How did they do that?
It’s a question that’s been asked by moviegoers at least since French audiences in 1902 saw a rocketship land smack in the right eye of the Man in the Moon in Georges Melies’s “Le voyage dans la lune.” That was done via a mix of live action, animation, and small models.
A few years back, when James Cameron gave us the world of Pandora in “Avatar” (2009), the question was asked again. The answer: Actors were filmed in motion-capture body suits, then their performances were fed into computers and integrated into a virtual environment.
This kind of magic hasn’t been limited to science fiction movies, either. Woody Allen blended archival and scratchy new footage to make it appear he was standing next to Babe Ruth in “Zelig” (1983). A computer-generated photorealistic character came to life as the sword-wielding stained-glass man in Barry Levinson’s “Young Sherlock Holmes” (1985).
These films all broke ground in the art of visual effects. Now director Alfonso Cuarón, with the help of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, has broken both more ground and all of the rules in the space survival movie “Gravity,” which opens Friday.
The story is simple. NASA crew members are space-walking high above the Earth, making repairs on the Hubble telescope, when catastrophe strikes, marooning those not instantly killed, and leaving them attempting to get back to the planet.
The look and feel and scope of what’s on the screen is astounding, and the way it was all achieved was anything but simple.
In many ways, the whole film is one special visual effect. The action takes place entirely in an atmosphere of zero g, or zero gravity, meaning the characters are always weightless, always floating or spinning, at least when they’re not strapped down to a space capsule seat.
Weightlessness has been portrayed before, and to fine effect, in Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” (1995), when actors mostly wore hidden wires and “floated” in front of blue screens, but also actually were weightless, for 23 seconds at a time, when they were filmed inside a NASA training airplane nicknamed the “Vomit Comet.”
Those scenes worked beautifully when short sequences were edited together. But Cuarón has a propensity for letting his cameras run on and on without an edit, a practice he drew praise for in “Y Tu Mamá También” (2001) and perfected in “Children of Men” (2006).
In “Gravity,” he kicks it into gear in the film’s lengthy opening shot (which goes for approximately seven minutes), showing three astronauts (Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, and an uncredited third person) gracefully floating and drifting and, in the Clooney character’s case, goofing around with the aid of a jet pack in outer space, with Earth slowly and majestically spinning below them. It’s jaw-dropping stuff that looks absolutely real, from the slow movements of arms and legs to the snaking of the tethers that attach them to the spacecrafts they’re working on, to the space cowboy comic moves that the untethered Clooney is relishing.
So, how did they do that? Well, it wasn’t simple. The filmmakers pretty much created entire atmospheres around single actors. When Mission Specialist Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Mission Commander Matt Kowalski (Clooney) are first shown up there in the void of space, we’re seeing their helmeted heads, but their spacesuits are computer animated, as are the visors on those helmets, as is the mist from their breaths on the visors.
To make their movements realistic, the actors had to put themselves through some physical situations that were as groundbreaking as the film’s technological processes. Webber and Lubezki came up with the idea of strapping them, one at a time, inside a contraption that became known as the Light Box, a 10-by-20-foot hollow cube with a turntable-like mechanism inside that moved them into different positions. The Light Box was used to stitch together a spacewalk and a horrific couple of minutes showing someone spinning out of control.
But there’s much more to the film than characters being stranded in the openness of space. Some pivotal scenes take place inside the International Space Station, which was a virtual set, and a Soyuz space capsule, which was a physical set. But remember, the characters were always weightless.
The effect of Bullock floating effortlessly through the ship’s corridors was accomplished in a couple of ways. She was sometimes moved along by industrial robots, the same type used on automobile production lines, which were then digitally removed from the shots. But an unconventional application of wires was also used. Bullock was fitted into a harness that was attached to a system of 12 wires, and could be run manually or by remote control, that would smoothly suspend her while moving her backward and forward, and tilt her up and down, like a life-size marionette. In fact, Bullock was often assisted in her movements by a trio of hands-on puppeteers who would move her arms and legs.
On top of all of that, to make the effects even more believable, the filmmakers utilized small cameras that were as agile as Bullock and could not only follow her as she floated through the ship’s corridors, but could also move above and below her as she glided by.
For a different kind of visual effect, one that focuses more on performance than technology, Cuarón pulls off one of his longest single shots yet. It begins in the Soyuz capsule, around the time that Bullock first says the word “Mayday,” and goes on for about 12 minutes. There are no edits, no cuts; just pure old-fashioned acting, right in the middle of a major cinematic accomplishment.
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.