Filmmakers have played with gravity for long time, from Fred Astaire’s 1951 ceiling dance to the ill-fated space mission of Apollo 13 to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hallway fight in Inception. But when Argentine director Juan Solanas set out to make his romantic fantasy film Upside Down, he was presented with the challenge of filming a world not with zero gravity, but dual gravity.
Upside Down, which hit U.S. theaters this weekend, takes place on two planets that share the same atmosphere. Separate gravitational forces keep inhabitants of each on their own planet. The idea came to Solanas (who also wrote the script) as the image of two mountains facing each other, one jutting up from the ground and one down from the sky; a man on the lower mountain looks up and sees a woman standing on the other mountain. That image became the initial meeting place for Upside Down’s star-crossed lovers, Adam (Jim Sturgess) and Eden (Kirsten Dunst), who are kept apart by the governmental laws of both their worlds – and the law of gravity.
Creating a world with dual gravity where Adam attempts to visit Up Top (the richer planet that makes up the sky of his poorer Down Below) presented a slew of technical challenges to Solanas and his crew.
Sturgess had a lot of wire work to do in the film, often joined by Dunst. A few scenes had the two actors strapped together on wires that created the illusion of near-flight when Eden sits atop Adam’s shoulders, and the two characters bounce around Down Below much like they’re on the moon, as their gravitational forces nearly balance each other out. Sturgess found that shooting those scenes was a great way to get acquainted with his costar. “Because it’s quite technical, there’ll be long periods of time where you’re just stuck together, and you’re left hanging while everyone else is busy doing their business. So you get to know each other pretty quickly,” Sturgess says.
Dunst was already a wire-work veteran, from films like Spider-Man, in which audiences saw the now-iconic upside-down kiss that preceded some inverted smooching in Upside Down. The less-experienced Sturgess spent a month training on the wires — since he has more gravity-defying scenes — and recalls a steep learning curve. “It was a lot, lot harder than you can imagine when you watch it because it’s all set on timers,” the British actor says. “You can’t jump too early ’cause then you jump and the wire kind of pulls you. You can’t go too late because suddenly it looks like it yanks you up in the air. It’s very hard to make it not look like [you’re] being pulled around by wires.”
Adam and Eden find the curved rock face of the mountain where they meet to be the perfect place to rendezvous out of the sight of government authorities determined to keep them apart (see photo above). One scene depicts them clinging to each other, rotating in the air beneath that rock. Solanas said he considered shooting that scene underwater, and he also debated whether to have his team construct a rotisserie-like contraption to rotate the two actors, but “that doesn’t look so romantic,” Sturgess pointed out. Ultimately, that scene was shot with the mountain set reconstructed on its side; Sturgess and Dunst were back on the wires, which had them hanging from the ceiling, rotating them vertically.
Image credit: Millennium Entertainment[/caption]
Sturgess said the most challenging effects shot for him was the moment when Adam first travels to Up Top. While working at TransWorld — the one building that connects the two planets — Adam straps on heavy pieces of metal from Up Top (“inverse matter,” as it’s called in the film, which can weigh him down to the opposite world), and flips onto the ceiling of a storeroom. Solanas’ team achieved the shot with the same technique as Astaire’s dance across the walls and ceiling in Royal Wedding and as the hallway fight in Inception: the set for the storeroom rotated on a gimbal. (Upside Down actually had a little Inception blood in the family – the stunt coordinator for Solanas’ film, David McKeown, was a stunt performer in Christopher Nolan’s 2010 thriller.)
“I had to sort of go with the turning of the room, and at the last minute just flip myself and land on my feet,” Sturgess says. “It was not easy. There were a few takes when I didn’t quite make it, and I’d land on my neck. But it was cool to watch that in the film. I’m very proud of that scene.”
The trickiest scenes for the filmmakers were those that took place on floor “0” of TransWorld, the one floor of the building where residents of both worlds work on each other’s ceilings. Solanas says creating an organic feel for the film amid all the green screen and CGI was of the utmost importance to him. To do that, he knew he had to shoot scenes on floor “0,” where inhabitants of both worlds interact, in real-time. (See image below of Sturgess and James Kidnie, who plays Adam’s boss). Solanas wanted the actors to be able to shoot the scene at the same time so they would be able to play off of each other.
Image credit: Millennium Entertainment[/caption]
“How can I do that in real-time?” Solanas recalls asking himself. “You cannot have Jim [actually on the ceiling] because he’ll fall. I thought, ‘If I don’t find a way to shoot a double gravity set in real-time, I don’t want to do the movie.’”
Previous technology had made it possible for filmmakers on past productions to program movements into a camera or to have a camera mimic its own movements from an earlier take — as in Back to the Future Part II when Michael J. Fox shot a scene three times as three different characters. But the Upside Down crew found themselves searching for a way to have one camera (controlled manually by crew, not by computer with pre-programmed movements) film one actor, while another camera on the other nearby set mimics its exact movements in real-time.
The filmmakers developed camera technology that made it possible to shoot both actors in floor “0” scenes at the same time in a moving shot. Sturgess and Kidnie — or Timothy Spall, who also acted opposite Sturgess in many TransWorld scenes — would be on separate sets on one stage. The new technology ensured that the position of the cameras on both twin sets remained in sync; a “master” camera on a dolly was linked to and controlled a “slave” camera on the other set.
But the Upside Down team had another hurdle to leap: In initial footage, it did not look like the two characters were really looking at one another. Second unit director and cinematographer Mario Janelle, whom the director affectionately describes as “a crazy inventor,” came up with the system that solved the eye-line problem. The crew positioned a monitor above each actor’s head to display their costar whenever he was sitting. But when he walked around the set, a laser on a tarp above his fellow actor indicated where he stood.
“Tim [Spall] could move around, and I knew where he was going. I could follow the [laser] dot,” Sturgess says. “That was a really clever way of keeping it organic and having it not feel like you were so restricted. You could play around. If you wanted to sit down, you could sit down. If you wanted to suddenly get up on a particular line, you could do that, and [the other actor] could know what you were doing.”
As for being able to emotionally play off an actor who was on a separate set, Sturgess says that multiple rehearsal periods got him on the same page as Spall and Kidnie. When Solanas and his team finally put together those floor “0” scenes, he says “it was really magical.”
Sturgess, whose resume mostly features low-tech films like 21 and One Day, found two of his recent projects — Upside Down and last fall’s Cloud Atlas — to be eye-opening experiences as he learned more about special effects. “It was amazing being in a film where you were a very small piece in a much bigger wheel,” he says. “There were some amazingly talented technical people around you. And just living in their world, you were around artists in different ways, people who are just so creative at what they do in a completely different world to anything I know anything about.”
Upside Down opened in the U.S. for a limited release on March 15. The film opens in Argentina, Solanas’ home country, in July and in France, where much of the film’s crew is based, in May.
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