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
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
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
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
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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