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Pre-Vis And NASA: AMPAS Panel “Deconstructing Gravity”

NASA Astronaut Cady Coleman kicks of the evening’s presentation. (photo credit: Todd Wawrychuk/@A.M.P.A.S.)

Suits and gowns have been stored, statues have been proudly displayed, and the awards buzz has subsided, however the curiosity factor surrounding this year’s visual marvel “Gravity” remains strong. On Monday, May 12th, a sold out crowd gathered at the Directors Guild of America to participate in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presentation of “Deconstructing Gravity.” Led by Bill Kroyer, Co-Chair of the Academy’s Science and Technology Council and Governor representing the Academy’s Short Films and Animation Branch, the panel featured “Gravity” team members visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, animation supervisor Max Solomon, and co-editor Mark Sanger who delighted the production professionals, visual effects artists and students alike, including a videography class from Downey High School who were eager to learn exactly “How did they do that?”

Prior to the discussion, the audience viewed photos and movie clips provided by NASA that illustrated austronauts performing routine functions in space, including washing their hair and preparing food. Cady Coleman, NASA’s most senior astronaut, opened the presentation by describing her involvements in helping Sandra Bullock understand how a person moves and functions within the zero gravity confinement of a space shuttle.

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“You can move anywhere with the slightest touch,” said Coleman. “You can take one strand of your hair, pull it between two points and use that to bounce your complete body weight forward.”

Zero gravity was the element that grounded all forward momentum for the team creating “Gravity.” Webber, Solomon and Sanger collectively reflected on the initial description of the project: a short, black and white film that was to be shot over six to eight weeks with a minimal crew. Each man had worked with director Alfonso Cuaron in the past and, although they didn’t expect the project to be picked up, they were eager to enjoy the experience of reteaming with him. The complexity of space, a shuttle, and camera movements made it apparent pre-vis would assist in explaining the story. With no budget at this stage for a pre-vis team, Solomon was forced to craft a rough render composed of simple graphics and movements, which he displayed for the audience.

“It’s actually kind of embarrassing to be sharing this,” said Solomon. “Because we literally had no budget to work with, we created this using assets we pulled off the internet.”

Despite its elementary appearance, the early previs informed the “Gravity” team that they would be required to work backwards on this project. “We had to finish post production before we could move on to pre-production,” reflected Webber. Initially, the team thought they could suspend the actors with wires and build space around them. The previs provided the realization that effectively portraying zero gravity would require a much different solution. Additionally, Cuaron recognized the multiple story beats could be affectively combined into long shots, a devise the director has used to great affect in his other films including “Children of Men.” While an average movie can have upwards of 2,000 cuts, the final version of Gravity had 350.

The “Gravity” team worked together to set the film’s blocking from start to finish. A rough story board was conceived that was completely pre-vised. With this rough outline along with dialogue, Sanger worked at defining story beats, the first stage of his editing responsibilities. Once the film was shot, he rearranged some of the sounds and dialogue to help define the emotions and actions of the film, which resulted in the animators and visual effects staff reworking those sequences.

“The cuts became the logistics for the complexity of movement,” said Sanger. “The previs animation had to become more advanced at this stage because so much depended on it.”

To achieve the lengthy sections of weightless motion and space debris hurdling towards the characters in the film’s climatic opening, a great deal depending on the location of the camera and the composition of the scene. The zero gravity aspect and lack of confinement space provided would allow the camera to rotate and capture the actors from every conceivable angle. The team experimented with a number of different blocking scenarios in this previs phase, including key frame animation, models, lipstick cameras, simulations, toy astronauts and Power Rangers. These different tools and formats allowed for the exploration of character and object movement, how severe the knocks and blows should be and what impact should look like. During this stage Cuaron had suggested the camera circle the actors as they were moving. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who suffers from motion sickness, recognized the result would be too unpleasant for an audience. Working with a virtual camera, Lubezki was able to find a perfect blend of movement and purposeful camera mis-timings that added to the documentary quality Cuaron was hoping could be achieved. Also important to achieve in this phase of exploration was geography: where is the camera in relation to the actors location? Often objects were left in front of the camera to inform viewers of where their vantage point was.

As the panel narrowed in on their grasp of achieving believable zero gravity, it became apparent the actors performances would need a great deal of digital intervention. An early rig was created that allowed the actors to spin and appear weightless, however the first prototype resulted in revealing the strain of the movement required to spin in their faces. A redesign aided in resolving the visible strain, but the rig posed blocking problems in a number of scenes. Ultimately, digital limbs were added in some scenes, while the actors faces were digitally grafted onto CGI bodies in others.

The panel also provided information on how puppeteers were utilized in the filming of “Gravity” as well as the light box that successfully enabled the DP and VFX crew to create a naturalistic lighting in scenarios as the sun set behind the Earth while Sandra Bullock’s character hurled through space. Audience members were encouraged to personally experience the benefit of the light box by stepping into a model replica that was placed in the auditorium’s lobby, as well as review photos and clips provided by NASA that Cuaron on the “Gravity” team studied closely over the four years that were necessary to bring “Gravity” to life.

To learn more about this program and other education events held by AMPAS, please visit: