Director's Chair: Alfonso Cuaron - 'Gravity'
Issue: November 1, 2013

Director's Chair: Alfonso Cuaron - 'Gravity'

HOLLYWOOD — Acclaimed Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron has tackled a lot of different projects — and subject matter — from the beloved children’s book “A Little Princess” (his 1995 American feature film debut) to Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” the raunchy sex comedy Y Tu Mama Tambien, franchise blockbuster Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and the sci-fi drama Children of Men. Along the way he picked up three Oscar nominations and also found time to produce pal Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.

Now the versatile director/writer/producer/editor has headed out to the ultimate frontier, space, for his latest film, the hit 3D thriller Gravity. Co-written and produced by Cuaron, and starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, Gravity tells the story of two astronauts on a routine shuttle mission who suddenly find themselves fighting for their lives after space debris destroys their ride home and leaves them stranded with no chance for rescue. As fear turns to panic, every gulp of air eats away at what little oxygen is left.

To create the stunning photo-realism of Gravity, Cuaron assembled a behind-the-scenes team that included multiple Oscar-nominated director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, The New World), editor Mark Sanger (VFX editor on Children of Men) and Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor Tim Webber (The Dark Knight). 

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Cuaron talks about making the film (released by Warner Bros. in 3D, 2D and IMAX), the challenges involved and his love of post.

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make? 
ALFONSO CUARON: “One that’s a visual roller-coaster ride but also a very emotional ride. I wanted to weave the two thematic elements together. I wanted it to be a totally immersive experience, where audiences are really invested in the emotional journey of the film.”

POST: You wrote this with your son Jonas. Did you realize at the time just how difficult you made it for yourselves, setting the story in zero gravity?
CUARON: (Laughs) “No, not at all. This was a huge miscalculation. When we finished the screenplay I sent it to DP Emmanuel Lubezki, who’s done two films with me, and I told him, ‘We can do this in just one year. It’ll need a lot of VFX, but I think we can do it in a very conventional way.’ And it wasn’t until we started prepping it that we realized we had to start from scratch and invent our own technology to create all the zero gravity scenes. It ended up taking us four-and-a-half years to make it in the end.”

POST: Did you always envision this as a stereo 3D film?
CUARON: “From the very start. The working title was Gravity; A Space Adventure in 3D. I knew we had to design and shoot it all in 3D to do it justice.”

POST: What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together and how tough was the shoot?
CUARON: “The biggest one, of course, was creating zero gravity. Normally, we’re bound by gravity and we had to create the whole illusion, even though we obviously couldn’t shoot in space. We first tried using conventional techniques, but they didn’t work. First, it’s very stressful for the actors and you can’t really create zero gravity here on Earth. And then we were also using very long, continuous takes — for over 60 percent of the whole film. So that made it even more complex. We shot it all at Shepperton Studios in London, and on location in Lake Powell, Arizona, and the studio part was incredibly challenging. I don’t think anyone’s ever done anything as complicated.”

POST: How much technology did you have to invent to pull this off?
CUARON: “Everything, and it all had to be pre-programmed. We used these special 12-wire rigs to ‘float’ the actors and then we fed all that pre-programmed data into robots used for making cars on assembly lines. One robot had the camera, and the others had all the lights. The DP and Tim [visual effects supervisor Tim Webber] invented this amazing tool full of LED lights we called The Light Box. It was a nine-foot square empty cube, and all the inner walls were made of LEDs and screens, with millions of these tiny lights. Those projected the POV of the characters, so we’d have our actor in the middle and the walls would be the environment around them, so we could move the universe around them, instead of the other way, to give the illusion they were floating in space or wherever.”

POST: How early did you have to integrate post into the shoot? It sounds like you began before you even started shooting?
CUARON: “Right, and it was very strange as we actually needed to complete post before we even started pre-production. We had to do very precise animation for the whole film, with perfect lighting and rendering. Most of the film’s lighting was done virtually, so the DP was working on just the lighting effects for almost two years. Then some of the rendering started every scene’s prep work. Now once we’d shot the film and had all the pieces, the problem was that it’s a worst-case scenario for animation, as it’s animation that’s then bounded by live actors. Then it was also a worst-case scenario for a shoot, as it was filming that was completely pre-programmed by animation. And then it was also a worst-case scenario for a VFX film, as you had to put together all the animation and very precise performances by the actors, and then blend them seamlessly in terms of rendering both the objects and the light. And that whole process took two years.”

POST: Do you like the post process? 
CUARON: “I love it, and I love all the stages of the whole filmmaking process, but I’d never gone through a post experience like this before. It was totally unconventional, and at times a little frustrating as progress is so, so slow and labor-intensive. It was also quite scary, because we developed all the technology and had these prototypes, and it was all theoretical. It wasn’t until we had all the final rendering — maybe three years into the process — that we finally knew that the theory worked. Sometimes we didn’t know if we’d just completely wasted every penny and whether the result would be a complete fiasco?”

POST: Where did you do the post? 
CUARON: “We did it all in London at Framestore with Tim, and they were totally amazing. This film is a testament to their hard work and innovative technology. Then we did all the sound and mixing at De Lane Lea in London, and finally came back to LA to do the big Dolby Atmos mix on the lot at Warners.”

POST: The film was edited by you, along with editor Mark Sanger. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked. Was he on-set?
CUARON: “Depending where we shot we’d have a cutting room on the set. But we didn’t have that luxury when we did a couple of scenes at Pinewood, and then for all the location work. There were so many technical aspects to prep before we even began making creative decisions, and Mark took care of most of that. And then we’d sit down later together to do the actual creative editing.”

POST: There’re obviously a huge number of visual effects shots in the film — fair to say it’s one big VFX shot? What was your approach to dealing with them with Tim Webber?
CUARON: “You’re exactly right, as every single frame is a visual effect. There’s not one frame without VFX. Some are incredibly complicated, and some are less so. Tim, the DP and myself conceptually created all the technology to do it, and Tim is a genius — not just with technology, but he’s also an artist. So Tim was very involved right from the start through the four-plus years, creating the technology and figuring out just how to achieve every moment we aimed for. So he was on the set and also working with the actors, to make sure it all went smoothly, because the lighting dictated the technology and vice versa. And in addition to Framestore, he brought in Rising Sun Pictures and Nhance to do some shots. So it was a very big collaboration.”

POST: What was the most difficult VFX sequence to do and why?
CUARON: “The whole film itself (laughs). Some sequences were just more time-consuming in terms of the rendering and number of elements, but others were more difficult from a conceptual standpoint. The scenes of space debris destroying the shuttle were very difficult, with lots of very complex simulations. But then a scene with just one character floating inside a capsule was also very tricky to do, and we ended up using these expert puppeteers to move and guide the actors in their rigs to simulate zero Gs.”

POST: Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?
CUARON: “Of course the irony is that there’s no sound in space at all, and we wanted to honor that and be realistic. So the only sound effects you hear in space are the ones where there’s interaction with our characters. So if they grab stuff or hit something, the vibrations will transmit to their ears. But the problem with being accurate is that if everything is virtually silent, then in a film that silence eventually loses its meaning and weight. So instead we used music to contrast with the silence, and built that up and then cut abruptly into silence again, to give the silence a bigger presence. And the music also helps to convey the psychological state of the characters, and it was specifically composed for the surround system, in a very dynamic way.”

POST: The DI must have been vital. How did that process help? 
CUARON: “It was crucial to the film and the last big link in the whole chain. Emmanuel worked for so long with Steve Scott at Technicolor in LA, and Steve came to London to work on it for a while, and then we completed it in LA. First Steve and the DP work on it, and then I join them, ‘til we get the look just right.”

POST: After all the initial hoopla about 3D there’s been a definite loss of interest in the format. How do you feel about it?
CUARON: “I can relate to the audience frustration because the truth is, most 3D films are just not designed to be 3D films. They’re commercial after-thoughts, and when you don’t design it in 3D from the start, you don’t exploit all the possibilities and it’s usually lame and visually jarring. And often projection isn’t very good either. Here, we created a 3D experience from start to finish, which is totally different and the right way to use 3D.”

POST: What’s next for you? 
CUARON: (Laughs) “I’m not sure, but I will never, ever do another space movie again. My next film will definitely have people who just walk.”