Beautiful Disaster: New Technology in Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’


Evelin Lopez

In order to capture a true space journey in the recent box-office hit “Gravity,” director Alfonso Cuarón and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki set out to create a beautiful and captivating illustration of the final frontier. Little did they know that the process would take four years and involve the creation of several new filmmaking techniques and technologies. With the film now gaining a good deal of popularity, let’s take a look at the magic behind “Gravity.”

One of the first major problems that Cuarón encountered involved lighting. In space, light comes from the sun and is reflected off of the Earth. This would not usually be difficult to emulate; however, throughout the film, the characters are constantly being thrashed around. This created a problem for the visual effects crew, so Lubezki was forced to invent something that would be similar to the light the sun creates, called a “Light Box.”

The Light Box was more than 20 feet tall and over 10 feet wide. Inside it contained 196 panels (each measuring about 2 feet by 2 feet) which each contained 4,096 LEDs that were manipulated by the visual effect technicians to create the right lighting as the characters inside moved around. Props and actors hanging on a 12-wire rig would be placed inside the Light Box to be filmed and moved around in sync with the lighting in order to create the desired effects

With the new technology there also came difficulties. Sandra Bullock would be completely isolated inside the Light Box for up to 10 hours a day due to the amount of time it took to repair technical malfunctions. The only way Bullock would communicate with Cuarón was through a small headpiece that was hidden in her ear, and since she and George Clooney had difficulties seeing their surroundings in the Light Box, they were fed directions on where to put their hands and where to reach.

Computer-generated imagery was also utilized heavily in the film. For example, Bullock had no costume; everything was created in the final editing process. Also, in order to film long takes, there were moments in which the editors utilized CGI to expand the illustration. At one moment, the frame would be out in space looking toward a small Bullock, then zooming in to see Bullock looking out of her helmet, and then going out again to see the shuttle. These types of shots would not be possible without some kind of post-production process.

Another innovation in the film’s production was the use of robots to control the cameras, props, lighting, and sometimes even the actors to create the illusion of weightlessness. Cuarón tried different strategies to capture the illusion of floating in space but failed after they attempted to flip the actors and noticed strain that distracted them from acting. Cuarón decided they needed something else that would allow the actors to be maneuvered while also moving the camera in a choreographed sequence.

Visual effects consultant Chris Watts contacted San Francisco company Bot & Dolly, which reassigns robotic arms that were used originally for assembly lines in automobile factories. The robotic camera rigs were called IRIS, and they were used to hold the actors stationary and hold cameras. In order to be controlled manually, Autodesk Maya created animation software specifically for “Gravity” and a custom computer interface that allowed the previously animated shots to become possible through the physical camera movement. Each shot was specifically choreographed with the camera rigs to create the essential illusion of the actors’ being weightless in space. The IRIS could move at 4 meters per second and stop with 0.08mm accuracy, which allowed detailed sequences used in the final cut of “Gravity” that could translate well in three-dimensional film.

The unique special effects created by the combination of the Light Box, CGI, and the IRIS helped make Cuarón’s film a hit in the box office, and the realistic imagery of space enabled the viewer to be an active spectator in the film. If such complex special effects are now possible, what may come forth in the years to come? With technology advancing at its rapid pace, future filmmakers may find ways not only to emulate Cuarón, but also to surpass him.