Filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón first met cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, ASC, AMC, at film school in his native Mexico. But it wasn’t until more than a decade later, after Cuarón had worked as an AD on numerous films, that the pair collaborated on Cuarón’s first feature, Love in the Time of Hysteria. They continued their association on the Showtime series Fallen Angels, followed by the features A Little Princess, Great Expectations and Y Tu Mamá También. Cuarón agreed to helm Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, then contributed the “Parc Monceau” segment of Paris, je t’aime (both shot by Michael Seresin, BSC), with the former proving to be a critical and commercial success, before reuniting with Lubezki for Children of Men. That parable of the near future made a virtue of sustained single shots, with complex staging and camera moves that compare favorably to Welles’ masterful pair of long takes in Touch of Evil and Hitchcock’s Rope and Under Capricorn.

In recent years Cuarón worked to bring his new film, Gravity, to fruition, in the process pioneering methodologies for shooting that may prove as influential as Avatar’s. Embellishments include a new approach to the digital backlot that gives actors a frame-specific view of the changing virtual environment around them, and a seamless melding of traditional film lighting techniques with computer graphics, courtesy of his long-standing partnership with Chivo.

 

Setting the majority of Gravity in low-Earth orbit meant you’d be presenting many vistas similar to those seen on a NASA-shot video. What were the challenges in putting this across in a photo-real manner while still delivering the requisite drama? Alfonso Cuarón: While our narrative is fiction, we thought it should look like an IMAX or Discovery Channel show in terms of being photo-real and as scientifically accurate as possible. It was our intention to resist the temptation to stylize things, especially on very dramatic shots like when Sandra [Bullock] is on the shuttle arm being whipped around, going from extreme close-up to long shot and back. One thing I love about film is that you can choose your limitations. It can be at times frustrating when something that would look good violates your plan, but then when the whole thing is put together it all looks like it is a part of the same consistent worldview, and that is very rewarding because the viewer can be submersed fully in this world you’ve created, without distraction.

Did part of those limitations involve a single hard source light for the sun? That was Chivo’s obsession from the get-go. The sun as source was ungraded; that is to say we had no clouds to filter this harsh light. The effort to arrive at a means to deliver that quality of light consistently required an effort. Then, the next step was mapping the location and direction of the light so as to make it work for the emotional beats in the story. For example, the light is much warmer during the sunsets and sunrises, which at that altitude play out in less than a minute, but during that time we’re seeing the character in a different light. When we were on the night side, there was only the presence of the moon as a reflected-sun source, which gives a much different look. Chivo was equally concerned with getting the bounce light coming off Earth and other objects in just the right proportion. Earth was a constant presence throughout the film, but that presence would change in mood depending on whether it was seen in the light of day or at sunrise or sunset.

So with the camera and characters in constant motion and changing perspective, how did you figure up from down? There is no point of departure because there is no up or down; nobody is sitting in a chair to orient your eye. It took the animators three months to learn how to think this way. They have been taught to draw based on horizon and weight, and here we stripped them of both. They’d show me some amazing visuals, but then I’d point out the problem, which was, they had their character standing on an apple box. Nobody can do that in space. So we sent animators to school to find out about how things behave in zero-g, with zero resistance. Eventually it became second nature, but you could tell right away which guys were new, because their stuff was oriented up and down, and they were the ones who wanted to quit [laughs].

So, like 2001’s orbital ballet, the physics influenced the artistic in a specific way? Yes. A good example is that if somebody starts rolling, that movement is ongoing and consistent unless something acts on that movement to make it stop. In a shot designed to run for several minutes continuously, it could be that you find this rolling action stops working for you after four minutes. That means you go back and redo the previs to change the start point of the cycle, or perhaps put the camera someplace else where the action doesn’t undermine the shot. We made this whole film three times: once in previs, once on stage and again in post.

So how much of the staging got locked down up front? Every element was determined and every movement worked out in preproduction, using CG lighting. In a conventional movie, first you stage and then accommodate the lighting for that blocking. Here we would be very aware of where the sun was and then block, keeping in mind that position. We knew that one sequence would take place right after sunrise. When blocking that, we had to realize there was no horizon, which makes the whole issue of perspective more complex. Chivo loved to play God and be able to move the sun a few million miles to the right or left to achieve his best effects over the course of these sustained shots, which were created out of separate takes to feel like a single sweeping dynamic move.

The long takes in Children of Men and Y Tu Mamá También represent a deviation from faster cutting for most features. Were you consciously going against the norm? The language I have been working on with Chivo in these recent films is not one based on close-ups. We include close-ups as part of a longer continuous shot. So this all becomes choreography. The sizes of various elements in frame relate to the emotional levels we are trying to touch upon, and the light is instrumental in illuminating that. If you were doing this with a lot of cuts, you could probably get away with a lot more. But when it is a sustained shot and there’s just the single source, that’s something else again.

So this language the two of you continue developing with each project, has, based on Gravity’s trailer, allowed you to go from an objective perspective to a subjective one in the course of a single take without resorting to editorial effects?  My process of exploring long takes fits in with that IMAX documentary notion, because when they capture nature it isn’t like they can go back and pick up the close-up afterward. There isn’t that luxury in space either. So then it falls to us to find a way to deliver that objective view, but then transform it into a more subjective experience. So you are caught up in the trajectory of her story, seeing things as she does, through her point of view, but then continuing around to see her and the Earth and the stars behind her. The audience is then seeing things as their own subjective view, as they follow the character along in her journey.

Was Chivo there with the animators while developing these shots in previs? Oh yes. The work of the cinematographer on this film started at the very earliest point in preproduction. The screenplay describes a journey that takes place mostly in real time, with only a couple of time transitions. We travel around Earth three times, so in previs we planned our visuals with specific knowledge of where we’d be in orbit at any given point in the story, whether it was in sunlight or darkness.  We made adjustments in the screenplay as needed so we could be in the right place visually for particular moments in the story.

Would the IMAX/Discovery notion also inform your approach to sound in space? We have no sound in space, though there is music that emphasizes certain energies. I was very stubborn about wanting to play it straight with respect to the sound. We learned that in reality, vibrations could be transmitted through the spacesuit, so that permits us to hear whatever she is in contact with, like when she operates a drill. Then, when re-entry begins, you can also hear sounds, since you’re no longer in a vacuum when the flames and friction build up in the upper atmosphere.

Was there a particular aspect of Gravity that seemed matched for 3D? I thought it would help emphasize the reality of the moment and give a greater sense of depth to the feeling of being in space, but I wanted the process to remain decidedly unobtrusive. At first we thought about trying to shoot stereo. But with all of the technology needing to be invented for this film, plus the size of the camera, it just didn’t seem possible. Plus, it didn’t make a lot of sense to shoot 3D when so much was going to be CG, which was all going to be done in 3D. So we only performed conversion on the live action. The percentage we shot on stage would be such a small amount of the overall image that it made more sense to do that aspect as a conversion.

Did using robotics and motion control for so much of the camera movement limit the creative input of your operators? No, it was far from a mechanical process. The camera might be on a hothead and making a constant roll, and in order to give the performer a bit more flexibility with performance I’d need the camera to float a bit more than it had been programmed to do. It was very confusing to me that first day, because I couldn’t seem to explain how to get the camera moved over. Then Chivo came to me. “Alfonso, your camera left is only that direction when we’re straight up and down.” So the operators had to continually reinterpret directions depending on where the camera was in its arc, which meant the mental gymnastics required were just incredible, making the skill of the operators instrumental in the success of the shot.  Honestly, it was a pain to do all this. Well, it was easy for me [laughs]; but very difficult for everybody else, a very long four-and-a-half years.

That’s the same amount of time it took to do Kubrick’s 2001, to which this most certainly will be compared. 2001 is an amazing masterpiece on all levels: social, cinematic and technological, with amazing accuracy in its details. I think the span of time to make the two films is where the comparison between them ends, but thank you for mentioning it!

Photo courtesy of Julio Hardy / Warner Bros. Pictures