Few movies embrace modern cinema technology the way Gravity does, says Videep Vijay Kumar
With Gravity, director Alfonso Cuarón hasn’t simply created something entertaining — he’s managed to bring together great performances and blend them seamlessly with the best that movie technology and modern filmmaking techniques have to offer. Commercial success has followed, unsurprisingly, with the movie grossing nearly $300 million worldwide since release, all while sitting pretty at the top of the U.S. box office for three weeks in a row. “The biggest achievement of Gravity is not the special effects but the performances,” said Cuarón at a recent press conference in Mexico, but it’s not easy to ignore the incredible role played by visuals and audio in the experience. Gravity not only embraces technology, it also completely justifies the use of formats such as 3D, Dolby Atmos and IMAX, at times to create impact, while at times in the most subtle way imaginable.
3D, IMAX and Light
You can’t pick a better setting than space to showcase the effective use of 3D — Cuarón’s goal was to convey a sense of realistic depth rather than constantly fling objects in the faces of the audience (this is also done to great effect, incidentally). If there ever was a case for 3D, this is it. A large portion of the movie is CG, which meant that the visual effects team had to create most of it in 3D on computer, and merge it with the live action sections which were shot in 2D and then converted into 3D.
If 3D was used to create depth, then IMAX was used to give audiences a sense of the infinite vastness of space. Cuarón is of the view that there isn’t a format more immersive than IMAX — in fact, he used the IMAX film Hubble 3D as a reference to create authentic visual elements that audiences associated with space exploration, such as the Hubble telescope, International Space Station (ISS) and Space Shuttles (even though Shuttles are no longer in use today).
Light, which behaves differently in space, was another challenge that both Cuarón and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki were more than ready to tackle, quite literally by thinking inside the box. Utilising a combination of individually controllable LED lights (around 4,000 of them) and “virtual” computer generated light (the “real” light reflecting off the actors’ faces would need to match the CG light), the actors were filmed inside a cramped light box, using the strictly-digital Arri Alexa camera. The entire film had to be pre-visualised because of the technology being used and, as a result, everything (including camera movements in real and virtual spaces) had to be choreographed with a very high degree of precision to match the storyboarding and CG animation. If you ever felt that Sandra Bullock’s performance was “raw”, the fact that the majority of the principal photography took place inside a 10-by-10 foot box with hardly any visual cues or props probably had something to do with it.
The sound of space
Sound in space can only be transmitted by the interaction of elements, and to achieve a high level of authenticity, Cuarón and his sound department had to ensure it was captured correctly. To capture vibrations and not airborne audio, the sound team used transducer recordings, while all the voices in the movie were recorded in mono, captured on microphones in the pseudo spacesuits the actors used during filming. The level of microphone noise was regulated based on the demands of a particular scene — for instance, more noise would intentionally be inserted to create tension.
Positioning of sounds was critical to the experience of Gravity. Voices needed to be panned to give the audience a sense of where the characters were located in a scene (the pay-off is amazing in the movie’s first long shot and subsequently when all hell breaks loose). In addition to drawing focus on position, the audio pans also manage to convey a sense of un-tethered disorientation in a three-dimensional space — a feeling of floating around. And it’s not just the voices, it’s the music as well. Steven Price’s composed-for-surround score is best described by Cuarón himself: “You feel like you’re sitting in the centre of an orchestra”. Like the voices, the music floats around, conveying all sorts of emotions ranging from serenity and uneasiness to good old-fashioned fear, conveyed by overlapping pieces of music in a sort of controlled cacophony.
The Dolby Atmos surround sound platform was used to the fullest to achieve this. Dolby’s technology allows for placing sound objects in a virtual space — adjusting height and precise location. Installations in cinema screens feature speakers on all sides, including the ceiling, allowing filmmakers to literally produce sound from any part of the auditorium, creating immersion. “Dolby Atmos offers perfect separation, depth and full range of the speakers,” says Cuarón, and Gravity, without doubt, is one of the best examples of taking maximum advantage of the platform.