How Did Gravity Do That? The Secrets Behind Its Groundbreaking Special Effects
The Lightbox To capture Bullock and Clooney's faces and bodies in the right light and from the right camera angles, the production team constructed what's probably their biggest innovation: The Lightbox. A 9x9x9 foot cube outfitted with 4,096 LED bulbs, the Lightbox could mimic the light effects from any given scene to allow shadows to play across Bullock's face. It also contained a rig to hold her in place and allow the camera-- often on that two-ton beast that Heyman mentioned, like the ones used to build cars-- to move entirely around her. "It would race up and down that track and the camera was on the end of that robot and around the head it was able to go 360." Though Bullock's character spends much of the film spinning in space, she could never actually go upside down; as Heyman explained to Film.com, "The camera was doing the movement, because, if she goes upside down, then you can see her face and her body straining, and the whole thing with zero G, there is no strain."
When working inside the Lightbox, which Bullock did way more often than Clooney, the actors were locked inside alone and communicating with Cuaron and the crew only through earpieces. "When Sandra was in the cube, she was completely insulated and all the communication was on radio, not unlike the astronauts talking to Houston," Cuaron told The Daily News. "And in between the setups, the process to get her in and out was so long that she chose just to stay there for hours and hours." As Bullock told Digital Trends, ""There was no human connection, other than the voices coming through my little earwig, which helped because it made me feel so alone. I’m glad it was done the way it was done, as whenever I started to become frustrated or lonely or at a loss, I was like, ‘just use it … use it.’"
Puppeteers Cuaron and Heyman imported the puppeteers behind the smash hit Broadway and West End productions of War Horse to achieve the scenes inside the space stations, where Bullock appears to be floating weightlessly from room to room. Movies like Apollo 13 achieved this effect with the "Vomit Comet", a NASA-outfitted plane that could send actors into free fall for 25 seconds, but Cuaron wanted longer takes, so he and the puppeteers came up with a system. Bullock was suspended from 12 carbon-thin wires, practically invisible onscreen, that were then manipulated by the puppeteers. Bullock explained the process in detail to Hitfix:
"Long story short, they had all these cameras taking pictures of my body. Created almost like a Xerox copying thing, a carbon fiber copy of my chest plate. Just breasts, rib cage that seamlessly placed over my body. I could put my clothes over it. It then had little hooks in it and I would lay down on a table, it was like an operating table, where all these technicians would come in and they would hook me up to the wires and strap my legs [into them]. And then they would lift me up and the puppeteers from War Horse were in the back puppeteering me. And then I had to move the body, do the swing and do everything myself while they would push me in one direction where zero g would push you, not where earth would push you. Everything was designed so I then had to react the way zero g is. It was the closest thing to feeling like I was flying making this movie, the 12-wire. It was painful, but it was so cool."
Why were the long takes worth it? Heyman explains, "Part of the immersive quality, I think comes from the lack of cuts. It’s in a way reminiscent of space footage that we grew up on in the ‘60s and ‘70s and even later, you know, when that was very much a part of our lives."
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