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Was Gravity a step too far?

3 minute read

Already a critical darling, potentially a breakout hit, and likely an awards contender, Alphonso Cuaron's space thriller Gravity has Hollywood buzzing. But was it wrong to try to make this film?

Recently, Variety ran a lengthy article, taking us behind the scenes of Alphonso Cuaron's much anticipated return to the big screen. After a seven year hiatus, Cuaron arrives with one of the most ambitious undertakings in recent memory, his 'stranded in space' opus, Gravity.

Sure, there have been plenty of films made for more than Gravity's estimated $100 million budget, and certainly more ostentation affairs than what is essentially a two person drama that devolves into a one person nightmare amidst the stars. But for sheer risk and a terrifying leap into production unknowns, Gravity takes the cake.

We can do this, right?

When Cuaron set out to make this film, none other than David Fincher tried to convince him it wasn't yet possible, that the technology necessary to make good on his vision wouldn't be available for five years. Apparently, Fincher is something of a clairvoyant, as Gravity took 4 1/2 years to complete.

Cuaron, as witnessed in another sci-fi thriller, Children of Men, is known for his long takes, often spanning several minutes. In planning Gravity, he envisioned a film with laborious takes of weightless actors. The danger in producing such a film is that everything must be preplanned beforehand and much of what needed to be done had never been done before.

Space experiments

Cuaron assembled his team, enlisting cinematographer Emmanual Lubezki and visual effect supervisor Tim Webber, two long-time collaborators. James Cameron advised Cuaron to employ motion capture, similar to what was done for Avatar, to film the space scenes, but Cuaron opted for the inverse approach: shooting the actors' faces and creating their bodies, suits, and the rest of space in post. 

According to Variety, the logistics of achieving these long takes put various strains on the production. First, Lubezki had the job of making the light match in an environment with luminiscent celestial bodies, millions of pinpoints of lights, a sun and lots of inky darkness. Then, the production tackled the problem of shooting long weightless takes by using industrial robots typically used for automotive manufacturing. Of course, this means that the entire film had to be pre-visualized and pre-planned down to the finest details.

In service of art

With so many technical considerations, it would have been easy to lose sight of what the production team was actually trying to make: a rich and compelling film. Lubezki, for his part, insisted on overseeing the 'lighting' through the process, which meant working hand-in-hand with animators and digital lighting directors.

“I would wake up at 4 a.m., turn on my computer, I’d say good morning to my gaffer (a digital lighting director) and start working on a scene,” Lubezki said. “I would say, ‘Move the sun 60,000 kilometers to the north.’ That way I could put the lighting anywhere I wanted.” 

With a strong team backing him and a plan in place, Cuaron turned his attention back to the story and directing his actors, especially Sandra Bullock, the film's lead. “She was involved so closely in every single decision throughout the whole thing,” Cuaron said. “And it was a good thing, because once we started prepping for the shoot, it was almost more like a dance routine, where it was one-two-three left, left, four-five-six then on the right. She was amazing about the blocking and the rehearsal of that. So when we were shooting, everything was just about truthfulness and emotion.”

An irresponsible production?

At the end of the day, if Gravity performs at the box-office and picks up a few statuettes, all of the difficulty was worth it, right? I'm inclined to agree, but there are a few aspects of this case study that I find troubling. By willingly tredding on such unproven ground (technologically speaking), the film was seemingly in a constant state of jeopardy. 

“If something fundamental in the technology that we were doing had collapsed," said Cuaron, "it would mean that the film would collapse. That was the spookiest thing. Any collapse in the pipeline would have huge ripple effects. So there were moments in which we felt the whole film had collapsed.”

At a rate of $150,000/day, any snags in the production would prove costly. Thankfully, the production avoided any catastrophic issues, but still, the question remains: is it wise to make a $100 million dollar movie that hinges on one performance, a slew of long takes, and an unproven tech pipeline with ad hoc solutions borrowed from other industries?

As they say, the proof is in the pudding, and if this story is at all instructive, perhaps there's a simple moral: if you're going to place a risky bet, wager on talent.

Tags: Business