Director Cuaron examines all angles when shooting ‘space’

by Giovanni Fazio

Special To The Japan Times

Last month, we heard Paul Greengrass, director of “Captain Phillips,” talk in detail about his choppy, handheld, visceral filming style. This month, we get to hear from Alfonso Cuarón, director of the massive hit “Gravity,” whose style is about 180 degrees different.

Smooth, fluid, long takes and especially wide shots mark this director’s aesthetic — glimpsed previously in films such as “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2002) and “Children of Men” (2006) — but they’re there for a reason.

“It involves giving the same weight to character and environment,” Cuarón tells The Japan Times, “with the idea that they’re part of each other, contradict each other or clash with each other. If you keep the shots wide, it’s a completely different language than if you’re going in close and forcing the audience to see certain things.”

In “Gravity,” there’s an absolutely phenomenal scene where the astronaut played by Sandra Bullock loses her tether and spins off into space. Cuarón describes the shot, explaining how “the camera becomes the point of view of the audience, and it starts obeying the same laws of physics as the astronauts. So you’re partaking of the ride as if you’re a third astronaut on a journey with the other characters.”

Simulating the effects of zero gravity over the course of an entire film — not just a scene or two — represented an enormous technical challenge. At one point Cuarón even considered shooting on the International Space Station before realizing the budget would be ridiculous. In the end, a blend of CGI and innovative new wire-work with mobile cameras was employed to simulate the floating-in-space POV.

“I don’t think we invented new technologies so much as we adapted technology to create our tools,” he says.

Fluid shots were created using cameras mounted on robots normally used in auto assembly plants.

“It’s a beautiful thing to see them working,” Cuarón says. “Like ballet. But it was scary for Sandra. You see one of those things — 2 tons or whatever — coming full speed at you, super fast, and just stopping a few inches from your nose and then bouncing back. … One day, before we started shooting, we were testing the thing, but the robot just kept on going and went through the mannequin we were using (in Bullock’s place). Smashed it to pieces, and we were like, “Oops.” We had a dude with a red button, a kill switch, but by the time you could see a problem, it’s too late. Anyway, Sandra lived to tell the story, so we’re fine.”

“Gravity” is easily one of the best 3-D movies made so far, and it’s no surprise to find that the director has strong opinions on the topic.

“I think 3-D is an amazing tool, but it’s only a tool, and it should be used for films that are designed as 3-D films. The problem now is that most of the films you see, they’re 2-D, but add 3-D as a commercial afterthought — and then they suck big time. There’s only a handful of films that have been designed and created in 3-D, and because of that, they have a great 3-D experience: ‘Avatar,’ ‘Life of Pi,’ ‘Pina,’ ‘Coraline’ — animation, they usually do it well. And I think ‘Hugo,’ in a very stylish way — too hyper but well thought out.”

Cuarón, a space boffin since childhood, wrote the script for “Gravity” with his son, Jonas, who’s also a budding filmmaker. While this marked their first collaboration, Cuarón insists, “He infused me with new energy. Jonas has a completely fearless, younger approach to things, without the prejudices I’ve built up over time. It was an affirmation that being entertaining is not at odds with trying to be deep.”

While NASA didn’t officially collaborate on the script — which pretty much depicts an “epic fail” of the space program — a bunch of in-the-loop scientific consultants did add a lot of accuracy to the script. While purists may note that Bullock’s hair doesn’t float and wave in the space station, Cuarón laughs and says, “I’ll tell you the most obvious error in the film: She’s not wearing an adult diaper.”