The American Society of Cinematographers

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Presidents Desk
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Gravity Workflow
Gravity Q&A Subscriber Only
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Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC and his collaborators detail their work on Gravity, a technically ambitious drama set in outer space.

Photos by Murray, Close, Nick Wall, Murdo Macleod and Julio Hardy. Photos and frame grabs courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Framestore.

Gravity begins with a memorable 13-minute continuous take: a breathtaking view of Earth from space that slowly reveals a sunlit space station with three people in spacesuits floating peacefully around it. Suddenly, a mass of fast-moving debris from an exploded satellite pummels the station, killing one person and leaving the other two, astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), marooned in space. The rest of the movie follows their struggle to survive with a dwindling supply of oxygen as they try to make their way to the nearest space station.

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.”

Lubezki says Cuarón initially told him that zero gravity would afford them great freedom in terms of camera moves and lighting. He recalls, “Alfonso said, ‘You’re going to love this movie because you can do anything you want.’ But that turned out to be untrue once we decided we wanted the film to be as realistic as possible.” The cinematographer notes that in addition to naturalism, the filmmakers’ goals included respecting the physics of space, and involving the viewer with long takes and “the elasticity of the shot.” He explains, “We wanted to keep a lot of our shots elastic — for example, to have a shot start very wide, then become very close, and then go back to a very wide shot.”

“We wanted to surrender to the environment of space, but we couldn’t go there, so the only way of doing it was through all of these technologies,” notes Cuarón. “In a fantasy world, we would have shot the whole film in space. If we had, not much would have changed in terms of the visuals.”

Webber, who led the visual-effects team at Framestore in London, convinced Cuarón that his desire for long takes with a zero-gravity camera required that they go virtual. “We needed the freedom of a virtual camera,” says Webber, “so we created a virtual world and then worked out how to get human performances into that world.”

The space setting offered three main sources for the lighting design: the distant sun’s hard light, the soft bounce from Earth and, occasionally, the bounce from the moon. “The settings are either outer space or the interior of a capsule,” says Lubezki. “In space, it’s mostly [the characters] against black with a piece of the Earth, a piece of the sun and sometimes the moon. That’s not enough [visual] variety to keep you excited for 100 minutes, so Alfonso and I decided to make the lighting constantly change.

“It was very exciting to deal only with the quality of light — how harsh or soft it would be, the amount of bounce and its color,” Lubezki continues. “Those few elements made it possible for us to create many different environments. We were also lucky that these spacecraft move so fast; they go through many days and nights in 24 hours.” Indeed, there are rich and dramatic variations in lighting throughout the film, motivated by the rotation of the camera and the characters, as well as the 90-minute sunset cycles in orbit. One stunning sunset scene ends with Stone twirling into the darkness of a field of stars, barely illuminated by the lights in her helmet.

The filmmakers began their prep by charting a precise global trajectory for the characters over the story’s timeframe, so that Webber and his team could start creating the corresponding Earth imagery. Cuarón chose to begin the story with the astronauts above his native Mexico. From there, the precise orbit provided Lubezki with specific lighting and coloring cues. The cinematographer recalls, “I would say, ‘In this scene, Stone is going to be above the African desert when the sun comes out, so the Earth is going to be warm, and the bounce on her face is going to be warm light.’ We were able to use our map to keep changing the lighting.”

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 and Cuarón employed a decidedly low-tech method to initially block the actors. “The camera moves are really complex, but we started in the most simple way — first with storyboards, and then with a bunch of puppets and toy versions of the International Space Station and the space shuttle Columbia,” Lubezki explains. “We talked about them in the most primitive terms with the animators. It was great to start with some puppets, then have the animator come back with a black-and-white block animation, and then start to add volume, color and light. It’s truly about layers and layers of work.”

Cuarón laughs as he recalls the surprises inherent in blocking characters in a zero-gravity environment. “The complications are really something, because you have characters that are spinning. Say you want to start your shot with George’s face and move the camera to Sandra, who is spinning at a different rate. 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.”


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