The Light Box
Over the course of previs, the filmmakers recognized a number of other obstacles that
would have to be addressed. In some cases, technology had to catch up with the ambitions of
the filmmakers for how they wanted to tell the story. One pioneering invention was the
brainchild of Lubezki and Webber: the Light Box.
Lubezki notes, "We had to solve a very complicated lighting situation, which became
clear during previs. Once we determined how the lights would affect the faces of the characters
in the computer, we had to be able to match it in order to composite the live action and
animation perfectly. I needed lights that could move fast and change colors in an instant."
As often happens, inspiration struck where Lubezki least expected it. He recounts, "I
was at a concert and noticed that the lighting director had cleverly used LEDs to create beautiful
lighting effects and projections. I got very excited because I knew that could be the answer for
us. The next day I called Alfonso and said, 'I think I've found a way to light the movie.'"
Lubezki contacted Webber and they started doing tests, which, the cinematographer
admits, were far from perfect. "There were glitches we had to sort out, like flicker and color hue
aberrations. I have to say, it was Tim who came up with solutions to all the problems and
brought the whole idea to life. Then Manex Efrem and his special effects guys built the box
based on the specifications of what Tim and I needed. It was a true team effort. And when the
Light Box came together, I knew it was not only going to be the way I could light 'Gravity,' but
would impact the way I light movies for years to come."
Standing on Stage R at London's Shepperton Studios, the finished Light Box was
constructed on a raised platform and stood over 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide. On one side,
steps led up to the sliding door that accessed the interior, and on the other was a gantry that connected the structure to its own "mission control" -- VFX technicians positioned at a bank of
computers. The glow from the monitors was the only illumination, apart from the Light Box
itself, permitted on the soundstage.
"It's quite a feat of geometry," Efrem describes. "We built it so they could change the
shape: bring in the walls, bring the ceiling down or change the configuration of the floor. Some
of the individual panels were also hinged to allow them to open and close."
The interior of the box was comprised of 196 panels, each measuring approximately two
feet by two feet and fitted with 4,096 LED bulbs, which could cast whatever light or colors were
needed and alter them at any speed.
Webber expounds, "They essentially worked like the pixels on a TV screen or a
computer monitor. The terrific thing about the Light Box was that it didn't just give us the ability
to make lighting adjustments in a way that would be physically impossible otherwise, it enabled
us to add a huge amount of complexity to the lighting, with subtle variations to both color and
The added advantage was that any image could be projected onto the walls, whether the
planet Earth, the International Space Station (ISS) or the distant stars, "giving the actor the
perspective of what their character was seeing," Webber continues. "It was primarily so we
could reflect the appropriate light on them, but it had the double benefit of being a visual
reference for them, too."
The filmmakers had to take into consideration where characters were in relation to the
globe in determining the shade and brightness of the Earth's bounce light. Cuaron says, "As
much as possible, we tried to follow a course that made sense in terms of sunrises and sunsets
and day into night, as well as the different environments -- from the blueness of the Pacific, to
the concentration of city lights, to the northern lights over the Arctic. We cheated a bit because
we wanted to create an eloquent voyage that captures the breathtaking beauty of our planet."
Fortunately, as Webber relates, they had the best possible reference material. "We
were very lucky that NASA was willing to share much of the information they've gathered,
particularly in the form of photographs and film footage. Astronauts actually make very good
photographers; we got some truly stunning images. We would look at the time lapse shots they
did from the ISS and say, 'Gosh, if we did something like that, no one would believe it was real.'
It was just so amazing."
Bullock offers, "What blew me away is how they are able to show this world of ours to
the viewer. I'd never seen it like that before and felt guilty that I had never appreciated it as
much as I do now."
The actress spent many days within the confines of the Light Box, which Cuaron says, in
some ways, mirrored the solitude of her character. "She was essentially on her own inside this
cube, secluded from the rest of the people on the set, with projections of the Sun and the Moon
and planet Earth rotating around her. It was interesting because we had been concerned about
how long we were going to be isolating her, but Sandra applied that creatively and was able to
convey some of her own experience at that point."
"There was no human connection, other than the voices coming through my little earwig,
which helped because it made me feel so alone," Bullock attests. "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.'"
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