Oct. Movie Preview: 'Gravity'
How did Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) shoot the eye-popping, photo-realistic outer-space visuals for his new thriller, Gravity? Easy. ”We invested the money in one of these new private space programs, and we shot 200 kilometers above Earth,” says the director matter-of-factly. He pauses, then bursts out laughing. ”Oh my God. I was pulling your leg. I wish we could do that!”
As it turns out, the truth is only slightly less far-fetched. To film the story of an astronaut (Sandra Bullock) stranded in space after losing sight of her ship and co-pilot (George Clooney) during a deadly run-in with space debris, Cuarón invented his own state-of-the-art system for simulating zero g: He shot his actors with a computer-controlled camera inside a nine-foot-tall cube of LED screens that projected shifting lights on their faces. Since 85 percent of the film’s shots involved CGI and were mapped out in ”previz” (industry slang for a computer-animated blueprint), the actors had to match their movements precisely to Cuarón’s preplanned vision — all while suspended in mechanical rigs that created the illusion of weightless floating. ”It was ‘You have 17 seconds to execute [this movement],”’ recalls Bullock. ” ‘Your left hand has to start here, your right hand has to end up here, and you have to move at 30 percent as though you’re in zero g. And your inner emotional life has to be completely organic.’ And you’re like [deep breath], ‘Okay.”’
Of course, all that accuracy would be useless if Bullock couldn’t bring just as much realism to the emotional arc of her character, a scientist still mourning the loss of her child when disaster strikes in space. Cuarón says that one meeting with the Oscar winner was all it took to convince him that she had the guts to tackle one of the most intense roles of her career. ”I talked to people who just wanted to play a big heroic thing or a kick-ass action character, or whatever,” says Cuarón. (Angelina Jolie was reportedly attached to the role, and Natalie Portman was in talks at one point.) ”Sandra understood the thematic elements of rebirth.”
For Bullock, the psychological demands of the part were nearly as grueling as the physical ones. ”Here’s a woman who has lost her child — no parent wants to put themselves in that thought process,” says the actress, who adopted her son, Louis, in 2010.
And putting herself in the mind of an astronaut is as close as Bullock ever plans to get to actual space travel. ”I’m sure it would be amazing once you got up there, but just getting onto an American Airlines flight gives me panic,” she says with a laugh. ”You know, I like being on the ground.”