Today's action movies rely on explosiveness to blow you into the back of your seat. Jarring camera movements and quick-cut editing combine with whatever danger is happening in the thick of the plot to rattle our brains and create a cinematic whiplash.
But "Gravity," which hits theaters this weekend, takes a welcome and awe-inspiring alternative tactic. Director Alfonso Cuarón, no stranger to lengthy, methodical takes in movies like "Children of Men" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," strives once again to let his scenes breathe -- even when all hell is breaking loose.
In one sequence, a routine mission to tinker with the Hubble Telescope spirals out of control when a cloud of satellite shards swoops through the work scene. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney fight to stay alive as the debris rips their shuttle to shreds, and suddenly "Gravity" becomes a Point A to Point B thriller. Cuarón maximizes the tension by realistically portraying the monotony of floating around in space. In "zero gravity" characters move in one direction, unable to change course, shift their weight, or even flap their arms in a frantic fit to alter their course. It's terrifying.
Beyond being a heart-pounding, science fiction ride, "Gravity" is a technical marvel. Cuarón's script for the film never allows the characters to settle from Zero G -- or rather, microgravity, for those who want to be technical -- meaning every time we see Bullock and Clooney, we're watching a visual effects shot.
So how did they do it?
Despite taking more than four years to execute a reported budget of over $100 million, Cuarón faced an insurmountable challenge when recreating the effects of weightlessness. Somewhat reasonably, his FX team's instincts were to turn to a long sci-fi movie history to solve their problem. Back in the days of "2001: A Space Odyssey," faking Zero G was as "simple" as rigging a moving set and relying on optical illusion. Take this classic scene of the stewardess walking up a circular track while delivering drinks:
The perfection of this trick is a testament to Stanley Kubrick's meticulous demands. Not only does the set move as the camera follows, but in order to make the Zero G walk seamless, the actress involved must also time her movement precisely with the rotation of the wheel. It's the big reason why she takes baby steps while making her way around:
Effects have come a long way since Kubrick's seminal 1968 sci-fi film, but there are still filmmakers relying on the practical route when it comes to defying gravity. Christopher Nolan recreated the "tumbler room" shot for his hallway fight in "Inception":
However, the game-changer moment in Hollywood Zero G came with Ron Howard's "Apollo 13" -- and it embraced very little of the latest and greatest technology. Hoping to do justice to the incredible true story, Howard decided early on that everything in "Apollo 13" would be done in conjunction with NASA and steeped in as much reality as possible. That meant when it came to shooting Tom Hanks and Bill Paxton in a weightless environment, Howard wanted to actually shoot them in a weightless environment. A plan so crazy, it actually worked.
The cast was taken up in the Boeing KC-135 -- aka the "Vomit Comet" -- NASA's refueling tanker plane that was gutted for Zero G training. Would-be astronauts would fly up in the vehicle and, when the jet dipped, experience a free fall that mimicked space travel weightlessness. The effect only lasted 25 seconds at a time, forcing Howard to shoot quickly with each trip. The "Apollo 13" flew 612 parabola trips in order to shoot all of their scenes, a demanding cycle that resulted in a mere four hours of footage.
Cuarón considered Howard's "Apollo 13" approach, but quickly scrapped it. Long, uninterrupted takes would be part of the texture of "Gravity" -- the first "shot" clocks in at around 13 minutes -- and the KC-135 would mean chopping up Bullock and Clooney's performances. So they turned to CG effects -- a dreaded option for anyone drawn to the Kubrick methods. But time was on Cuarón's side; he developed new technology, both for proudction and post, that would gel all of the Zero G effects together. For scenes within the various space stations in the movie, the "Gravity" team used a 12-line pulley system inspired by the puppeteering mechanics utilized on the Broadway show "War Horse." For the exteriors, which were almost entirely CGI, Cuarón only had to match the performances to the camera movement. Only.
To do so, Cuarón created an entirely animated version of "Gravity" so that every shot was already "directed." The weightlessness in "Gravity" is basically choreography -- scant trances of spontaneity. Then the director and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had to figure out how to light the actors while they were zipping around space, basking in the glow of Earth. To contain Bullock and Clooney, they built a "Light Box," what the NYPost reports as "a 20-by-10- foot structure with an interior composed of 4,096 LED bulbs." An actor would step inside the illuminated casket, hook into a rig and maneuver and emote in the confined space, with a camera capturing those moves. Through the magic of computers, those performances would later be grafted on to the animated backdrops of the main action and, voilà, zero gravity.
And because we're jealous of anyone given the opportunity to experience actual Zero G, below is a video of LIFE reporter Warren Young floating in space on the Vomit Comet back in the 1950s.