Visual effects company Framestore has been very, well, visible in the past year, from its animated native advertising work for McLaren to its celebrated Doctor Who 50th anniversary trailer. It has been its award winning work on cinematic tour de force Gravity, however, that has attracted the most attention, and it’s little wonder. Here we discover some of the secrets behind the groundbreaking space movie shot in Soho.
“I first heard about Gravity at the beginning of 2010,” says visual effects supervisor Tim Webber of Alfonso Cuarón’s Bafta-winning and Oscar nominated space thriller. Webber is a long-time collaborator of Cuarón’s and the man the Mexican director turned to for help realising the film no one knew how to make. Four years ago it was unclear how much Webber and London-based VFX company Framestore would need to be involved, but after meeting Cuarón and hearing his vision for the film Webber signed up immediately. “It was gripping,” he explains, adding that they “all came out really excited having heard it”.
In the end Framestore was heavily involved, creating an entire universe and fitting it around the faces of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney – which in most scenes are the only elements not created with a computer. Even the interior scenes and the floating props within them were rendered in CG, while the characters’ movements, right down to the subtle finger movements as they work on the Hubble Telescope, were all painstakingly hand-animated. All-in-all the company’s visual effects account for around 80 per cent of what you see on screen. The hard work paid off though, and the Framestore team was awarded the Special Visual Effects Bafta in February alongside special effects supervisor Neil Corbould and executive producer Nikki Penny, and is nominated for (and hopefully, by the time you read this, will have won) the VFX Oscar.
Like most films the project began with pre-visualisation (storyboarding and virtually animating), although in Gravity’s case this was much more detailed than normal. “It had to be,” explains Webber. “Obviously, technically, we needed to work out the camera moves, but you’ve also got a 12 minute continuous shot and it’s set in space where you’ve got a camera that can roam absolutely anywhere and you’ve got people that can roam absolutely anywhere too (upside down, underneath, over the top, everywhere) – the degrees of freedom are much greater,” he says. Then there was the stereo 3D to consider – “a huge part of a film that was originally titled ‘Gravity: A Space Adventure In 3D’”.
The initial pre-vis was then lit by cinematographer Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki, who also collected a Bafta for his work in February. In an unheard of move for live action, Lubezki lit the film digitally before it was shot, working with Framestore’s lighting team to virtually move the position of the sun, stars and moon in the computer.After a whole year of planning the pre-vis was complete, and it was time to work out how to shoot it. Webber and Cuarón had been up in the unlovingly named ‘Vomit Comet’ (a reduced gravity aircraft used for training astronauts), but soon realised the few seconds of near-weightlessness achieved would be useless for a film set entirely in zero gravity. Instead they chose a combination of motion controlled camera and light rigs, collaborating with engineering studio Bot & Dolly and Neil Corbould’s special effects team to shoot the film at London’s Shepperton and Pinewood Studios. By keeping the actors more or less stationary and spinning the cameras and lights around them at high speed it could be made to look as if they were moving, rather than the other way around, with the equally important benefit of reducing the amount of visible strain on the actor. Had they really be upside down, gravity would have had an obvious effect, ruining the illusion of weightlessness.
Swinging huge film lights around at the angles needed to replicated the sun or other distant sources of light was impractical however, which led to the invention of the lightbox – a cramped LED cube known on set as ‘Sandy’s cage’. In its standard configuration this was a 10m hollow box, with huge LED panels containing almost two million lights making up its walls. The pre-vis, already lit by Lubezki, would be played on the screens, lighting Clooney and Bullock’s faces ready to be placed into the sequences being created at Framestore.
One of the most difficult challenges was getting the live action faces to line-up exactly inside the CG helmets – if they moved independently for even a second the illusion would be wrecked. Bullock and Clooney were sometimes shot independently and tracked with different cameras. Their suits would need to be animated relevant to a new CG camera while respecting the orientation of those plates to the original camera. “Imagine a shot where Sandra is flying through space,” instructs animation supervisor Max Solomon. “On set she was strapped into a in a rig and the camera was moving around her, so often it was only her head that was moving. We built tools that allowed us to animate the characters but then spread the difference between the gross motion of the suit and the helmet across the body, so you didn’t see a big disconnect between the live action face and the animated body.”
So has all the meticulous planning, the painstaking animation and endless challenge of defying gravity been worth it? Well, aside from the well-documented award wins, the film also recouped its $100m production costs in its first 10 days and has notched up some $700m in box office receipts since. Perhaps more importantly though, the technological advancements and sheer scale of special effects on display could herald a new era of film-making, with Gravity’s successes serving as a springboard for future developments. Either way, the world will be waiting to see what the team at Framestore gets up to next.
This feature will be published in Wednesday 5 March edition of The Drum, available to purchase through The Drum Store.