pushing pieces of the capsule in and out, choreographed precisely to the camera. It took a while to figure out and carefully rehearse each shot."
Like Andy Nicholson, costume designer Jany Temime had to approach her work from both virtual and practical perspectives. The spacesuits in which we first see Ryan and Kowalski are computer animated. Temime says, 'That was entirely new for me. I still got hold of the fabric so I could see the color and get the feel because it would be impossible for me to just work in the computer."
Even in a virtual world, the color of the spacesuits proved problematic because 'white is the trickiest color to light," Temime clarifies. 'Nevertheless, it had to stay white because the NASA suit is white and that was very important. We experimented with different shades of white and ended up lining the outer layer with gray, which solved the problem."
While staying true to the color, Temime admits she did take a bit of dramatic license with the shape of the suit. 'It has a slightly better shape with a little more waist and longer legs; otherwise, it would be a big, formless bag. It's only little details, but they make a big difference. You pinch a little here, pull up a bit there, and it works like magic." The genuine NASA spacesuits are not only extremely bulky but incredibly heavy, with multiple layers of protective materials and systems for temperature control and to provide oxygen. All of that is necessary for survival in the vacuum of space, but on terra firma, it would have been unbearably cumbersome for Bullock and Clooney to perform in them.
Instead, the actors wore proxy suits. Temime describes, 'They were overall the right color and fabric so the effect of light on them would be the same. Under that, they wore restriction suits, which is something we specially created to constrain the actors' mobility and give them a sense of the volume."
The idea of lead modeler Pierre Bohanna, the restriction suit was lightweight, with elasticized tubing that could be expanded to impede the flexibility of the actors. Bohanna says, 'We talked to astronauts who told us that the real suit puts constant stress on the body; it's like being inside a tire. We wanted to create something that approximated the same feeling, so, for example, as George and Sandra are moving their arms around, there's a limit to how far they can go. It gives them something to push against and interpret what it would be like wearing a spacesuit without just having to try and remember to physically inhibit their movements."
The actors also wore proxy helmets, which were replaced via CGI to the design specifications of Temime, in collaboration with Alfonso Cuarón. Differing from the real thing, subtle changes were made to the shape and size to make them more proportional to the faces but still believable.
The visors of the helmets were entirely CG, and Tim Webber says that one of his biggest challenges was rendering the mist from the characters' breaths on those visors. 'We had to time it to how fast they were breathing and watch where the head was facing in relation to the visor. In reality, you wouldn't see as much breath on the visor because the systems in the suits keep the air very dry, but for us it was a visual indication of their tension."
Unlike the NASA suits, the less bulky Russian spacesuit worn by Ryan was an actual costume, made from an industrial fabric. There was also no issue with the colour. Temime notes, 'We dyed it a beige with a hint of green. We went through a long process to find that precise color to reflect the light properly. We also adapted it to give it a more feminine silhouette and added two zippers in the front, which is a change from the original."
Interestingly, what would appear to be the simplest costume is the one Temime says was the most problematic. 'For the under garments that Sandra is wearing on the ISS, we had to take into consideration the shape of the harness for the wires. It was difficult because we had to calculate exactly what was going to be covered, and how, and adapt accordingly."
Sound and Music
For a film set in a soundless world, sound became one of the filmmakers' most challenging design elements. Alfonso Cuarón attests, 'There is no sound in space, and we wanted to honour that as much as possible. There are certain sequences when we strip away the sound, but we felt to sustain it for the whole film would alienate the audience." Alfonso Cuarón and supervising sound editor and sound designer Glenn Freemantle took the approach of correlating sound and touch. Freemantle explains, 'One of the concepts of sound is that it travels through vibrations. When you touch something, it resonates through that internal connection. So Ryan is touching and coming in contact with things and you hear through her."
Sudden silence was also an integral part of the sound design. Alfonso Cuarón carefully chose those moments, unexpectedly cutting away that aural link to remind the audience that the characters are in a void where nothing exists to sustain life.
Alfonso Cuarón also utilised music to, as he says, 'take the role of sound or give a tonal suggestion of sound."
Freemantle collaborated closely with composer Steven Price to layer the two components. Price says, 'It was great working with Glenn and his team. They were using vibrations and low frequencies to subtly underpin the action, so you feel the impacts without hearing them in the traditional sense. I wanted to do that in a different way with the music."
Alfonso Cuarón offers, 'I wanted the music to be textural, to blur the line between music and sound, so I told Steve I didn't want any percussion. It was a challenge for him because he had to score all the action and suspense without some of the fundamental instruments he would normally use in a conventional action score. He began blending more electronics with acoustic instruments to cause pulsations in place of percussion. Once he landed the concept, he just started flying with it."
'It was a case of building intensity in the music without the usual orchestra," Price adds. 'It freed me to try anything, and do my own version of what an action cue or an emotional cue would be. The great thing about Alfonso Cuarón is he's looking to push things as far as they can go, so you're inspired to try things you would never have thought of." George Clooney says, 'This is a film with an exquisite filmmaker at the helm and a wonderful actress at its center. It has themes that are unbelievably resonant, more than one might expect from a -space movie.' It's about coming to terms with your own death…or your own life. And I believe it will start a lot of conversations."
Sandra Bullock reflects, 'Going into this film, I had no idea what I was capable of on so many levels, physically, emotionally and mentally. It was body-changing, mind-changing, mind-bending. I hope people who come on this amazing ride will leave the theatre also feeling transformed."
'-Gravity' may be the most challenging project in which I've ever been involved," David Heyman states. 'There were so many facets and everyone contributed so much to achieve something unique. It is beautiful, elegant filmmaking whose complexity and difficulty tested everybody to the umpteenth degree. But none of that is visible."
Alfonso Cuarón concludes, 'It was a total collaboration, combining all the different elements of the images and sounds and extraordinary performances. We want audiences to come along on this journey…to share in the experience of floating weightless in the stunning but terrifying realm of space."
Release Date: October 3rd, 2013