TOUCHING THE VOID
GRAVITY IS THE MOST INTENSE SPACE THRILLER IN YEARS. AND CONSTRUCTING IT REQUIRED THE MOST INTENSE AND AMBITIOUS SHOOT SINCE AVATAR
WORDS: DAN JOLIN
This feature first appeared in issue 293 of Empire magazine.
Nothing could go wrong. Not in the sense that it was impossible for anything to go wrong. Rather: something going wrong was simply not an option.
Sandra Bullock was pinioned in a small frame, positioned so her head, encased in a hi-tech helmet filled with markers and laser beams, sat at the very centre of an elevated, nine foot-by-nine foot cube, its walls formed from flickering LEDs. Stretching away from her face and out through an aperture was a track, raised about eight feet on scaffolding. At its other end, across a darkened Shepperton soundstage, waited a robot, the kind you'd expect to find constructing Vauxhall Vivaros on an assembly line in Luton. Except this one was modified to carry a camera, which the robot, named Iris, operated with untrembling precision under the command of a technician hunched over a computer nearby.
As conceived by Mexican writer-director Alfonso Cuarón, master of this quietly state-of-the-art facility, and his two lieutenants Emmanuel 'Chivo' Lubezki (director of photography) and Tim Webber (visual effects supervisor), the ensuing shot would require Iris to whizz along the track at 20mph and stop a mere inch from the immovable Bullock's nose. Prudently, one crewperson was given the job of hitting a big red button, the kill switch, in case Iris misbehaved.
"The problem is," says Cuarón recalling that day two years later, "if everything does go wrong while the robot is here," he indicates the far-end of the track, "by the time you react with the switch, there's no more nose on Sandra Bullock!"
Alfonso Cuarón with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney on one of Gravity's very few sets.
Nothing did go wrong.
As her appearances before rapturous audiences at Comic-Con and most recently the Venice Film Festival confirmed, Bullock's cartilage remains beautifully intact. Yet making Gravity was hardly plain sailing. Sailing, for starters, requires wind - or more to the point, air. Something that is conspicuous by its absence 400-odd miles above the Earth, where the movie is set.
"This film was a big miscalculation," admits Alfonso Cuarón. One that began four-and-a-half years earlier, when an attempted collaboration with his son Jonás collapsed owing to lack of funds. The younger Cuarón pulled out another script he'd written, Desierto, and asked his dad for notes. Alfonso was impressed by Jonás' chase thriller, involving only a few characters in a harsh, arid environment. "I don't have many notes," he told his son, "but I would like to do something like this, and I want you to help me."
|I was pleading for us to shoot in space... |
Inspired by setbacks in both their lives, they settled on a theme: adversity. It is a word that comes up many times during Empire's conversations with the Cuaróns. Then it was a matter of exploring that theme through "a narrative that keeps the audience gripped to the edge of their seats and that is non-stop action," says Jonás.
"But we're also working with metaphorical elements," says Alfonso. "So, being huge admirers of space exploration, we decided to set it up in space," Jonás explains. "For a character in a perilous situation, space seems the most terrifying environment."
"The character is suspended above the Earth - life and humans and nature and social dynamics," explains Alfonso, "but she's floating towards the void."
That character is Ryan Stone, a scientist on her first extra-terrestrial mission with experienced space-walker Matt Kowalsky, whose upgrade work on the Hubble telescope is disrupted by a deadly cascade of bullet-velocity debris in the Earth's orbit. "The debris as a metaphor for adversities," confirms Alfonso.
What follows is one of the most intense and intimate fights for survival imaginable, during which the audience will never leave Ryan's side. "The whole concept of this film was to create a rollercoaster ride where the audience would be feeling the same emotions as the character," says Jonás. "We couldn't do things like cut back to mission control." Or, indeed, cut much at all; to deepen the immersion, his father was determined to construct the film with the kind of long, sinuous takes that graced his previous work, 2006's Children Of Men.
Pleased with their first draft, Cuarón The Elder went to his trusted DP, Emmanuel Lubezki, nicknamed Chivo. "I call him and say, 'Here's a script. Read it. It's only one or two characters. We do it very quickly and then we move on.'"
(Clockwise from top) Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone. George Clooney's Matt Kowalski takes the lead. Ryan loses her grip.
Gravity is not a science-fiction. Jonás Cuarón is insistent about that. "It happens in present times," he says. "More like a space documentary gone wrong!" There would be no artificial gravity concocted for this adventure in space. There would be no cheating.
"When you're writing and imagining, you're not being pragmatic about how you're going to mount the whole thing," admits Alfonso Cuarón. We meet at a photo studio in West London in mid-August, just ten days before Gravity will premiere at the Venice Film Festival. This is the first time he's spoken, at length, with a journalist who's seen the movie, and he's pleased not to have to talk in abstractions; "I'm so happy, man!" The grey of his hair belies a youthful exuberance that compels him to grab impromptu props to help act out complex procedures, and makes him quick to laugh and beam and make jokes at his own expense: "I kept on pretending everything was under control!"
Cuarón and co. quickly realised that there was no existing technology to achieve what they needed. "So then began the whole thing of creating our own technology. And once we did create our own technology, we realised the process was going to be very long."
|We had to complete post- production before we began pre- production. It was crazy! |
Too long for Universal Pictures, where Cuarón had made Children Of Men. The studio put the project in turnaround after a change in administration. In 2009, Gravity found a home at Warner Bros., and Cuarón was able to bring in a longtime friend, producer David Heyman, shepherd of the Harry Potter franchise with whom the director had worked on The Prisoner Of Azkaban. Heyman soon realised he was involved in something that had never been attempted before, even on the FX-intensive Potters. In its own way, this was every bit as ambitious as James Cameron's Avatar.
"Obviously there have been attempts at recreating zero-G," says Heyman. "But the real challenge was the way Alfonso likes to shoot. The first shot of the film is around 12 minutes - without a cut!"
They considered wire rigs. They looked at shooting underwater. They wondered if they could lay the actors on glass. They investigated the 'vomit comet', used by astronauts in training and to great effect by Ron Howard in Apollo 13: a large, hollow jet whose sharply parabolic trajectory enables its queasy passengers to briefly experience weightlessness as it hits each 'hump'. Cuarón, along with VFX supervisor Tim Webber and a stuntwoman, even went for a ride in one (only the stuntwoman threw up, reports Heyman). "Ron Howard was very smart," says Cuarón. "He didn't actually shoot that much in the vomit comet." But that method neither provided the director with enough time to achieve his extended takes, nor the correct lighting to portray thermosphere-based astronauts bathed in the off-worldly glow of Mother Earth.
Empire risks a question we fear could be the stupidest we've ever asked: did they consider actually shooting in space?
"Yes," replies Heyman. "Alfonso did."
"I was pleading for it!" cries Cuarón. "But how much is it costing right now to send one person to the space station? Twelve million quid? And that's just one person. And, also, nobody will insure it. I said, 'Let's go for it!' and they just laughed. I was talking with James Cameron about it. He's going to do it..."
The ultimate solution would require an approach which was less physically adventurous, but more mind-boggling. In a sense, more sci-fi than the film itself.
Cuarón prepares Clooney and Bullock for another scene..
It was around the time they started digitally mapping his face that Robert Downey Jr. announced, "Wow, this is too intense for me."
When Downey Jr. had first accepted the role of wry, seasoned astronaut Matt Kowalsky, the technology had not yet been fully defined. But now they were close to shooting, it was clear that, as Alfonso Cuarón puts it, "the technology was not going to be very friendly to what Robert does best". Downey Jr.'s style is very fluid, improvisational, always finding new things in the moment. But before he'd even stepped (or rather, been strapped) in front of one of Cuarón's cameras, his character's every movement had already been plotted out. He would need to match them, beat for beat. No room for unanticipated manoeuvres.
"Everything was pre-programmed," explains Cuarón. "We invented all these technologies, and depending on the scene or the shot, we change from technology to technology, and in some instances, one same shot will be a combination of different technologies. What they all have in common is all of these different technologies were pre-programmed.
And just the amount of time it took to programme all the load of information we had to have ready for the shoot meant we had to split the shoot into two different stages. So we shot one part during one summer, and then the other part in the next summer - both with actors."
|YOU, ME AND DEBRIS |
JONAS CUARÓN EXPLAINS
THE KESSLER SYNDROME
The catastrophic event which kicks off Ryan's ordeal was first posited by NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler back in 1978. Jonás Cuarón lays it out: "It is a scenario in which the density of objects in outer orbit becomes too huge: so many satellites, so many space probes... we have a lot of junk up there. The problem is that when you're in orbit you're travelling at incredible speed. You go around the Earth once every 90 minutes. So, if two objects travelling at that speed collided, they would explode into a cloud of tiny shrapnel. If each tiny piece of shrapnel hits a satellite, that satellite would also explode and the cloud would keep growing. And that would make space exploration, even the possibility of having satellites in outer orbit, impossible for many years."
In effect, the director explains, "we had to complete post-production before we began pre-production." Empire can't suppress our incredulity. "No, really! It was crazy! We edited twice, three times, we had to have very defined animations before we even began with the actors.
And the big challenge during the shoot, because everything was pre-programmed, was the actors were very limited with what they could do. The shots were already written in stone, so we could only change performances within the frame of the time and the positions and the physical requirements that were already set."
Exit Downey Jr., then. Even his replacement, George Clooney, veteran of three shows with the anti-improv Coen brothers, had his doubts. "I got to this shoot late," he says. "I walked in and I was like, 'I can't do this! You guys are nuts!'" He was, though, inspired by how his co-star was bearing up under Cuarón's trying process. "It was stunning what she was doing in this film," he says of Sandra Bullock - Cuarón's Ryan Stone.
For some shots, Bullock was tugged through the air by puppeteers while painfully tethered 20 feet up within a 12-wire rig. For others, she entered a contraption named "the washing machine" by Emmanuel Lubezki for its circular 'window'. For a few scenes, she was allowed the rare luxury of sitting in an actual set, of a space-pod (pictured above). But mostly, she had to stand, isolated, for hours at a time in the centre of "the lightbox", that nine foot-by-nine foot cuboid structure which glowed impressively at the centre of the shadowy Shepperton soundstage, with only Cuarón's voice, directing her through an earpiece, and mood music for company. "Physically and mentally it was the craziest, most bizarre, challenging thing," says Bullock, who also spent months training to get in shape for the role. "But you find what you're made of."
To portray Ryan flipping and floating and gasping for air, all the while "honouring" the unique lighting in space and persuasively depicting a perpetually moving environment where there is no gravity, no microgravity and no ambient pressure (which would have been detectable on Bullock's face and body in a subaquatic or entirely wire-rig set-up), Cuarón, Webber and Lubezki took all the photo-real images of pretty much everything that wasn't the actors, which they'd painstakingly conjured during months of work, and projected them from the disco-floor-like LED walls of Bullock's temporary tomb - "like in Piccadilly Circus", says Cuarón. This created the perfect illusion of weightless movement, as if each camera itself was also in zero-G. "It was interesting, it was fun, it was a pain in the ass," the director reflects. And as each actor-performed take needed to precisely match the already-in-place VFX, computer-controlled robots were required to handle the cameras; there was no room for discrepancy or human error. Except...
"The day before we started shooting during the first summer, nothing was working," says Cuarón. "We had already invested a lot of time and money, two years, in this technology. So that day was a bit scary, because suddenly you realise everything is going to be a disaster. Then the midnight before, something started happening. So we went to sleep and when we came back the next morning, suddenly everything worked." He shrugs, mystified. "It was one of those things."
"It was never boring," says Heyman. "And it was always thrilling. And it was always demanding. But demanding is good if you know you're working for someone who is ambitious and a genius."
Alfonso Cuarón ministers to his striken star.
The time, the pain, the exertion, the adversities, oh, the adversities... It has all paid off, there is no doubt. Jonás Cuarón has his own movie going into production this month: Desierto, the very script that inspired his father all those years ago. For Jonás, it was as reassuring as it was gratifying to witness in Venice how an audience responds to the force of Gravity.
|It was the most bizarre, challenging process. |
"They're very different stories - one happens in space and the other happens in the desert - but what Desierto and Gravity have in common is you follow one character who becomes kind of an avatar for you. I wasn't sure it would work. But when the movie ends, you see the audience come out as if they have been shaken in space for 90 minutes!"
His father is keen to play down the part technology (from his own innovations, to 3D - not native, interestingly, but post-conversion - to Dolby Atmos) plays in achieving such profoundly thrilling immersion. "From a geek standpoint you can say, 'That's all amazing,' but it's even more extraordinary from a performance standpoint," he insists. Bullock has found acute emotional reality in the most constricting shooting environment, in which her every move is tightly choreographed. "You are always confined," she says. But that, in fact, helped her. "It's frustrating and painful but in the end you use it. It's another layer that can help you be more authentic in your discomfort."
"I think it was her dance background," concludes the director; Bullock describes the process of acting weightless as "like water ballet... It was weird but somehow we did it enough to get to where it was second nature. Most of the time..."
Both Bullock and Clooney were in that audience at the Venice premiere, viewing the finished movie for the first time. She, quite simply was "blown away". So was Clooney, but he'd like to point something out: "It is done with great visual and sound design but in an old-fashioned-movie sort of way, relying on the visuals just to keep the story moving." For all the bells and whistles, robots and lightboxes, we must focus on the heart. "The fun part is not just, 'How did they do it?' It is about really good storytelling."
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