'Gravity' Visuals: Traditional Work With New

As digital technology evolves, showbiz needs to expand its definitions. For example, are the images in “Gravity” the work of the cinematographer and production designer, or a team of computer geeks?

In separate conversations with Variety, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Andy Nicholson each said that they did traditional jobs, but with unusual methods. Alfonso Cuaron (who won the DGA Award Jan. 25) also told Variety that the team did a lot of so-called post-production work before shooting began. So the workflow is different, and so are the tools.

Emmanuel Lubezki:

From the beginning, Cuaron made clear he wanted a cinematographer. My work was pretty much the same as I have done in other movies. It’s still a cinematographer’s job, but there are other tools we can incorporate; our job is expanding rather than becoming more limited.

It’s still the job of the cinematographer to design the lighting of the movie, to work with the director on the framing, the blocking of actors. I did all the lighting, but it was on computer — you could call it virtual lighting. Instead of going location scouting, we had a few thousand photos from NASA. We couldn’t go to space but we still did a “location” job. We had to consider things like what time of day it is on the part of the earth that Sandra (Bullock) is going over.

The hard thing was to combine the “virtual cinematography” with the live-action cinematography; that was very complex.

I had tons of other things besides the lighting: the composition of the shots, how the camera would move. (Visual effects supervisor) Tim Webber was obviously a big collaborator with us, to create a system to create a virtual camera and move inside the virtual environment to find the shots.

Somebody said, “You only lit the faces of the actors,” but I lit everything in the CG environment. You see the spacecraft, how they are positioned, how they move, how they are framed: All those things we would have been done a few years ago with miniatures, but we are now doing in computers.

The technology is very exciting, but to me the most exciting part of the movie is that it’s about a female heroine, on her own. It’s the telling of a story that doesn’t involve killing and guns. It’s just part of the human condition, what it’s like to be a tiny speck lost in the universe, and about feelings that humanity has had since the beginning of time.

Production designer Andy Nicholson:

It was very much like designing any movie set in a specific location; my process was exactly the same. But my entire workflow was tailor-made for this shoot. Rather than standing on a set with a painter, work had to be done at the outset. This was all about communications — including (talking with) the visual effects artist who would be working on the designs six months after I’ve moved on to my next job.

After the first meeting with Alfonso, I read the script, and it was unlike any scenario I’d read before. It was “what does it look like, what are the images like.” I spent a weekend looking at the NASA website, downloading images. I was writing details on thousands of photos and finding references for things, such as the thrusts on George (Clooney’s) jet pack. That was all part of the process.

We had to previs (i.e., previsualize) the whole movie to work out how we were going to do the performance capture, but all that was designed, very much based on reality.

We had a threefold process. There were the physical sets, which were the two small space capsules and sections of the international space station; we had sets rendered entirely in CG; and we had proxy sets, an amalgam of real and CG sets in which we’d build geometrically designed sections of the set.

After discussing the script and physical sets, it turned into a nerdy meeting about the details — all unique objects made for that specific group of people.

For the interior sets, we modeled them in the computer. Like (the sequence of) Ryan’s character floating through a corridor: what you might see in that space, on the wall, in cabinets, things like that.

We talked a lot about things like the interior of the space station, and how prominent the earth should appear — and the color bouncing from that, which is radically different whether you’re going over an ocean, a desert or a forest.

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