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GRAVITY

About the Production
At 600km above planet Earth, the temperature fluctuates between +258 and -148 degrees Fahrenheit.

There is nothing to carry sound.

No air pressure.

No oxygen.

Life in space is impossible.

"I have always had a fascination with space and space exploration," states Alfonso Cuaron, the director, producer and co-writer of the dramatic thriller "Gravity." He continues, "On the one hand, there is something mythical and romantic about the idea of separating yourself from Mother Earth. But in many ways, it doesn't make sense to be out there when life is down here."

Right now, orbiting hundreds of miles above the Earth, there are people working in a place where there is very little separation between life and death. The inherent dangers of spaceflight have grown in the decades since we first began venturing beyond our own atmosphere...and those increasing dangers are manmade. The refuse from past missions and defunct satellites has formed a debris field that can cause disaster in an instant. NASA has even given the scenario a name: the Kessler Syndrome.

David Heyman, who produced "Gravity" with Cuaron, attests, "This is a real issue. Every screw or piece of junk that has been dropped or left behind is orbiting at an incredible speed and if, or when, they collide, they create still more debris. It is life-threatening for the astronauts, the spacecrafts and possibly for us here on Earth, too."

Starring in "Gravity" as novice astronaut Ryan Stone, Sandra Bullock learned about the problem from those most affected by it. She offers, "I used to think that astronauts wanted to go into space for the thrill and adventure. When I spoke to them though, I was so moved by their deep, deep love of that world and the beauty of Earth from their perspective, seeing the oceans and mountain ranges and the lights of the cities. It's amazing to realize how small we are in this massive universe."

George Clooney, who co-stars with Bullock, adds, "I grew up with the space race; I am a child of that era. I have always loved the idea of space exploration and am in awe of the people who do it. They really are the last of the great pioneers."

But that exploration has also had its consequences. Bullock affirms, "It is heartbreaking to think about not only the destruction of this planet, but also about what we don't see: the trash that is literally orbiting above us."

That premise becomes the catalyst for a harrowing fight for survival in "Gravity," which transports you into the awe-inspiring but forbidding vacuum of space.

The film opens in the silent abyss above the Earth's atmosphere, where the Shuttle Explorer is in orbit. Mission Specialist Ryan Stone, attached to a robotic arm, is installing a new scanning system on the Hubble Telescope. Dr. Stone's obvious discomfort in zero gravity is in stark contrast to Mission Commander Matt Kowalski's apparent ease. On his final voyage into space, Kowalski, played by Clooney, is having a fine time testing the mettle of a new jet pack that lets him fly unrestrained by the usual tethers.

On the other side of the planet, the intentional demolition of an obsolete satellite has sent sharp fragments hurtling into space, setting off a chain reaction that puts the fast-growing debris field on a collision course with Explorer. The inescapable impact is catastrophic, destroying the shuttle and leaving Stone and Kowalski as the lone survivors. All communication with Mission Control has been lost...and, with it, any chance of rescue. Adrift in the void, the two must find a way to see past their own limitations and escape their inertia if they are ever going to get back to Earth.

"Gravity" was co-written by Alfonso Cuaron and his son, Jonas, marking their first official collaboration. "I was inspired by Jonas's ideas for the movie," Alfonso says. "I was very intrigued by his sense of pace in a life-or-death situation that dealt primarily with a single character's point of view. But, at the same time, placing the story in space immediately made it more expansive and offered immense metaphorical possibilities."

Jonas Cuaron adds, "The concept of space was interesting to us both; it is a setting where there is no easy way to survive, thousands of miles from what we call home, so it was perfect for a movie about surmounting adversities and having to find your way back. We also wanted it to be a realistic story, which required us to do extensive research to become familiar with space exploration in order to depict a plausible scenario."

Early on, Alfonso Cuaron reached out to producer David Heyman, with whom he had collaborated on "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." Heyman says he relished the opportunity to work with the director again. "I was so honored when he asked me to get involved. Alfonso is one of the great filmmakers, a man of endless creativity and imagination. He is so inspiring and just makes everybody around him better at what they do.

"What I loved about the script was that it was in certain ways a genre film, and yet it was so much more," Heyman continues. "How could I not leap at it? Then the practical reality of what making the film would entail began to set in."

The filmmakers soon discovered that they would need to push the boundaries of moviemaking to tell a story that transpires wholly in zero gravity. "I have to say that I was a bit naïve; I thought making the film would be a lot simpler," Cuaron admits. "Yes, I knew it would require a certain amount of tricks, but it was not until we started trying conventional techniques that I realized in order to do the film the way I wanted to do it, we were going to have to create something entirely new."

To accomplish that, Cuaron called upon cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber of Framestore. "From the get-go, Chivo, Tim and I decided we wanted everything to look like we took our camera into space. That would have been my dream, but, of course, that's not feasible," Cuaron smiles.

Simply put -- though there was nothing simple about it -- the filmmakers did not want anything akin to a sci-fi fantasy world, but rather to depict the stark realities of being marooned in the harshest environment known to mankind.

That objective turned out to be a game changer.

The filmmakers invented entire systems to generate the illusion of being in space in ways that were both totally convincing and utterly visceral.

Webber had suggested to the director that the only way to do it right was to create a completely virtual setting. Cuaron reveals, "I was initially skeptical; I wanted to achieve as much practically as possible. But after testing different technologies, it was clear that Tim was right."

As a result, "Gravity" is a hybrid of live-action, computer animation and CGI, with sets, backgrounds and even costumes rendered digitally.

The most crucial element in conveying the sensation of being in space was replicating zero gravity. Given Cuaron's preference for long, fluid shots, the tried-and-true method of traditional wires was not viable, nor was the use of gravity-defying parabolas in the aptly named "vomit comet" -- a plane that climbs and then plummets, causing momentary weightlessness. The director elaborates, "With wires, you can see the strain on the actor; gravity is still pulling everything down. And the vomit comet only works for takes that are a few seconds long, and also not everyone copes very well with it."

Instead, the filmmakers employed a combination of groundbreaking techniques to bring the characters -- and, by extension, the audience -- into the breathtaking realm of space. Wires were used, but veteran special effects supervisor Neil Corbould and his team devised a unique 12-wire rig, which, with the help of expert puppeteers, enabled them to "float" Bullock for specific sequences.

For other scenes, the actors were secured onto specialized rigs that could rotate or tilt them at different angles. Cuaron and Lubezki were able to take advantage of more extreme angles with cameras mounted on giant computer-controlled robot arms, the type used in automobile manufacturing.

Perhaps the most ingenious new tool was a set piece dubbed the "Light Box," which was conceived by Lubezki and Webber. Resembling a hollow cube, its interior walls were made up of large, flat panels, each fitted with thousands of tiny LED lights. As its name suggests, the purpose of the Light Box was to cast the appropriate illumination on the character, even, for example, in the pulse-pounding scene in which Ryan is spinning uncontrollably through space. With conventional lighting, that effect would have been impossible.

The lights, robot-mounted cameras and tilt rigs could all be synched with the aid of computers, allowing Cuaron and his colleagues, in essence, to move the universe around the actors, thereby giving the impression that the characters are moving through the universe. Through being the operative word.

"Gravity" had been envisioned from the beginning as a 3D cinematic experience. Jonas Cuaron says, "The concept was always to do this movie in 3D because we wanted people to be truly immersed in the imagery as well as the narrative."

That said, Alfonso Cuaron emphasizes, "We didn't want it to be 3D for the sake of things flying in your face. We tried to be subtle...to let you feel like you're inside the journey."

Despite all the technological breakthroughs developed in making "Gravity," the journey that remained the most vital to the cast and filmmakers was the personal one at the heart of the story -- particularly that of Ryan, who is alone for a large part of the film.

Bullock remarks, "I think it's a story about what makes us try when it seems there is no light at the end of the tunnel. What is it that makes you go that extra step just in case it was worth the effort to try?"

"It is very much a woman's passage from a place of loss and being in an emotionally numb state to a place where she rediscovers her purpose and reason for life...and then fights for it," Heyman adds.

"So for us," Jonas Cuaron offers, "the meaning of 'Gravity' isn't just what keeps your feet on the ground. It's the force that is constantly pulling you back home."

The director affirms, "Throughout the film there are constant visual references of Earth as this beautiful, nurturing place. And floating above it is a woman who is cut off from her nurturing self. We wanted to explore the allegorical potential of a character in space who is spiraling further into the void, a victim of her own inertia, moving away from Earth, where life and human connections reside. Amidst all the tools and effects, we were always clear that Ryan's struggle is a metaphor for anyone who has to overcome adversity in life and get to the other side. It is a journey of rebirth."

In casting Ryan, who is in nearly every frame of the film, Cuaron knew he needed an actress who could handle both the physical and psychological demands of the role, which were equally daunting. He found her in Sandra Bullock, whom Heyman calls "a brilliant actor working at the height of her powers. She brought such truth and conviction to her performance."

When we meet Mission Specialist Ryan Stone, she is all business, concentrating on the task at hand and not engaging in the playful exchange between the other astronauts and Mission Control. Even Matt Kowalski's unending tall stories -- all-too-familiar to those back in Houston -- fail to distract Ryan as she works to implement her new scanning system on the Hubble Telescope. However, her focus and detachment are not driven by the job but by a personal tragedy.

"Ryan suffered a devastating loss," says Bullock. "When I started delving into the character, I had to ask myself what I would do, and I'd probably do exactly the same thing she did. She withdrew. When Alfonso and I started talking about the character, it was clear we shared an understanding of her and also had the same questions. Why do we retreat when tragedy strikes, when being with others is what can save you? How often are we hit by life and won't ask for help? In a way, what Ryan goes through is a compelling allegory for 'Be careful what you wish for.' She wanted to be alone and she got it."

"One of the major themes of the film is that element of isolation," Cuaron relates. "But it can be very scary for an actor to spend huge chunks of screen time on her own, not interacting with another human being. Sandra and I had many discussions about finding the balance between what she would say or not say, or by what actions she would express what Ryan is feeling. We agreed there should be a level of ambiguity to her character, but we also needed to anchor her emotionally. I think Sandra dug into some really dark corners to deliver what she did in her performance. I was more than thrilled and extremely grateful to her."

Bullock has equal praise for her director. "It was the most collaborative experience I've ever had. I've admired Alfonso for so long, but working with him exceeded all my expectations. He is a master filmmaker and collaborator, who makes everyone around him want to give their best. He's also an extraordinary human being...I mean, someone who is not involved emotionally, philosophically and spiritually could not have made something so profound."

While aspects of her character evolved through Bullock's conversations with the director, there were several constants that remained, beginning with Ryan being female. Jonas Cuaron says, "It was always important to us that the central character be a woman, because we felt there was an understated but vital correlation of her being a maternal presence against the backdrop of Mother Earth."

Apart from that, the screenwriters needed Ryan to be an untested astronaut, who was there for her scientific expertise. "She, of course, had some training," Jonas notes, "but she is a mission specialist, not a pilot, so when the shuttle is destroyed, she is unprepared to deal with such an extreme situation."

The elder Cuaron observes, "The thing about adversities is that they take us out of our comfort zone. In order to do that with Ryan, we needed her to be new to spaceflight. But for the rest to make sense, we also needed a mentor figure -- someone who could guide her through the process and help her figure things out."

In "Gravity," that mentor is Matt Kowalski, portrayed by George Clooney, who says he had a list of reasons for wanting to do the film, starting with the script. "I loved the screenplay, which is the first reason you ever want to make a film if you're an actor. And I liked the character a lot; I thought he would be fun to play."

Clooney continues that "Gravity" also presented the chance to team with two people he admires greatly. "Sandy and I have been good friends for very long time, but we never found the right vehicle for us to do something together. I have always had tremendous respect for her, and I couldn't ask for a better partner to act with. And I think Alfonso Cuaron is one of the most interesting and talented directors we have. I honestly thought 'Children of Men' was a masterpiece, and have wanted to work with him. So everything about this seemed like a great opportunity to me, and I was proud to be a part of it." >{? Cuaron describes Clooney's character as "the counterpart to Ryan. Matt is very much at ease in that environment; he is as expansive as Ryan is insulated. If you were going into space, Matt is the guy you would want with you."

Those on the set felt the same way about the man. "George is a life force," states Bullock. "In many respects, he does parallel his character because Matt is the one who breathes life into every single moment; he loves nothing more than seeing the world from the vantage point of space. But what's so electric about George isn't just his face, it's his voice. He has that voice that makes you feel like he's a friend; he's someone who has been there and can make you believe everything is going to be okay. It's like that for Ryan with Matt. And that's how George is to work with...until he starts causing trouble and then you have to watch your back every minute," she teases.

Clooney's practical jokes have, in fact, become the stuff of Hollywood legend, but the parameters established by the production's technology forced something of a moratorium. "It required a certain discipline because of all the elements that were already in place," the actor acknowledges. "So I just put myself in the hands of the smartest guys in the room, beginning with Alfonso. But working with Sandy made it fun, so there was truly a lot of laughing."

Heyman comments, "Both Sandra and George have a wicked sense of humor and were playing off each other. No one was safe from their ribbing. It was such a pleasure working with these two actors. They are not only totally committed and immeasurably gifted, but respectful of everyone and truly a joy."

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