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GRAVITY

Robotics, Rigs and Flying by Wire
While the Light Box solved some technical issues, it also posed the question of how to film the actors inside, without compromising its function. They had to devise a camera that would be small enough and flexible enough to fit inside a two-foot gap and then move as directed.

Once again, necessity was the mother of invention for Cuaron and his team. The production utilized robots -- the type used in automobile manufacturing -- from a company called Bot & Dolly. A customized motion-controlled camera head was fixed to the end of the large robotic arm, which extended to position the camera inside the box at different speeds. Multiple axes provided the filmmakers with the ability to adjust the pan, tilt and roll of the camera via computer controls.

Cuaron comments, "The robot camera gave us unparalleled accuracy and consistency. Once the shot was programmed into the computer, the camera would hit the same spot on every take."

The mobility of the lights and cameras did not mean the actors could remain stationary while everything revolved around them. In the floor of the Light Box the special effects team installed a turntable on which they could assemble an assortment of rigs that twisted, turned and lifted the actors, depending on the needs of the scene.

"It was very versatile," Manex Efrem says. "We had one configuration that was relatively gentle, called the 'heart-to-heart' rig, which allowed Sandra and George to interact face to face while turning through space. Then there was the 'tilt-plus' rig, which was like putting them in a gyroscope."

The tilt-plus rig resembled a cone of concentric metal rings encircling the body from the waist down. Once the actor was secured, the rig lived up to its name, turning and tilting them at extreme angles and at different speeds. However, it had to stop short of completely inverting the person since "it would put an obvious strain on the body that would ruin the appearance of weightlessness," Efrem explains.

The semblance of weightlessness was key to the film. Executive producer Nikki Penny states, "One of the biggest challenges in making 'Gravity' was gravity; in other words, how to create the illusion of a lack of gravity and maintain it throughout."

Different techniques of simulating anti-gravity were employed for different sequences, including a variety of rigs, as well as some traditional wire work. But for several scenes -- including one where Ryan is traveling through the passageways of the ISS -- it, in fact, took a great deal of effort to make her appear to glide effortlessly.

Conventional wires were not an option because they did not give the impression of floating that the filmmakers were after. To accomplish that, special effects supervisor Neil Corbould developed a breakthrough 12-wire system that could either be operated manually or remotely controlled by way of a computerized miniature replica of the 12-wire mechanism.

The dozen individual wires triangulated down from a complex pulley system called the head, with each of the wires having its own motor and capstan, which is a kind of spool. The wires were strung down and attached to an ultra-thin carbon fiber harness that had been molded to Bullock's body and could be invisibly worn under even a tank top and shorts. Three wires on each side were fastened at her shoulders and three on each side were fastened at her hips, all to suspend her in air with no pendulum effect.

Ten months in the making, the intricate 12-wire system was equipped with separate servos that could propel Bullock in any direction or angle her up or down. It could also move at quite a clip -- up to 75 meters per second -- although, in the interest of safety, the drives were programmed automatically to shut down if it started to go too fast or put too much torque on the body.

The 12-wire apparatus resembled a marionette -- albeit a very high-tech one -- so the production brought in some of the best puppeteers in the business to man the controls. Robin Guiver, Avye Leventis and Mikey Brett had been among the artists who brought to life the title character in the award-winning play "War Horse." On the "Gravity" set, they helped Bullock fly.

Guiver notes, "It's very counterintuitive for human beings to be weightless, but in the world of puppets, we are able to break the laws of physics in graceful and expressive ways. We were applying the same skills to this task -- finding a freedom of movement that would not otherwise be possible."

Bullock says she and the puppeteering team cultivated both trust and an instinctive connection over the course of filming. "We got into a nice sync where they could tell the instant I turned my head which direction I wanted to go. They are true masters of the art."

The wires and rigs could suspend and support Bullock, but she was aware that spending hours on end in them, day in and day out, would be physically demanding. To prepare, she engaged in an intense training regimen that began in the months leading up to production and continued throughout filming. "I pushed my body to the extreme," she reveals. "Strength-wise, I had to know I could do anything Alfonso asked of me at any given point, so not a day went by that we didn't train. It was part of what I could contribute to what these brilliant minds built to execute Alfonso's extraordinary story."

The actress also worked closely with movement coach Francesca Jaynes, who helped teach her to move as if in zero-g. The two watched footage of real astronauts, noting how every motion appears more measured. Jaynes says, "The speed at which you move in space has a rhythm that's more balletic."

That rhythm presented a different kind of challenge for Bullock: she had to move more slowly but speak in a normal cadence, a disconnect that is harder than it sounds. "It's not how your brain would naturally talk and move," she relates. "I had to retrain my body to react in the way it would react in space. Every single part of my being had to be used to execute zero gravity in a way that was poetic and lyrical."

That goal is perhaps best reflected in a shot of Ryan in the airlock of the ISS. The sequence was one of the most intricate to film, requiring the synchronization of three robots: one with a revolving camera; a second holding the main light source, representing the sunlight streaming in; and a third that caused the air lock porthole to circle around the back wall, adding to the perception of rotation. Amidst the cutting-edge mechanics, there was also a very human element to the making of the scene. Under Cuaron's direction, Bullock -- who was secured by only one leg to a special bicycle seat rig -- had to time her movements perfectly while smoothly transitioning her upper body and free leg without the aid of wires or puppeteers.

The result is a moment that is breathtaking in every sense of the word -- one that, without a word, fluently expresses the film's central theme of rebirth.

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