Great minds think alike.
Facing the Void. From American Cinematographer.
The 3-D feature is enhanced by long takes and fluid camerawork that immerse the viewer in the beautiful but dangerous environment of space with a groundbreaking level of realism and detail. It is the fruit of a five-year collaboration involving director Alfonso Cuarón; cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, ASC, AMC; visual-effects supervisor Tim Webber, and their talented teams. Longtime friends Cuarón and Lubezki have worked together on six features to date, including Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men (AC Dec. ’06). Webber supervised visual effects on the latter.
The technical and aesthetic accomplishments of Gravity become all the more impressive when Lubezki reveals that the only real elements in the space exteriors are the actors’ faces behind the glass of their helmets. Everything else in the exterior scenes — the spacesuits, the space station, the Earth — is CGI. Similarly, for a scene in which a suit-less Stone appears to float through a spaceship in zero gravity, Bullock was suspended from wires onstage, and her surroundings were created digitally. (Most of the footage in the space capsules was shot with the actors in a practical set.)
In many ways, Gravity provides a new paradigm for the expanding role of the cinematographer on films with significant virtual components. By all accounts, Lubezki was deeply involved in every stage of crafting the real and computer-generated images. In addition to conceiving virtual camera moves with Cuarón, he created virtual lighting with digital technicians, lit and shot live action that matched the CG footage, fine-tuned the final rendered image, supervised the picture’s conversion from 2-D to 3-D, and finalized the look of the 2-D, 3-D and Imax versions. “I was doing my work as a cinematographer on Gravity,” says Lubezki. “In the process, I had to learn to use some new tools that are part of what cinematography is becoming. I found it very exciting.”
Cuarón notes that whenever he was tempted “to do a camera move just because it was cool, Chivo would not allow that to happen.” He cites the example of the opening take, which ends with Stone drifting away toward open space. “When we were doing the previs, as she started floating away, I said, ‘We don’t need to cut. We can keep following her in the same shot, so the first two shots would be just one shot.’ But Chivo said, ‘I think when she’s floating away is the perfect moment to cut. If this were the chapter of a book, this would be the last phrase of the chapter.’ And he was right. Otherwise, we would have started calling attention to the long take and creating an expectation that that’s what the film was about. But that’s not what it’s about. The camerawork serves … I don’t want to say it serves the story, because I have my problems with that. For me, the story is like the cinematography, the sound, the acting and the color. They are tools for cinema, and what you have to serve is cinema, not story.”
Lubezki shot most of the live-action material in the film with Arri Alexa Classics and wide Arri Master Prime lenses, recording in the ArriRaw format to Codex recorders; the package was supplied by Arri Media in London. (Panavision London provided a Primo Close Focus lens that was used for a single shot.) He filmed a scene set on Earth on 65mm, using an Arri 765 and Kodak Vision3 500T 5219, to provide a visual contrast to the rest of the picture.
The robot arm was originally designed to assemble cars, according to Webber. He explains that Warner Bros. executive Chris DeFaria read about a San Francisco design-and-engineering studio, Bot & Dolly, which had used the arms to move a camera. Webber adds that the production worked with Bot & Dolly to add increased flexibility to the system, including the ability to adjust the speed of the preprogrammed moves so they could be adapted to the actors’ performances. To create even more options, they added a special remote head that was manned by camera operator Peter Taylor. Based on a Mo-Sys head, this remote unit was adapted to make it smaller and lighter, partly so that it would block less light. It could be operated live or set to play preprogrammed moves driven by the previs.
Gaffer John “Biggles” Higgins, who also worked with Lubezki on Children of Men, marvels that he has “never seen anything like the set of Gravity.” Apart from the LED Box, he notes, there were also other, slightly more traditional setups. For interiors of the space capsule as it hurtles to Earth, for instance, the filmmakers used an Alpha 4K HMI without its lens to simulate the sun, moving the source around the stationary capsule with a crane and a remote head. Higgins says they selected the Alpha because “it is the only head that can be operated shooting straight down.” He adds that Lubezki would provide ambient light by punching powerful tungsten 20Ks through 20’x 20′ frames, using two layers of diffusion, Half and Full Grid Cloth, as well as green and blue gels, to simulate sunlight. “These diffusions were mainly used on the real capsules,” explains Higgins. “The green and blue filters were stitched to the back of the closest diffusion, the 20-by-20 Full Grid.”