Alfonso Cuarón, the double BAFTA winning and triple Oscar nominated director, writer, editor and producer (whose work includes Children of Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) gave a masterclass yesterday to NFTS students following a screening of his latest 3D sensation Gravity.
Gravity – a sci-fi thriller set in space which was written by Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón, produced by Alfonso Cuarón and David Heyman (the “Harry Potter” films) and executive produced by Chris deFaria, Nikki Penny and Stephen Jones, has taken US dollars 632 million worldwide so far at the box office and received critical acclaim from press and audiences alike.
Speaking at the Warner Bros HQ in London in conversation with top commercials director Dougal Wilson, Cuarón said that he and his son Jonás had wanted to tell a story about triumph over adversity and set it in space because of the opportunities to use visual metaphors: “The idea for the film had started with a visual image of astronauts floating in space. We knew we wanted there to be a rollercoaster ride sustained by emotion that was linked to thematic elements such as isolation and we wanted there to be an existential resonance to the journey the characters undertake. But I was also inspired by my grandmother who bought a TV just so we could watch Neil Armstrong land on the moon – I watched it live! I’ve always been fascinated by that.”
The film focuses on the journey of a woman (Sandra Bullock) who plays a medical engineer on her first shuttle mission in space with a veteran astronaut (George Clooney). When debris from another satellite hits them, their shuttle is destroyed leaving them spiraling out of control and stranded in space. As she orbits at 600km above the planet, her survival becomes dependent on breaking out of the cyclical pattern of her emotional isolation in order to connect with others and return to Earth.
“Adversity is cyclical. We are victims of our own inertia; we tend to go back to again and again into them. How do you break that cycle? That interests me,” explained Cuarón.
When asked how long it took to write a screenplay, Cuarón replied: “My experience of screenplay writing is that it can either take you 3-5 years….or one month. I chose the one month route! If I’m not clear about the story then I just put it in a drawer until one day it makes sense and I can suddenly write.”
Cuarón said choosing to focus on one person’s emotional and metaphorical journey had been inspired by two films: Steven Spielberg’s Duel (starring Dennis Hopper who plays a terrified motorist stalked on a remote and lonely road by the mostly unseen driver of a mysterious tanker truck) and Robert Bresson’s suspenseful jailbreak film A Man Escaped that follows a French Resistance fighter’s single-minded pursuit of freedom, detailing the planning and execution of his escape with gripping precision.
“Both of these films are about one person’s journey. When you are confronted by adversity it takes you out of your comfort zone and you lose ground and start to drift into a void. You become isolated in your own bubble, cut off from others. I sometimes feel like that! I wanted to realise that metaphor in Gravity.”
Created through a painstaking combination of physical and digital performance that disintegrates the divide between live action and animation, Gravity has been applauded for presenting the future face of 3D cinema. But Cuarón admits the production hadn’t always gone to plan: “When I finished the screenplay, I sent a copy to the DoP to ask if he wanted to do this small thing with me. I thought it would maybe take a year. At that time I was just a conventional writer and imagined we could film it using conventional rigs and stunts. I was committed to making it look photo realistic rather than fantasy or cartoon like. Just three hours into testing the rig I realised that I’d been a bit naïve; I thohght it would be a lot simpler.”
The behind-the-scenes team includes multiple Oscar®-nominated director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, The New World); production designer Andy Nicholson (art director Alice in Wonderland); editors Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Sanger (VFX editor Children of Men); and costume designer Jany Temime (the Harry Potter films). The visual effects were handled by Oscar®-nominated visual effects supervisor Tim Webber (The Dark Knight). The music was composed by Steven Price (Attack the Block).
More than four years later, after various technical evolutions and a Eureka moment while watching the LED light show at a Peter Gabriel concert, they developed a 12 wire rig, operated by puppeteers from War Horse, set inside a cube called a ‘Light Box’ conceived by Lubezki and Webber to recreate the image of natural light and zero gravity. Resembling a hollow cube, its interior walls were made up of large, flat panels, each fitted with thousands of tiny LED lights. As its name suggests, the purpose of the Light Box was to cast the appropriate illumination on the character, even when spinning uncontrollably through space. What is revolutionary is that instead of spinning the actor within the scene, they spin the walls of the cube.
“There’s a point in the film when Sandra Bullock is spinning around in space and you see the Earth, stars, everything spinning in the reflection in her eye. That’s because it really was spinning around her,” adds Cuarón.
Asked when he first decided to make the film in 3D, he replied: “Four years ago when 3D was still cool! Actually, I had always been inspired by Lumiere who first experimented with 3D in 1898. He had always intended cinema to be in 3D but it was abandoned because it was too expensive. What I love about 3D is the sense of depth. The journey in film should be how you look with your two eyes.”
For many scenes, the actors were secured onto specialized rigs that could rotate or tilt them at different angles. Cuarón and Lubezki were able to take advantage of more extreme angles with cameras mounted on giant computer-controlled robot arms, the type used in automobile manufacturing. The actors took months to physically prepare for the film, especially Sandra Bullock whose performance Cuarón compares to that of a ballet dancer. “To create the appearance of zero gravity and to interact with virtual prop in a CG set, she had to choreograph each move so that each gesture of her hand and body was precise. She was amazing.”
Filming involved hours of preparation to set up each shot. During this time, Sandra Bullock chose to stay in the rig. Asked how Cuarón had managed to keep the actors in their performance while surrounded by so much technology, he replied: “I gave Sandra some weird music that we’d been listening to while we were writing the screenplay. Then I’d discuss each scene with Sandra and she’d select a piece of that music and listen to this as an emotional reference for her performance.”
Despite the interest in the film’s technical achievements, Cuarón insists that this is a human story: “Amidst all the tools and effects, we were always clear that her struggle is a metaphor for anyone who has to overcome adversity in life and get to the other side. It is a journey of rebirth.”
Warner Bros. Pictures Presents an Esperanto Filmoj/Heyday Films Production, an Alfonso Cuarón Film, Gravity. www.gravitymovie.net