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Immersed in Movies: Designing Cinematic Jigsaw Puzzle and Game-Changer ‘Gravity’

Immersed in Movies: Designing Cinematic Jigsaw Puzzle and Game-Changer 'Gravity'

Ask production designer Andrew Nicholson why “Gravity” is a game-changer and he’ll tell you it’s because of the special design/VFX synergy. In fact, without it, the blockbuster (which has grossed $500 million worldwide) and best picture Oscar contender wouldn’t have become arguably the most immersive movie-going experience of our time.

“It was a huge pleasure to work on something that’s going to change technically how this kind of film is going to be done in the future, with visual effects working so closely with an art department and a construction department,” explains Nicholson, who will present “The World of Gravity” Wednesday at the Art Directors Guild and Friday at USC, followed by a Q&A with me. “We all had to be part of that jigsaw puzzle.”

Indeed, the only way to put this cinematic jigsaw puzzle together was through a unique process of reverse engineering between designers and VFX and complete previsualization. In other words, Framestore made a low-res animated version of the movie prior to shooting Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in simulated zero-g with the use of robotic cameras by Bot & Dolly and special wire rigs. Otherwise, Alfonso Cuaron’s visceral thrill-ride and meditation on adversity and rebirth couldn’t have been pulled off with such verisimilitude.

So while cinematographer Emmanuel (“Chivo”) Lubezki and VFX supervisor Tim Webber came up with synchronized lighting, LED backgrounds, and precise actor poses, the art department provided the high-res 3D models of the sets and props that eventually were built and animated by Framestore. 

“There was the technical research for the geography and the architecture of the interior of the structures and the exterior of the ISS,” Nicholson adds, “But along with that it was surfaces, materials, textures — getting hold of physical samples of things to give the guys who were modeling it.” 

Physical samples of props had to be built for Framestore’s modelers, lighting, and texture artists. And what couldn’t be fabricated was researched on the internet by Nicholson, who then provided fully annotated photographs of props to be built by Framestore in CG.

“The workflow was about getting the animation right within a space,” Nicholson says. “We had to do highly detailed concept art in 3D before getting Alfonso to sign off and hand it over to Framestore. I had to have guys who could model and do composite renderings of interiors. At the same time, we developed models into a state that they could be given to previs so they could animate with our models of interiors. These were done to a much higher level.

“It was a successful circular process [with Lubezki pre-lighting the models after director approval], but you had to make sure everyone had the current version that was being textured and rendered.”

In every instance, Nicholson and his team needed to determine what sets needed to be real or virtual, how that combination would work, and where the limits of each would be. There were only two physical sets (the interiors of the Russian and Chinese capsules), but portions of the space station interior were physical extensions for better maneuverability.

However, it was a good thing that much of the final output was fully CG because of the flexibility that was required in altering the size and detail of sets during the shoot. For example, the sequence toward the end in the Chinese airlock was initially conceived as a physical set but changed to CG because of the camera move and lighting requirements.

Shot composition and design were symbiotic as well. Take the dream sequence in the Russian capsule, which became a complicated ballet when the camera needed to pass entirely through the craft. Nicholson’s team divided the main control panel into three sections, which were seamlessly moved in and out on rails, as needed, while still staying fully functional.

But if “Gravity” offers a new virtual production model as a result of greater front-end synergy between design and VFX, then maybe there’s hope for even more imaginative and immersive experiences on the big screen.

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