Despite the immediately ecstatic critical responses after its Venice premiere, Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" was still something of a box office question mark leading up to its nationwide release earlier this month with many wondering if its particularly audacious brand of big budget filmmaking would be able to resonate with large-scale audiences. Now with a gross over $122 million in less than two weeks and a final pull of over $250 million all but confirmed, "Gravity" has become one of the biggest success stories of the year with the visionary effects work by Cuaron and his team receiving countless accolades.
Coinciding with the film's UK premiere last weekend at BFI's London Film Festival, Cuaron and VFX Specialist Tim Webber sat down at the organization's Southbank theater with film critic Mark Salisbury to discuss the creation of the film and how what was originally envisioned to be a one year project ultimately took over four to complete. Along the way, the two commented on finding the middle ground between their stars and effects work, using technology as a means to an end, and considering the longevity of a film this reliant on modern day effects.
Below are the highlights from their hour-long talk.
Tim Webber on his first reactions to Alfonso's initial pitch.
Tim Webber: "I didn't actually read it. The first time Alfonso came in, I don't think he had finished it yet, I just remember sitting by a window at the office while Alfonso explained the story for 45 minutes. I remember feeling exhausted already and it's amazing thinking back to that how incredibly close to that it was. It's gone through changes but not massive changes, and I remember thinking that it's a different movie, a movie about (almost) a single person alone in space, so I knew it would be a challenging movie at the time.
"I certainly didn't think you could do it easily. I thought you could do it, things always comes down to time and money at a point so i thought we could do it, but how?"
On why traditional wiring and cutting techniques proved ineffective in the long run.
Alfonso Cuaron: "We had the [effects] conversation, then we finished the screenplay, and then we tried to apply the whole thing. [Tim] came to me with the idea 'let's do it mainly CG,' and I went 'no way... that's going to suck. We're going to do as much practical as we can.' So we tried the conventional rigs and stuff. We tried cables and twisted arms and stuff, and I think it was 3 hours into the first day that it was so obvious that it wasn't going to work."
TW: "I think there are two reasons that it would work for a period of time but not the whole movie, because you can see it on the wire, you can sense it on a traditional wiring certainly, but even on a heavily developed one you can just tell what's going on. There are certain moves you just can't do on a wire rig, the wire's just get in the way. But also because Alfonso has the very long shots. It couldn't get you a long shot, it would just be impossible to manipulate."
AC: "And there's another thing. Wires give you this axis when you're rolling, and we needed several axises, so the wires weren't going to do it. And on top of that, if the camera's spinning around the wires it just wouldn't work... There has been a wisdom with films in space, and that has been to have the mothership with the gravitational pull, and there's a reason for that (laughs)."
Lighting problems and the "Eureka Moment."
TW: "We used many different techniques in many different situations, but our basic method was to film faces and to put them into a CG environment, into a CG suit, and to just film their faces because it's a whole lot easier than just doing the whole body. And you realize that you still can't move them upside down and spin them around, and you still have to move the camera around the actor, and then you have to move the light as well. So we thought, 'Okay that's what we'll do, we'll just move the light.' And of course it wasn't that simple."
AC: "We wanted to give it a photo-real look from the first minute. I remember saying that when we finished the film I wanted NASA to call us and say they were suing us for putting cameras in their ships. There's something about the light in space that is very specific, not only from the light of the sun, but the balance from where you are over the earth.
"So Chivo (cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) had his Eureka moment at a Peter Gabriel Concert. He came back from [the concert] and he said 'can we do it with LED lights. Before that we discussed rigs to move the lights super fast. [Tim] designed something really quick... The one thing he was obsessed with was the light in space. Light in space is unlike any light in earth, because it's unfiltered. There's no atmosphere, so he had a lot of concerns about how a mirror would diffuse the light."