How did they create those special effects in Gravity?

In this jaded media age, when we’ve already seen bullet time, 3D blue cat monkeys, apes made human by Andy Serkis, and Cleatus the robot football player, it’s rare to see anything on television or film that makes you say “how the hell did they do that?” The answer is so often “I dunno, computers?” that we’ve mostly stopped asking.

Yet Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, in which Blind Side star Sandra Bullock adopts the blackness of space*, is a film that makes you ask exactly that, over and over, for 90 minutes straight. They didn’t actually shoot the film in space, though you could be forgiven for believing so. For that you’d need James Cameron money. So, how did they do it? Well, like my love life, the short answer is “human puppets.”

From the Vancouver Sun:

Cuarón and his team came up with a hodgepodge of fancy artifices.

To that end, Oscar-winner Bullock had to endure wearing a space suit and helmet with a harness system made up of thin wires that spread across her and that were manipulated by puppeteers in order to mime zero gravity.

At other times, she was hooked up to a “light box” apparatus that simulated light in space from the sun and Earth.

Cuaron would show Bullock an animated version of the sequence on a screen before filming with puppeteers who were required to co-ordinate movements of the space suit into appropriate positions.

“I had a little bit of leeway in the helmet, but my body had to match exactly what they were doing,” she said of the puppeteers.

Fortunately, by the time Bullock had arrived on set, Cuarón and his team had refined the weightlessness simulations.

“The truth of the matter is that Sandra trained so much and rehearsed so much that when we were shooting, we would rarely discuss technical aspects,” Cuarón noted.

“Sometimes I would say, ‘Can you reach a little higher?’ But most of the time, we were being preoccupied about performance and emotion.”

Weird, the animators told Sandra Bullock how to move? Based on all those Planet of the Apes featurettes, I assumed that it was the actor who dictated to others what his character should be like. The idea that anyone could know a character better than the actor who becomes him is, like, totally un-method, bro. Daniel Day-Lewis would cut a motherf*cker for saying that.

More, from the New York Daily News:

“I told my cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, we were making a small movie about two characters. It took us four and a half years! When we started doing tests, we realized there was no technology to do the film. So we had to invent our own.”

As gifted as Bullock is as an actress, she needed the help of puppeteers from the West End production of “War Horse” to manipulate a harness made up of 12 carbon-thin wires that spread across her body and were virtually invisible on camera.

In her spare time, Bullock called up the International Space Station to question Catherine Coleman as the American astronaut orbited 372 miles above Earth.

But since Cuarón couldn’t actually spin his star as if she were really in orbit, he decided he’d move the universe around her.

Bullock was strapped into a rig inside a custom-made device dubbed “The Light Box,” a cube filled with 4,096 LED light bulbs that could be programmed to provide whatever brightness, colors and speed were needed to simulate the light of the Earth and the sun on a spinning astronaut.

“When Sandra was in the cube, she was completely insulated and all the communication was on radio, not unlike the astronauts talking to Houston,” says Cuarón. “And in between the setups, the process to get her in and out was so long that she chose just to stay there for hours and hours.” [New York Daily News]

In the IMAX featurette, Cuarón says Gravity‘s biggest reference/inspiration point was the Hubble 3D IMAX documentary.

Well now I really want to see that Hubble 3D IMAX documentary. If they’re smart, they’ll re-release it.

I too wanted to know what it was like to be an astronaut, but instead of making a movie, I just drove 900 miles while wearing a diaper.

*”Yer changin’ that void’s lahfe.” “Nope. It’s changin’ mahne.”