Filmmakers Overcome the Laws of Gravity

7 minute read
Jessica Winter

A small crew of intrepid explorers undertake a journey into outer space that becomes infinitely more harrowing than they had anticipated–enough to make them laugh, cry and curse their fates. This is the story of Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock as a medical engineer and George Clooney as a veteran astronaut who, during a routine mission, become untethered from their shuttle, lose contact with earth and must rely on MacGyver-in-space improv skills for a chance of reaching home–or even a safe vessel–before their oxygen runs out.

But this is also the story of the filmmakers behind Gravity, director Alfonso Cuarón, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual-effects supervisor Tim Webber, who resolved to achieve the impossible: an immersive, visually stunning masterpiece that is the first film predominantly set in zero gravity. The movie is astonishing, vacuum-packed with technological marvels and ethereal wonder, with not a single frame of evidence of the blood, sweat and tears poured into it during a 4½-year gestation.

“The making of this film, in many ways, mirrored the characters’ experiences,” says Cuarón, who spoke with Time at the Warner Bros. offices in midtown Manhattan (like Time, Warner Bros. is owned by Time Warner). “It was a journey of adversities.” The watchword on the set, Cuarón explains, was debris: a reference to the fragments of destroyed satellites and other massive shards of space junk that periodically hurtle toward Gravity’s astronauts. “We were constantly saying to each other, ‘O.K., we have debris again! Debris is attacking us again!'” recalls Cuarén, who co-wrote the script with his son Jonás. “The problems we faced reached absurd levels, so ridiculous that you had to laugh.”

Director of Y Tu Mamá También (2001), Children of Men (2006) and one of the most critically acclaimed of the Harry Potter movies, Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Cuarón has been a space cadet since childhood. “I was 7 when I saw Neil Armstrong on TV, stepping on the moon,” he says. “I had my photos of Yuri Gagarin and the Apollo crew in my room. I wanted to be either an astronaut or a movie director.” When, decades later, the director made a movie about astronauts, he named it after its biggest physical and technical hurdle. “Trying to make a movie that takes place in microgravity when you’re shooting on earth–it’s hard,” he says with knowing understatement.

Making a Cuarón movie in zero gravity is even harder, because he is committed to long, unbroken, often extraordinarily complicated one-take shots. “With Y Tu Mamá También, we started doing all these long shots, and we took that to a new extreme with Children of Men,” says Lubezki, who has known Cuarón since they were teenagers growing up in Mexico City. (“I’d go see a Fellini movie or a Japanese movie,” Lubezki recalls, “and afterward Alfonso would always be outside the theater, with a beautiful girl and a bunch of friends, explaining to everyone what the director was trying to do.”) “With a long shot, it’s immersive. It helps the audience to enter into the film in a much deeper way than when you’re cutting,” Lubezki says. “I knew immediately with Gravity that Alfonso would want that same immersive experience.”

The filmmaking team first considered the “vomit comet” technique, in which a crew shoots inside a plane making steep climb-and-plummet patterns, allowing about 15 seconds of weightlessness inside the cabin. “You can get away with it for a few minutes of screen time with quick, five-second shots,” Webber says, “but you can’t get away with it when zero gravity is the main substance of your movie, and you certainly can’t get away with it in the long shots that Alfonso loves.” For a few scenes, Bullock was suspended from wires using a complex, remote-controlled pulley system–“we literally had puppeteers controlling her,” Webber says–but wire work puts a visible strain on even the most heroic actor. “I couldn’t stand being in the rig for more than 30 seconds, and she would be up there for hours,” Lubezki says. “Sandra is an athlete, an acrobat, a ballerina and a total Buddhist.”

For the most part in Gravity, if you’re seeing flesh, it’s real; everything else is computer generated. The big breakthrough–or in Cuarón’s words, “the big, big, big, big breakthrough”–was Lubezki and Webber’s design of the “light box,” where Bullock spent the bulk of her time. “If Sandra was supposed to be floating and turning 360 degrees in space, we knew she would have to be as still as possible, and what had to move around was the set and the lighting and the camera, which all had to be synchronized,” Lubezki says. The light box was a cube whose interior walls were made up of panels fitted with millions of LEDs. “They’re creating projections of what the character would be seeing, but the projections are also lighting her,” Cuarón says. Robot-controlled cameras and rigs sped up, slowed down and rotated in a computer-controlled choreography that created the illusion of movement.

It was an ingenious way to conjure zero gravity. Still, the “debris” came fast and furious. If the custom-built equipment broke down, there was no rental house to call for repairs. On one day–slated to be Bullock’s first in the light box–the crew discovered that the floor delivered electric shocks. On another, Clooney had been positioned so uncomfortably that in Lubezki’s words, “he didn’t look like he was floating in zero gravity–he looked like he was under three times normal gravity.” The camera rigging and lighting scheme had to be scrapped and redone. “Those were the moments when we would get into a Shackleton kind of area,” Lubezki says, “when we all knew we were stuck in the ice and weren’t sure if we would escape.” (Lubezki kept what he calls a “horrible diary” of the shoot: “I picked it up recently, and it was so sad and scary that I had to stop reading.”)

“There were times when it felt as though everything and everyone was conspiring against the process,” Cuarón says. “But the thing about adversities is that they force you out of your comfort zone. The bad outcome is that you might drift into the void, but the other outcome is that you might gain amazing tools for growth and knowledge.” Again, Cuarón is describing not just the production of Gravity but also Bullock’s heroine. “Physically and metaphorically, this character is drifting into the void, getting further and further away from communication and human experience,” he says, “living in her own bubble, victim of her own inertia, and she is forced to learn how to break through that inertia.”

Gravity derives much of its strength from what it lacks. It’s an action-adventure, but one with no bombs or chases or guns. Russian and Chinese spacecraft figure in the narrative, but geopolitical tensions do not. There’s no enemy but space itself, in all its beauty and terror. There’s not even much in the way of dialogue, and we get a good look at only two characters.

But there’s a third character in Gravity, according to Cuarón, though she may be invisible at first. “The camera is neither an objective observer nor Sandra’s subjective POV–the camera is a third astronaut, and that astronaut is the audience,” Cuarón says. “The audience is floating in space, following these characters who are bonded by the loss of physics in zero gravity, floating and rolling and spinning. The idea is to immerse the audience so that your emotional experience is projected onto the screen in a primal way.” That may be Cuarón’s greatest trick: to wow viewers with a spectacle that seems to have sprung from their own imagination.

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