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UNSUNG HERO OF THE YEAR

TIM WEBBER

MAGICIAN OF THE YEAR

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The term gets bandied around a lot but when super-producer David Heyman calls you "a genius", it means something. This is, after all, the man whose knack for spotting and nurturing talent extended to the multi-bajillion dollar Harry Potter franchise. So it is with Tim Webber, the VFX supervisor Heyman hired to oversee Gravity's effects work. Webber, a stalwart at UK effects house Framestore since 1988, had previously collaborated with director Alfonso Cuarón on Children Of Men, pioneering its photoreal birth scene, and picked up an Oscar nod for his work on The Dark Knight. But Gravity raised the bar even higher, about 160 kilometres higher. Empire spoke to him about his four years spent in the movie's dizzying orbit.

Empire Unsung Hero Of The Year: Tim Webber

Do you feel like an unsung hero?
This feel like the first time visual effects has been noticed to anything like this extent, and that the visual effects team and myself in particular have been noticed, I suppose. Which is great; it's very rare that a visual effects supervisor's name is mentioned in film reviews, but I seem to get mentioned a lot.

Do you have a favourite moment in the finished film?
I have a number of favourite moments, from the foetal position shot to the moment where [Ryan Stone] drifts - she's spinning away and she's given in, and she's just drifting away and the sun has set, and the moon hasn't come up yet, and you just see the dense field of stars. She's almost a silhouette against the stars.

Do your fellow professionals accost you in the street and ask you to explain stuff?
I've had emails from people I haven't seen for ten years. It does seem to be getting a very strong reaction from all around the world.

Where did you start and how did you work with Alfonso and (DP) Chivo Lubezki? Was it literally breaking it down scene by scene?
We may have been animating Sandra's movements for a huge portion of the movie, but it's all based on her performance.
There was a few big, general issues to solve and then we could break it down scene-by-scene and moment-by-moment, and work out how the general techniques could be applied and what was missing. The first big decision that had to be made was to make it so much in CG, and that was a very risky, difficult decision to make three, four years ago. But that had to be made first, because initially that wasn't the intention.

There was talk of the vomit comet, wasn't there?
Well, yes, and more traditional approaches. Visual effects, obviously, but traditionally hanging people in suits on wires next to sets of the Hubble - that sort of thing. So that was one big decision, and once we'd made that decision, we decided to move the camera and the lights, not the actor, because you can't really move the actor in gravity and make it look like zero gravity. Then we'd have to come up with, 'Well, that's fine for the outside. How are we going to make it work when she's inside the ISS (International Space Station)?' So we came up with the 12-wire rig, or other ways of using the light box, and various other things. It's a slow process, chipping away at problems one at a time.

So the whole schedule was what, three and a half years, four years?
It depends what you count as the schedule. For Alfonso I think it was about four and a half years, but that's from the very beginning of writing to the movie coming out. The intense part of the schedule was three years, really.

Given how much of it is CG, would you call it an animated film?
That's a really difficult question to answer. It's a hybrid, I'd say. There is a fair amount of live-action in it, and obviously it is designed to appear to be live-action even when it isn't, but a huge amount of it was created via animation. But even when you're creating something in the computer, in visual effects, there is always a human being at the source of it. We may have been animating Sandra's movements for a huge portion of the movie, but it's all based on her performance.

Empire Unsung Hero Of The Year: Tim Webber

How many people did you have working on this?
At the peak, on the VFX team, it was about 250. Four hundred and seventy, I think, worked on it at various different stages, because some people would've been involved in pre-production, and some in post-production, etc.

The statistics are insane. We heard that the composition notes were something like four times the length of War And Peace...
If we'd rendered it on a single processor, instead of having a room full of computers, we would have had to have started rendering in 5000 BC.
That's right. The other one is that if we'd rendered it on a single processor, instead of having a room full of computers, we would have had to have started rendering in 5000 BC to finish in time to deliver the film. At the dawn of Egyptian civilisation.

They say a modern smart phone has more power than the Apollo 11. We'd be intrigued to know how many Apollo 11s you could launch with Gravity.
I would be quite intrigued to know that. Certainly, for me it lays to rest the idea that the moon landing was faked, because I now know how much effort needs to go into faking something like that. And it's easier to fly to the moon, that's all I can say.

Have you seen the Ikea parody of Gravity?
I just saw that yesterday. It's fantastic, I thought it was great.

And what's up next?
I'm working for a brief time on (the Heyman-produced) Paddington Bear and then I'm not sure.

Did you have a Gravity prop you'd have wanted to have taken home?
The (Soviet capsule) Soyuz was a little set; that was great to sit in. It felt incredibly like the real thing. It would've been great to have that sitting in your living room.

We saw that people on the ISS had a picture of your crew up in space.
Yes, they did. They took a picture of us, they faxed it up or emailed it up to space, where they printed it out, took a picture, and then used the picture of our picture as a card to the crew afterwards. I haven't been in space myself, but my picture has. It's a start!

MORE UNSUNG HEROES OF THE YEAR


KATIE SACKOFF

WARRIOR OF THE YEAR

LYNN COHEN

TRIBUTE OF THE YEAR

LAVELL CRAWFORD

BODYGUARD OF THE YEAR

MARTIN COOGAN

JINGLER OF THE YEAR

MAX MARTINI

BADASS OF THE YEAR

MICHAEL SLOVIS

EYES OF THE YEAR

OF MONSTERS AND MEN

SOUNDTRACK STARS OF THE YEAR

TIM KEY

SIDEKICK OF THE YEAR

TIM WEBBER

MAGICIAN OF THE YEAR

THOMAS LAW & ZACHARY BAILESS

YOUNG PEGG AND FROST OF THE YEAR

Interview by Helen O'Hara

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