For production designer Andy Nicholson, creating the detailed exterior and interior sets of the space vehicles in Gravity required an unprecedented integration of traditional art direction techniques with state-of-the art computerized special effects.
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, the 3D sci-fi thriller is about the struggles of a novice astronaut, played by Sandra Bullock, to survive in the void of space and return to earth after the International Space Station to which she has been assigned is all but destroyed by flying space junk. Where Gravity triumphs is convincing audiences, more than in any past film, that they are actually viewing outer space.
To pull that off required a multi-year effort using an array of the very latest movie-making technologies from previz to motion capture. All of the below-the-line departments utilized their well-honed skills, which then got translated into virtual versions for the final film by Framestore, London’s top-notch visual effects house.
“The design process for me started the same as working on any other movie I’ve designed. It was specific to a certain place and a certain world,” said Nicholson. “But what I and my department then had to do was use an entirely unique pipeline to pass information back and forth to Framestore.” The production designer has been nominated for an Academy Award for best art direction and also a BAFTA. He is also up for an Art Directors Guild award in the fantasy film category.
Normally, production design starts with an overall conception, which then gets converted into drawings and blueprints. Then the sets are built. “Gravity was a complete switcharound since everything we were doing was going to be in CG,” the production designer observed. “Entire sets were fabricated only in the computer. The passageways of the International Space Station and its air lock, are all virtual.”
Nicholson began designing during the previz stage. “We would start by developing the CG environments in a basic blocking manner,” he said. “We then got feedback from the visual effects artists on what worked and what didn’t and we’d take that, roll it back and make the changes, and these would go back to them.”
There were also non-virtual sets, the kind you can touch, such as the interior of abandoned Russian Soyuz capsule which Bullock’s astronaut manages to reach and includes a fantasy dream sequence with another astronaut, portrayed by George Clooney. The Soyuz capsule set was built in segments to accommodate long continuous shots. “We had five sections of the set on individual tracks so as the scene progressed, each piece would be moved out of the way to let the camera travel past. Then, on cue, each section would be quietly slid back for when the camera looked back at where it had just come from.” For some shots up to 16 people were needed to push pieces of the capsule in and out, choreographed to the camera shots.
One of the most complicated sequences takes place earlier in the film when Bullock manages to make it back to the ISS, grabs handholds along the exterior in order to reach the airlock. This required designing things for Bullock to grab onto and pull on to show her physical exertions.
Since the public is very familiar with live broadcasts and photos of space stations and space walks, a challenge was to make the vehicles as accurate as possible down to the smallest details. That required extensive research, with the trove at NASA serving as a key repository. “Without the huge amount of NASA photography and technical data in the public domain, nothing could have been as detailed,” Nicholson noted. Several astronauts also served as consultants.
Each of the hundreds of props, from large hand tools to the smallest bolt, was painstakingly studied and designed and then computer-modeled, generating a library of props that could then be used to digitally “dress” the sets. They also had to reflect wear and tear, so different textures were included in the design and that information went to the texture artists at Framestore. “Every surface you see has a tremendous amount of layered detail, even if you’re just moving past it,” said Nicholson.
Nicholson was an architect who switched over to art direction, starting out as a draughtsman. His credits include several films with director Tim Burton, starting in 1999 on Sleepy Hollow which got him his first ADG award. He got his second for The Golden Compass directed by Chris Weitz. He was also nominated for ADG awards for Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Bourne Ultimatum directed by Paul Greengrass and Joe Johnston’s Captain America. His latest film, Divergent, directed by Neil Burger and starring Kate Winslet and Shailene Woodley, is set for release at the end of March.