The extraordinary 13-minute opening of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” is like a mini-movie, setting up the zero-gravity world in space, the two astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, the mood, the tension, the crisis, and the metaphor. I break it down with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Emmanuel (Chivo) Lubezki, production designer Andy Nicholson, VFX supervisor Tim Webber, sound mixer Chris Munro, and editor Mark Sanger.
“That opening shot is like the overture to a symphony, so we had to come up with the overture before knowing the rest of the movie,” explains Lubezki about the most difficult shot in his prestigious career. “It is a series of shots that are very objective and very wide and presentational that become subjective. The idea was to grab and immerse the audience in the movie as soon as possible, and to sell the idea of this micro-gravity, who these characters are. They are so tiny and when you look at the Earth from high above, it looks like an organism that is alive.
“It talks about tiny particles in a massive universe, mortality, rebirth, many emotions that you can go through throughout your life. So there’s that layer of the thematic and then thee’s the visual that has to do with what we call ‘the elastic shot.’ You start really wide that become subjective shots that you’re seeing through Sandra’s POV. And then they come out and become objective again.
“Something that was so exciting for me was, as the ISS is spinning around the world so fast and the shuttle is spinning, things are changing very fast. The composition is changing, the lighting is changing, the textures are changing — what you see on the Earth is changing. You see day and night and dusk in the same shot. The color temperature of the light is changing and, funnily enough, her internal world is changing, so it is related to the world.”
But in reviewing the scene in a screening room after it was complete, Cuaron decided to flip the opening image of the shuttle upside down to not only improve it compositionally with the Earth in full view but to make it more disorienting for us. “That’s what happens with a movie like this,” Lubezki adds. “You engineer it so long like an animation that it’s very hard to know what’s working and not working.”
Putting together this elaborate jigsaw puzzle fell to production designer Nicholson and his art department in very close collaboration with the director and the other departments. “Once we knew where it was going to be, we then spent a long time deciding what part of the Earth it would be over, what part of the Earth you’d see passing below us to see specific shots,” explains Nicholson. “Originally we did a flight path over the whole Earth. But because of the orbit of the ISS and the space shuttle, you only see about a 600-mile diameter surface. We start off with an opening which is just over Mexico and then we move into the Pacific Ocean.
“And it was all about embellishing the background of what was going to be played at the time and the placement of where they all are. In fact, in the original design of the Hubble, the drawers that Sandra’s working on were tucked away a bit more. But we used the same kind of engineering, the same kind of computer panels, the same kind of circuit boards so that it wasn’t science fiction but the same kind of robust, military-grade circuitry that’s actually used.”
All of it was designed in previs at Framestore, working with Cuaron and Lubezki to see how the shot would be set up and what bits were necessary for the performances. “In that case, we made a proxy version of the entire drawer and came up with a maintenance procedure which we gave to Sandra. And we had a whole imaging protocol about what Ryan might be doing.
“Then I built a full-scale, physically accurate replica of what Sandra would be working on. The proxy version of what she would be acting with on stage didn’t need to be the final finishes. And then we made a whole functioning one with computer cards and draw sliders and mechanisms covered for the Hubble panel to be that Framestore could use as reference for the CG. That’s why the textures on the metals and the cards are so good because we made a physical version of that in the prop department. Then there was the whole discussion of the physics of the [robotic] arm and how that moves when you’re tethered and you have weight and every move you make has some sort of reaction, both on the tools and the tethers that are hanging on that.”
Everything is in there, echoes Webber. And the opening was the first shot they worked on as well as the last. “Just to plan a continuous piece of action that holds together in zero gravity with so many more degrees of freedom and movement is complex,” he says. “We had to hit all the beats and the rhythm of the scene. You have it all roughly planned out and you’d find that a small change that you made in the previs near the beginning of the scene would have a disastrous effect on something afterwards because a bit of movement would change their position and that would change everything from then on. And you’ve traveled a fair extent of the Earth from one end of the shot to the other.
The lines were clearly blurred between cinematography and VFX: “I’ve never been so involved in the cinematography of a movie and I’ve never had a cinematographer so involved in the visual effects. Chivo and I appreciated the work that goes into both sides and what makes it work. Not only is a lot of it rendered in the computer but it was the visual effects team that was manipulating the lighting on set in the Light Box, or what Chivo called his digital gaffers.”
From a sound point of view, not only did they use a lot of equipment that was readily available but they built most of it. “All the communication systems, even the microphone that they wear, we built because we wanted to have a certain amount of noise rejection because of the cameras and the flow of things,” explains Munro. “Technically it was very challenging but by the time we were shooting it was all about performance.
“We talked a lot about effects, we talked a lot about the whole idea that there’s no sound in space and how we were going to deal with it. We also reached decisions about how the actors were going to sound. And Alfonso had an idea for the opening sequence that we would build different studio sections where the voices would be so that we could do everything live. And that turned out to be not so practical, so we recorded all those Houston voices other than Sandra and George and we built the communication system into the helmets exactly as they would hear them with ear pieces, and the mics were practical.
“But we had several versions of these voices on a keyboard that we would play back. We’d be able to give some degree of spontaneity with the voices that Sandra and George were interacting with.”
According to editor Sanger (who is nominated with Cuaron), the opening began as 200 individual shots with storyboards, recorded dialog running under each of them, and rough timing. “And those storyboard edits were supplied to Tim, who would then lock the more three-dimensional moves in rough previs, and then on a shot by shot basis hand those back to me in order for that cycle to continue.
“As that continued, the scene was more shaped and it came down in length, so at the stage we were able to skip some moments and Tim would stitch these cuts together and we began shaping the scene. Gradually, that’s when he and Chivo and Alonzo talked about lighting. We’re still about a year away from the shoot, but light drives the story along. What the audience is buying into as they’re seeing the sun rise and come around our characters and then set again is that the debris, the villain of our piece, is coming round to threaten our characters.
“So with the lighting and the blocking of that original edit, there came a point where editing decisions I was making in the previs early on, was having an impact on the decisions that Chivo, Tim, and Alfonzo were making. And that went on for months and what began as 200 shots, slowly got checked down in the process as beats. And we ended up with around 120 beats, which were seamlessly stitched together by visual effects. But for a long time in my timeline, what plays as a single shot, actually was 120 cuts.”
Which became the overture to a cinematic symphony that is part of a three-way best picture race with “12 Years a Slave” and “American Hustle.”