The Unbeatable Lightness of Gravity

The space/light dimension and Sandy Bullock
by Gordon Campbell

Would a big budget movie put America’s sweetheart in mortal peril, and then kill her off ? Not very likely. So while Sandra Bullock may be gamely in peril for much of Gravity’s running time, things are no more likely to go terminally kerblooey than when she was driving that bus in Speed. By now, everyone probably knows the set-up for this film, which unfolds in a tremendous 17 minute opening sequence. Two astronauts ( played by Bullock, as a rookie scientist and George Clooney as a wise-cracking veteran) become the sole survivors after a shower of space debris slams into their space vehicle, 320 miles up there.

From that point onwards, the film becomes one of those shipwreck/plane crash stories where it will take a ton of animal pluck and ingenuity if the duo in peril are ever going to see home again. Can they build a raft, re-start the engine etc before they’re swallowed by quicksand or eaten by cannibals….or in this case, run out of oxygen or get incinerated on re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere? For all its visual effects, this is an old, old movie template, ravishingly decked out for its spin among the stars.

Ravishing it is. Gravity provides sequences of extraordinary beauty, and that’s worth underlining because the clunkers in the script do weigh things down a bit, and occasionally displace the floaty feeling of being Out There that is Gravity’s signal achievement. Put it this way : Gravity will be celebrated as a technical achievement long after we’ve stopped (or begun) caring about Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone. Most of the time she functions as a mere plot device, similar to the equally bland scientist/astronaut Dr David Bowman played by Keir Dullea in 2001. In fact, the story of Gravity is basically a full length treatment of the sequence in 2001 where Bowman gets locked outside the space craft by a rogue computer, and without his helmet. Technology can be so wilful, when you’re totally reliant on it. In another movie/movie aside, the Mission Control guy in Houston ( whom we never see) is voiced by Ed Harris, a veteran of Apollo 13 and its famous “ Houston, we have a problem” line.

Personally, I’d have been more than happy if the central character in Gravity didn’t have a tragic back-story meant to underline her alienation and potential for re-birth. At one point, Bullock sheds her space suit, floats in a foetal position and tells us that she would pray, but no one taught her how. Fortunately, these are pretty much the film’s only attempts at dabbling in 2001’s more metaphysical concerns. And while we’ve seen juddering wild rides in space scenes before – remember plucky Jodie Foster going through the worm-hole in Contact ?

– it isn’t being done this time in the service of science fiction. Gravity works best solely as a thriller. As in….those buttons in the Chinese space station. Will Sandy push the right one and get home, or the wrong one and die ? Wait a second : don’t the Chinese write left to right ? Oh Sandy, don’t overthink this ! Etc etc. If anything, Gravity struck me as being more of what you could call a science factoid film, give or take a few salient facts. The ways in which it is scientifically accurate – and on rare occasions, wrong about the science – have been sweetly pointed out in this genial interview with real-life astronaut Scott Parazynski, who doesn’t try to get all nitpicky about the points where scientific reality has been bent a little, to the needs of the story.

Suffice to say, the substantial tug back and forth between Bullock and Clooney while they’re co-joined would not occur in space, and nor would he have gone tumbling away into the distance – as did the dead astronaut in 2001 – once he unhooked himself. In addition, the orbital speed of the space stations/vehicles ( even if they did operate close-ish to one another, which they don’t) would mean that hopping across to one to another would be a bit like jumping from the wing of a speeding Boeing 767 onto the wing of an Airbus 320 in flight, if they both happened to be going at about 17,000 miles an hour. It would be really hard to do. Not that this sort of thing is, or should be, a deal breaker. Sometimes, sex scenes in movies aren’t like real life, either.

For his part, Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity’s director and co-screenwriter) isn’t entirely averse to a metaphorical reading of his film.

“When you’re doing a space film,” Cuaron explained, “ metaphor is almost obvious. You have a character who is drifting toward the void, a victim of her own inertia, getting further away from human connection, living in her own bubble. You have an immensity of nothingness. There’s not a better way to depict loneliness. So you already have a lot of elements to begin with.” Cuaron also made Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men and the only good Harry Potter movie, The Prisoner of Azkaban. He wrote the script for Gravity with his eldest son Jonas, and spent four years bringing it to life. Instead of storyboarding the narrative in the usual way, he made an animated film of the story, and used the animated version as a reference point for where to put the actors in the frame, and – crucially, see below – how to light them.

As Clooney has generously said, the film is essentially a one woman show. Bullock carries the film, Clooney sings harmony. That said, Clooney’s switch from jokester to mentor to cosmic altruist in the service of Bullock’s earnest character is easy to under-rate – and as a space bimbo, he does usefully lighten the mood. Beyond that….the single most important collaborator for Cuaron on this project would have to be the great Mexican cinematographer, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki. Lubezki was Terrence Malick’s DP on The New World and on Tree of Life and he also did those long, long takes for Cuaron on Children of Men.

Thanks to his work on Gravity, Lubezki is currently the odds-on favourite to win the cinematography Oscar next year, an award he should have taken home for Tree of Life. The line between cinematography and special effects has become so blurred that for the last four years in a row the two awards have gone in tandem to the same movies – Avatar, Inception, Hugo, Life of Pi – and not everyone is happy with that trend. The implication is that the industry can no longer tell the difference – or no longer cares about the difference – between the traditional arts of cinematography, and what goes on now inside computers.

Easy to see why people might feel similar misgivings about Gravity, given the way it was shot. Obviously, human motion looks different when it happens in the micro-gravity of space craft operating at this proximity to Earth, and the actors needed to be moved around accordingly. Less obviously, light also behaves differently as it comes off the sun and bounces off every available angle and most immediately, off the Earth – creating sharp, and constantly changing shadows. Therefore, the light had to be controlled as realistically as audiences would reasonably tolerate, as the actors’ positions relative to Earth were being tumbled about. The best short version I’vde seen of the mechanics involved was in this Hollywood Reporter story:

In orbit, a whole day is 90 minutes,” says visual effects supervisor Tim Webber. “So a whole day of lighting changes every 90 minutes. We used sunset, moonlight, strong daylight and being in the shadow of the Hubble at times. And we made sure the quality of light was rich and varied; when they were over the ocean, there were cool blue lights, and over North Africa there were warmer colors coming from the desert.”

In addition, Bullock and Clooney spent a good deal of their time within the now famous “ Light Box” which enabled the foreground light on the actors’ faces and visors to be exactly synchronised with the background/ambient light bouncing in from elsewhere.

To make sure the light on the actors’ faces matched the virtual light that already had been programmed into the CG shots, the actors were filmed using an Arri Alexa camera in a specially designed “light box“: a 20by10foot cube lined with 196 2by2foot panels fitted with 4,096 lights. “The LED lights were all separately controllable,” says Webber, “and they would project light on the actors’ faces and give them the idea of the environment they were in.”

Bullock was also manipulated on a harness. Sometimes she was spun, but – more often – the composited, pre-lit images of the backgrounds were spun around her :

To capture closeups of Bullock, which were added to the CG shots of her character tumbling head over heels, cameras were placed on a motioncontrol rig. And the production came up with a new device: a 12wire rig with a carbonfiber harness, which, Webber says, gave the filmmakers the ability to “completely puppeteer Sandra.”

As a result of the need to match up the foreground/background lighting and the spacey motion, a reported 86% of the images in Gravity were either produced entirely in the computer, or significantly so. Chivo Lubezski isn’t concerned about this. As he says, the melding of visual effects work with the art of the cinematographer should be seen as an extension of the DP’s skills, and not as a detraction from them. Here’s how he sees it:

If a movie has a strong CG element, that doesn’t mean the cinematographer didn’t light it or frame it…. Sometimes, you are even doing more than what we used to do in terms of lighting. Some parts of the movie are photography and some parts are not. But the fact remains that there is a need for a cinematographer. You can call it ‘algorithmography’ or whatever you want, but there is still a person overseeing the images. It doesn’t happen by itself. We did a lot of research as we were doing [Gravity] There are amazing methods for doing what I would call ‘post lighting,’ where you shoot a face with multiple cameras at really high speeds, and as you are shooting the actor, you are lighting the face with thousands of different lights and hundreds of different options for lighting.

As he concludes, it still comes down to the art of the cinematography in the end : “You still need a craftsman to decide how this actor should look, and then how to marry these actors to the background. When the lighting of the background doesn’t match the lighting of the foreground or the actors, then things collapse. You need someone with an eye, and with a command of the technology. Just because a movie has extensive CG, that doesn’t necessarily mean a diminished role for the cinematographer…..”

Amen to that. Especially that line : “Most of the bad CG in the world doesn’t work because the lighting is bad.” An even better interview with Lubezski about the challenges involved in lighting and shooting Gravity can be found here, and for hard core nerds who really want to find out exactly how almost every single sequence in this film was lit and shot, the (paywalled) November edition of American Cinematographer magazine contains an exhaustively extensive interview with Lubezski. Parts of that interview left me feeling a bit like Sandy Bullock – gamely trying to keep abreast of the incoming data and feeling at times like I was drowning. But exhilarated, nonetheless.


An earlier version o fthe story referred to ‘Alberto’ Cuaron. Gravity’s director and co-screenwriter is Alfonso Cuaron. We apologise for the error.