Oscar Winner Lubezki Talks the Virtual Cinematography of ‘Gravity,’ How a Peter Gabriel Concert Helped Him Visualize the Film and More

Oscar Winner Lubezki Talks the Virtual Cinematography of 'Gravity,' How a Peter Gabriel Concert Helped Him Visualize the Film and More

With three out of the last four Oscars for cinematography going to hybrid movies, is it any wonder that Emmanuel (“Chivo”) Lubezki won Best Cinematography for “Gravity” at the 2014 Oscars? Especially after Lubezki and his collaborators devised a brilliant new lighting system for simulating the physics of space in the game-changing and emotionally-gripping blockbuster.

But for Lubezki, his introduction to virtual cinematography for Alfonso Cuaron’s existential space thriller was essential, given the demands of the zero-g recreation and the need for Framestore to animate nearly everything in CG.

“The most challenging part for me was the integration between the virtual cinematography and the live-action [using the Alexa],” the cinematographer recalls. “And so the first thing we did was to storyboard, then do a previs of the entire movie, and then to add all of these layers into the previs. That was out of necessity as a working methodology and to light all of the animation. And when we finished the previs with sound and some effects, I showed it to my daughter and she thought it was the actual movie.”

Lubezki says Cuaron had been trying to use the tools of cinematography and, frankly, all of cinema to create a strong emotional bond between the viewer and Sandra Bullock’s grieving scientist lost in space. His experiment with pure cinema, in fact, is very musical, and the director recently suggested that Bullock provides the melody in this symphony in the stars.

Cuaron also mentioned that the “Gravity” experience was great for Lubezki because it gave him such control of lighting and composition. On what other movie could he move the sun 300 miles? “And at the same time, I had to create limits for myself because I didn’t want the movie to become stylized,” Lubezki concedes. “So we created real-world guidelines such as original source light and keeping it the actual size. And we created an orbital flight path of the Earth directly connected to Sandra. This gave us the right bounce light while allowing us to see oceans and landscapes and cities at night.”

Lubezki admits that going inside Bullock’s helmet was extraordinary and that he never could have pulled off the movie without the close collaboration of Framestore’s VFX supervisor Tim Webber. “You need somebody that is a scientist and a nerd and also a tremendous artist. I didn’t make any decision without consulting him and Alfonso.”

When Lubezki discovered the magic of LED lighting after attending a Peter Gabriel concert at the Hollywood Bowl, he finally grasped how he was going to shoot “Gravity.” Together with Webber, he made the Light Box: the 20 x 10 stage within a stage at Shepperton. Lined with nearly 200 panels fitted with 4,000 lights all separately controlled, they projected light on the actors’ faces (which matched the virtual light programmed into the CG shots), while also allowing the actors to view the environment they were in.

“The problem is, with movie light, you’re lighting Sandra with one color. You can use diffusions and gels to change color but they are awkward. When you suddenly put Sandra inside this box that has 1 million LEDs and each LED can do whatever you want, you have so many more choices and you can project the environment from the panels and suddenly Sandra is stuck in that box the way she would be stuck in space. For example, if you look at her eyes, you can see reflections of the Earth. And the funny thing is, the eyes are where a number of these movies fail.”

Lubezki is even considering using LEDs as part of his arsenal from now on. Yet it was still driven by Bullock’s performance. “If the machinery was going too fast or too slow, Sandra would let us know. She knew more about her character than any of us and she brought more to the role than we thought she would. So we had to learn to be flexible.”

That’s part of the brave new world of virtual production, in which there’s greater upfront collaboration between cinematography and VFX (as well as production design). However, some are confused by digital blending between the crafts. In fact, at the recent Visual Effects Society Summit, former Academy president Hawk Koch said maybe it’s time to consider a new visual imaging category, as the Academy explores continuing technological evolution.

But Lubezki insists that it’s just a matter of better educating his fellow cinematographers and the industry at large about the impact of these new digital tools. “The technology is becoming cheaper and the appetite of the directors and writers for hybrid movies is growing. You can do the conquest of Mexico or travel to Mars or the center of the Earth with a level of realism we didn’t have before. There shouldn’t be a gap or a line between virtual and real-life capture.

“But I have to give Alfonso all the credit for letting me shoot it instead of relying on Framestore to create it. I don’t see any difference. Just the tools are changing and evolving. And this movie could not have happened a year before we shot it because we did not have the technology. And this movie could not have happened without Sandra because she was strong and agile. She’s a true performer and kept us in line. It’s cinema.”

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