Role in GravityEdit
With such a complex filming process and Cuarón's die-hard desire to get in his signature long takes, the trio of Cuarón, Webber and Lubezki had to pre-visualize (read: storyboard and virtually animate) the entire film before principal photography. "In order to be able to use these technologies, we had to pre-program this stuff. The pre-vis was not just going to be a guide for us to shoot, it had to be absolutely precise in terms of camera movements, choreography, positions, timings and light. So we started doing more precise pre-vis and Lubezki started doing the animations so most of the lighting was done in the computer."
LED lighting was decided upon, but another puzzle remained. How to recreate zero-gravity. To simulate free floating space cadets, Cuarón enlisted the help of automobile manufacturing technology. These robots usually deal in autos, which meant toting around a 5 foot 7 Sandra Bullock was effortless. They also have the precision of movement (hence the pre-vis and pre-programming) that even the steadiest grip couldn't replicate for camerawork. "We were told it would take 6 months, so we took 6 months," says Cuarón. "We started shooting, we started building the whole thing. The schedule was that the box would be ready two weeks before shooting and the box was not ready until three days before shooting and the robots were shipped right at the last minute. The night before we started shooting, nothing was working. The night before, we had a dummy there doing a test and the robot just went through the head like paow!" The actors said that the robots traveled at speeds averaging 12 miles per hour, so if the 3200 pound arm smashed into them, they couldn't get out of the way.
The entire film was essentially reverse-engineered. Cuarón and a team of animators at London's visual-effects shop Framestore began by designing CG shots, and then a physical-shoot crew worked backward to create live-action footage of the actors' faces (and sometimes their bodies) that exactly matched the choreographed CG. The key to that approach was creating reliable robotic cameramen—something that motion-control setups had never been able to do with high consistency or ease of use.
The solution was a pioneering system called IRIS. A San Francisco company, Bot & Dolly, created it by ingeniously redeploying robotic arms originally designed for precision assembly-line tasks such as automotive welding and painting. Instead of airbrushes or blowtorches, a quartet of IRIS rigs wielded cameras, lights, props, and even the actors in appropriate synchronization. A custom computer interface translated the data from the previsualized CG animation shots executed in Maya software into physical camera moves on the set that captured the actors' faces in just the right positions and sizes. (Of course, there was rarely an actual set. Mainly there were green screens and cardboard mockups for the actors' reference.)
Jeff Linnell had wondered for years why no one had repurposed industrial robots—the sort of giant, powerful arms that assemble cars on factory floors—as programmable tripods for movie cameras, reports Ciara Byrne. So in 2008 the owner of a small advertising firm bought three used industrial robots, and within a week one was used to shoot a TV commercial for Louis Vuitton.
Recently, a much-evolved version of that system, one that can be controlled by anyone with a background in 3D and animation, was used to make possible the otherwise-impossible shots impeccable.