A large majority of the sets in "Gravity," including the passageways of the ISS and its air
lock, are virtual. Production designer Andy Nicholson remarks, "I was used to interfacing with
visual effects in terms of extending physical sets and generating background plates and so
forth. This was completely different for me because entire sets were fabricated only in the
computer, but we would need to achieve photorealistic details throughout."
Since the design team was largely replicating existing and well-documented structures,
Nicholson and his department engaged in extensive research. "Without the huge amount of
NASA photography and technical data in the public domain, nothing could have been as
detailed. We wanted to base as much on fact as possible and then adapt as needed," he says.
Nicholson began designing during the previs stage, where, he says, "we would start by
developing the CG environments in a basic blocking manner. We then got feedback on what
worked and what didn't and we'd take that, roll it back and make the changes. Anything Alfonso
approved, we would move forward on, all leading to the final 'build,' which was done by
Supervising art director Mark Scruton recalls, "It was hard at first to get our heads
around designing things that would only ever be CG but that had to look like the real deal. We
also realized that many of these things are in the public consciousness, which meant getting
everything as bang-on accurate as we possibly could. We wanted it to look like we actually
went to the shuttle or the ISS."
Each of the hundreds of props, from large hand tools to the smallest bolt, was
painstakingly studied and designed and then computer-modeled, generating a library of props
that could then be used to digitally "dress" the sets. Taking into consideration that the ISS has
been occupied by people of different nationalities, Nicholson added a few subtle touches to the
set to reflect their diverse cultures.
They also had to reflect the fact that, even in space, there is wear and tear. "The space
station has been continually occupied for almost 13 years so there are sections, inside and out,
that show their age. We incorporated a degree of texture in the design and passed the
information to the texture artists at Framestore. Every surface you see has a tremendous
amount of layered detail, even if you're just moving past it," says Nicholson.
Equal attention to detail went into all the physical sets built for the production, including
the Russian Soyuz space capsule. Nicholson confirms, "We found enough reference material to
do a pretty faithful reproduction of the real Soyuz capsule, with a few intentional departures, like the side hatch. We were fortunate to get excellent guidance from real astronaut Andy Thomas,
who taught us about the Soyuz computer interface and commands and about many of the
internal features of the capsule. It was crucial for us to understand as much as we could about
the way everything worked."
Bullock had the same questions. "I wanted to know exactly how they operated and what
would happen when I hit a certain button," she remembers. "Everybody was very dedicated to
making sure everything we did looked authentic."
The Soyuz capsule set was built in segments to accommodate long, continuous shots,
including a pivotal conversation between Ryan and Kowalski. Scruton illustrates, "We had five
sections of the set on individual tracks so as the scene progressed, each piece would be moved
out of the way to let the camera travel past. Then, on cue, each section would be quietly slid
back for when the camera looked back at where it had just come from."
Nicholson adds, "It was complicated because it was a lot of camera movement in a very
small space. For some shots we had up to 16 people quietly pushing pieces of the capsule in
and out, choreographed precisely to the camera. It took a while to figure out and carefully
rehearse each shot."
Like Nicholson, costume designer Jany Temime had to approach her work from both
virtual and practical perspectives. The spacesuits in which we first see Ryan and Kowalski are
computer animated. Temime says, "That was entirely new for me. I still got hold of the fabric so
I could see the color and get the feel because it would be impossible for me to just work in the
Even in a virtual world, the color of the spacesuits proved problematic because "white is
the trickiest color to light," Temime clarifies. "Nevertheless, it had to stay white because the
NASA suit is white and that was very important. We experimented with different shades of
white and ended up lining the outer layer with gray, which solved the problem."
While staying true to the color, Temime admits she did take a bit of dramatic license with
the shape of the suit. "It has a slightly better shape with a little more waist and longer legs;
otherwise, it would be a big, formless bag. It's only little details, but they make a big difference.
You pinch a little here, pull up a bit there, and it works like magic."
The genuine NASA spacesuits are not only extremely bulky but incredibly heavy, with
multiple layers of protective materials and systems for temperature control and to provide
oxygen. All of that is necessary for survival in the vacuum of space, but on terra firma, it would
have been unbearably cumbersome for Bullock and Clooney to perform in them.
Instead, the actors wore proxy suits. Temime describes, "They were overall the right
color and fabric so the effect of light on them would be the same. Under that, they wore
restriction suits, which is something we specially created to constrain the actors' mobility and
give them a sense of the volume."
The idea of lead modeler Pierre Bohanna, the restriction suit was lightweight, with
elasticized tubing that could be expanded to impede the flexibility of the actors. Bohanna says,
"We talked to astronauts who told us that the real suit puts constant stress on the body; it's like
being inside a tire. We wanted to create something that approximated the same feeling, so, for
example, as George and Sandra are moving their arms around, there's a limit to how far they
can go. It gives them something to push against and interpret what it would be like wearing a
spacesuit without just having to try and remember to physically inhibit their movements."
The actors also wore proxy helmets, which were replaced via CGI to the design
specifications of Temime, in collaboration with Cuaron. Differing from the real thing, subtle
changes were made to the shape and size to make them more proportional to the faces but still
The visors of the helmets were entirely CG, and Tim Webber says that one of his biggest
challenges was rendering the mist from the characters' breaths on those visors. "We had to
time it to how fast they were breathing and watch where the head was facing in relation to the
visor. In reality, you wouldn't see as much breath on the visor because the systems in the suits
keep the air very dry, but for us it was a visual indication of their tension."
Unlike the NASA suits, the less bulky Russian spacesuit worn by Ryan was an actual
costume, made from an industrial fabric. There was also no issue with the color. Temime
notes, "We dyed it a beige with a hint of green. We went through a long process to find that
precise color to reflect the light properly. We also adapted it to give it a more feminine
silhouette and added two zippers in the front, which is a change from the original."
Interestingly, what would appear to be the simplest costume is the one Temime says
was the most problematic. "For the under garments that Sandra is wearing on the ISS, we had
to take into consideration the shape of the harness for the wires. It was difficult because we had
to calculate exactly what was going to be covered, and how, and adapt accordingly."
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