Entertainment

03.01.14

Space on Earth: The Secrets of Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Gravity’

It’s up for Best Picture, but whether it wins or not Gravity remains stunning to look at. Clive Irving talks to its designer Andy Nicholson.

Film has always been a medium reliant on magic. But for Gravity, the director Alfonso Cuaron needed to redefine what that magic could be, to go to the limits of what is now technically possible. The film, which is up for ten Oscars this Sunday, is a tense, visceral ride set in space, with Sandra Bullock as an astronaut desperately trying to survive a series of catastrophes in her struggle to make it back to earth alive. The design and special effects, conveyed heart-stoppingly in 3D, make us physically experience every horrendous peril as it appears.

Four years ago, when Gravity began its long incubation, the digital technology of film was advancing rapidly, and Cuaron knew that the cutting edge work was to be found in London, where he now lives. Cuaron was working on early concepts for the film with the producer David Heyman; his favorite longtime director of photography and frequent Oscar nominee, Emmanuel Lubezki; and Tim Webber, a visual effects wizard from the London-based company Framestore, who had won an Academy Award nomination for his work on the The Dark Knight.  

As their ideas took shape, Cuaron interviewed a young British production designer he had never met before, Andy Nicholson, who had worked previously with the director Tim Burton on a series of films, most recently Alice in Wonderland. Nicholson had had a weekend to read the script.

What was supposed to be a 30-minute discussion stretched to two hours, Nicholson told The Daily Beast. Discussing the role of the film’s art department, Cuaron’s basic question was: “Can it be done?” Nicholson assured him it could, and within weeks had joined the core group of people who were to push the magic of movie making to a new level. Along with Cuaron, they are all now nominated for Oscars.

In fact, Gravity’s ten Oscar nominations significantly reflect the deep bench of its technical achievements: The film has tied for the most nominations with David O’Russell’s American Hustle, despite having a cast of essentially only one, Sandra Bullock, nominated for best actress (while noting the vital but evanescent appearance of George Clooney) whereas Hustle’s nominations are, more conventionally, a tribute to its tour de force by a whole repertory of terrific actors.

“The technical effects of Gravity never get in the way of telling its simple yet momentous story: the brutal, pitiless immensity of space and the fragility of human life once it ventures there.”

Perhaps Cuaron’s most consequential perception was that space doesn’t need aliens or monsters to make it scary. In its 16-minute unbroken opening shot, Nicholson said to me, Gravity is intended to convey the duplicity of space—beginning with elegiac views of earth and a sunrise, and then, in an instant, letting loose a catastrophe. Audiences leave with nerves jangling from the experience, and with a very intimate and new understanding of how hostile the work place of astronauts really is. (Astronauts themselves praise the movie not just for its technical detail but for reminding us that the International Space Station is not a place for pussies.)

The tension of the script, by Cuaron and his son Jonas, depended, says Nicholson, on the story unfolding, second by second, in a technically-dense environment where survival was going to depend on a combination of human obduracy and technical improvisation. The visual effects would have to be spectacular. But it’s important to understand that before there can be any visual effects, a film has to have its own physical presence, its look—composed with and defined by every detail, and for Gravity detail was everything.

Cuaron wanted it to look like they had taken their camera into space, Nicholson says. The film would be unsparing in its exposure of detai—the camera would often be less than three feet from everything—and slow moving. Every surface had to be authentic. 

Nicholson’s research revealed that because the International Space Station had been continually occupied for well over a decade it showed a lot of wear and tear. In fact, it looked like a combination of research lab, frat house and auto repair shop. He saw that domestic details were often cultural clues—it had been occupied by specialists from many different countries. Cuaron told Nicholson that he wanted that degree of verisimilitude, or, as he put it in his own characteristic vocabulary, it had to be “millimetric.”

In two escape capsules, one Russian and one Chinese, Sandra Bullock as the rookie astronaut Ryan Stone had to use complex computer keyboards. Amazingly, Nicholson found the source code for the control console of the Russian Soyuz capsule on a Russian website. As one of these images shows, every key punch was in the script and linked to a graphic of the keyboard. “Sandra was amazing at memorizing the details,” says Nicholson.

Nicholson checked out much of the physical feel of the space station and the capsules with a veteran astronaut, Andy Thomas, who had flown to the now defunct Russian space station, the Mir, on the Shuttle and his astronaut wife, Shannon Walker, who had flown on a Soyuz to the international space station and back to earth. (The Soyuz was designed in the 1960s and proved so reliable that its design has not changed much since then).

Cuaron’s team created an earthbound replica of an extremely hostile alternative world. Each of the hundreds of props, from the large hand tools to the manuals and cutlery, were researched, designed and then computer-modeled, creating a library that could be used to digitally “dress” the sets.

For Emmanuel Lubezki, the director of photography, the challenge was in the lighting, often working beyond the familiar boundaries of cinema photography. Critically, he had to make a seamless marriage of what he called “virtual lighting”—computer effects that, for example, accurately reflected the time of day and the position of the sun—and the more familiar lighting of the actors’ faces and actions. As Lubezki has said, the “locations” were all on the computer but the actors were real, and then for the most part only their faces. 

For all their brilliance, the technical effects of Gravity never get in the way of telling its simple yet momentous story: the brutal, pitiless immensity of space and the fragility of human life once it ventures there. There’s a spiritual sensibility in Bullock’s performance that cannot be produced by any computer. But that quality is all the more moving because it is played out against the chilling impersonality of everything needed, in terms of design and technology, to defy gravity.