The Robotic, Unreal Cinematography of the Film “Gravity”
Gravity opens with a 13-minute, uninterrupted shot that introduces the audience to three astronauts outside a space shuttle. Starting wide, the camera pushes toward Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she attempts to make routine repairs, when suddenly debris from an exploded Russian satellite hurls toward them, destroying their space shuttle. Stone, still tethered to the doomed spacecraft, unhooks herself and is sent flying away into the vastness of space with limited oxygen and limited options. This all happens without any cuts.
Editor's Note: This post was written by Justin Dise
The opening sequence is one of many long shots throughout the film, a style that has become a trademark for Gravity’s director/cinematographer team Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki. The duo believes that longer takes help to immerse the audience in the action of the film, making them feel like they’re part of the scene. But, here’s the catch: about 98% of what you see on screen isn’t real—even the camera itself isn’t ”real.”
The only real elements in the film, with the exception of a few interior shuttle sets, are the actors’ faces. The space shuttles, the suits, even the glass on the astronauts’ helmets are all computer generated. Visual Effects Supervisor Timothy Webber, from Framestore, Oscar-nominated for his work on The Dark Knight, worked closely with Cuarón and Lubezki to create a pre-visualization animation (previs) of the entire film before any filming began. It became clear early on that the complicated shots Cuarón and Lubezki wanted for the film would only be possible through a ”virtual” camera—a simulated camera in graphics-compositing software.
All camera and character positions throughout the film were pre-determined in the previs. The work involved matching not only the movements of the actors, but the constantly changing lighting as they drift through space. Because movement in space is relative, the creative team decided to use a robotic arm to move the camera around the actors, rather than move the actors around a stationary camera. This left the question of how to move the lighting around the actors.
Lubezki solved the lighting issue by creating an LED box to control the lighting around the actors. By taking the POV of each character from the previs and displaying it across the LED lights of the cube, Lubezki was able to light the actors according to the virtual environment of that scene. This meant that lighting on the actors’ faces matched the lighting in the final composite, and gave the actors a visual reference of the world around them. Throughout the production process, Lubezki worked closely with digital artists to craft and finalize the lighting of the film.
To make Cuarón’s vision of Gravity a reality, Lubezki found himself working in the digital world with technology he had never used before. For a role that traditionally centers around the physical manipulation of light and capturing scenes through a lens onto film or digital medium, we are left to wonder what it really means to be a cinematographer in the 21st century and beyond.