Framestore - the real stars of Gravity
Alfonso Cuarón’s new blockbuster Gravity was released only four weeks ago but has been grabbing the headlines ever since. Over 80% of the film is CG and animation and for the first time ever the visual effects company behind it, London’s Framestore, got a credit from the director that listed them directly below the lead cast. A small step for mankind, a giant leap for Hollywood.
Not one shot in the film was actually taken from space, in fact, Gravity was entirely made in Britain, from pre-production, through to filming and elaborate post-production.
Framestore has a reputation for delivering cutting edge VFX. Recently the in-house team spent four months bringing Audrey Hepburn back to life for a commercial for Mars' Galaxy (you can see the video here). Furthermore, their feature film credits include Wrath of the Titans (2012), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), War Horse (2011), Clash of the Titans (2010) plus Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010). Cuarón first collaborated with the team during his film Children of Men (2006) which was a big success, and it was therefore only natural the director would return with his idea for a new venture.
Mike McGee, creative director and co-founder of Framestore first heard of the project nearly four years ago when Cuarón came to discuss the idea for the film. The meeting left the whole team excited, yet at that time it wasn’t known to what extent the creatives would be involved.
The Framestore team described the three main challenges they saw at the time:
- How to choreograph the long scene shots
- How to deal with the issue of everything being weightless in space
- How to ensure all CG looks one hundred percent real
Initially Cuarón was what we can now describe as ‘naïve’. The filmmaker thought the feature could be shot mostly in a traditional way. It wasn’t until further down the line that logistics showed it needed all to be done in VFX. In the end considerably more of the film is computer generated than real. In most of the shots only the faces of the two actors are captured with an actual camera.
A VFX-led film shoot
In order to do this mammoth job it was necessary to build an array of new kit and other technology; cages to contain the actors with (so they appeared to be floating in space); newly developed rigs; a new backdrop made from LED-lighting – you name it, Framestore had it in-house for the shoot.
“When after a year of planning and working on the pre-vis (a basic animation process common to all films that blocks out the action in each scene before filming starts) shooting could begin, the film was pretty much locked,” says Framestore’s VFX producer Charles Howell.
This was necessary because of the long shots Cuarón had planned in combination with a set and people who, as they were supposed to be weightless, could go upside down, underneath, over the top, just about everywhere – and as the options were so numerous, planning took longer and needed to be done more meticulously.
Houston, do you copy?
As for the issue of weightlessness, Framestore ensured that the twenty animators that worked on the job went to lectures and carried out tests to ensure they really understood how people and objects behave if there was no gravity.
To guarantee everything looked real, the team called in the experts: NASA. The organisation provided data and photographs which the team at Framestore could reproduce – though there was a limit to how realistic they were allowed to make it look.
So, suddenly the earth, the stars, the space shuttles, the international space station and the flying debris could all look as if it was shot from up close.
To make sure that when the six months of shooting commenced, the actors too – strapped in their special cages – looked like they were really weightless, a team of puppeteers from the stage production of War Horse came to help with their movements.
Framestore’s has nothing but admiration for Sandra Bullock, who, having trained as a dancer, McGee says “deserves an award for being thrown about by a robot all day long”. Not only this, but Bullock also did some unusual prep. Again with the help of NASA, she got in contact with a female astronaut and emailed her all the questions she had about this extraordinary job.
After the film was shot at the specially-built set at Shepperton the film was not just ‘uncut’; it was actually still not even half made. Cuarón had caught the right shots of George Clooney and Bullock, now the VFX team was to recreate space.
The year and a half that post-production took were what you could call intense. The team practically lived at the production hub.
With the CG people and editor just down the hall from each other though, and no hidden agendas for any of the team’s talent, the process was actually fairly amicable and painless, with just a quick reshoot after 10 months to fill in the gaps.
“Communication,” McGee says, “really was key in this case. Changes were super complicated and the fact we were all close to each other and within talking distance made a difference.”
You would think though with the intensity of work, the technology built especially for this project and some of the world’s most famous actors, studio bosses would have needed to sell a kidney in order to fund the film, but, McGee reveals, we shouldn’t be fooled. “This film costs a lot less than people think – less than for example an average Pixar film.”
Hopefully that means that after the huge success of Children of Men and Gravity, Cuarón will soon return to another VFX-led project, perhaps pushing the boundaries even further next time.
*** KFTV would like to highlight that this article focuses on Framestore's role in the project. For a full list of credits, including production designer Andy Nicholson, DoP Emmanuel Lubezki and art designer Mark Scruton, please see IMDb.***
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