Alfonso Cuaron: Master of Immersion

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Where have I been for the past month or so?

I’ve been in space… dreaming, thinking, and mostly working.   In many ways I’ve been working on narrowing my focus and attention on important things amidst the endless stream of distractions that surround us in this modern world of ours.  I’ll follow up on that thought in a later post…

Narrowing my focus to the past 72 hours…. well, for the past 3 evenings, I’ve been as close to experiencing outer space as you or I will likely ever come, courtesy of director Alfonso Cuarón and his film "Gravity."  

You may remember Cuarón’s work from "Children of Men" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien"…   For those who follow this blog, yes I’ve once again gone to see a film 3 times in in a row (this time 3 nights in a row) and I must admit that still can’t get enough of what I think is an absolutle technical masterpiece.  

Every time I’ve left the theater only two things came to mind:  1. I was simply dumbfounded by the technical achievement of this film on so many levels (and with so many of my senses)  2. The thought "I’m not worthy" of following in Cuarón’s foosteps as a director came up more than once 😉   The bar has been set VERY high.   Dauntingly so.  

Gravity, is a film that I can say with little reservation is one of the single most mind boggling technical achievements in cinema history.    The film is one of the best demonstrations of the near perfect result that a talented GROUP of artists:  a writer/director,  Director of Photography, VFX Supervisor, 3D Artists, and Sound re-recording Mixer can achieve working TOGETHER.

Most importantly, it accomplishes what every film should ultimately strive to do:   it is an incredibly immersive experience where the viewer becomes completely enveloped within the world they are watching on screen.   You almost become a witness to a world – a participant if you will – that is in effect nothing more than movie magic.  

I literally flinched a number of times during the film, I felt at times that "this is truly what it must be like to don an astronaut’s suit and watch the sun set behind earth."   I felt vertigo at times, similar to what I’ve felt as a scuba diver at night (the closest thing on earth that you can experience outside of space in my experience…  when you flip around in total darkness under water with no moonlight  to light the reef beneath you and your lights turned off… you try figuring out which way is up or down, or convincing yourself that the beams of lights you are seeing coming from other divers’ torches as they rise and lower are not in effect searchlights attached to UFOs!)

Simply put:  Gravity is one of those films that breaks huge technical boundaries and sets new standards for the art of film:  just like Star Wars did for many in my generation and Kubrick’s 2001 before that.    If you haven’t seen it – RUN to see it.  (You can also  experience it in 3D and see a number of clips with this link on WB’s official site and even download an app.) 

We’ve yet to see all of this year’s crop of films but my votes are already cast for this year’s Academy Awards:

Best Director:  Alfonso Cuarón.    Cuarón worked on this film for more than four and a half years and it shows.   His ability to undertake this absolutely monumental task and bring incredible techniques to bear and still ultimately allow us to become enveloped in the STORY … is incredible.    This is easily one of the single most immersive films I’ve ever experienced.    It’s not just the 17 minute opening shot (without a single cut) that has you forget that you’re watching a film or montage,  it’s also the incredible finesse as a director that Cuarón demonstrates in his knowlegde of  how and when to pull back, and to go from heart pounding immersion and overwhelming sound, to incredibly personal moments where you can’t hear a single sound.   The ability to previsualize this film and to make it come together is simply incredible.   If there ever was a film that I would want to point to that defined what a director’s "vision" is – this is it.  

When you realize that almost everything within the film other than the actors’ faces were generated on a computer, and the fact that you are almost completely unaware of that fact as you become immersed in the film, THAT is the mark of a master director in my book.   While many of us are obsessed with the techniques filmmakers use, the ultimate art is to employ them so masterfully, that even fellow directors can’t help but fall victim to their effects.   Cuarón is now no longer just the master of the long single take, but of total immersion in my book.   With this film I think he joins the like of Kurick, Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Welles etc. 

Best Cinematography / Visual Effects:  Both ASC/AMP Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubesky and  VFX Supervisor Tim Webber should win in these individual categories as they have demonstrated how the perfect marriage of these two disciplines can lead to such and incredibly realistic and rich visual experience that this film is.    There is often a debate with films such as Avatar, or Life of Pi as to who truly deserves the credit for the visuals:  the DP or the VFX Team?   This movie shows that the symbiosis of the two disciplines makes that question irrelevant.     I’ve found myself behind  a lens for more than 2 decades now, and I have to admit that it was all too often hard to believe that what I was watching on screen was almost entirely generated by a camera team, extremely talented CGI artists, on computers in a 3D world of complex binary code.  The boundaries of what is real vs computer generated have for the first time become so seriously challenged in this film – you simply can’t often tell what is real and what is ray-traced…. even though you know that it’s almost all rendered in a computer…  This film can best described as a visual feast.    Cuarón, Lubesky’s lensing, movement, lighting in conjunction with Webber’s work (and the hundreds of artists who contributed) are nothing short of spectacular.    They have made films like Avatar, incredible feats in their own time, look almost dated. 

A new standard has been set in terms of what can be accomplished visually in cinema today with computer graphics.   The lines between "practical" photography and CGI have definitely been blurred to a degree I’ve very seldom seen.

Best Sound Mixing:  The sound design (not to mention score) are appropriately: simply out of this world.  Re-Recording mixer Skip Lievsay and his team did an incredible job as well.   When you consider that sound does not travel in space, they had to truly reinvent the wheel here and they did.   This is one of those films that truly reinforces the need for a 50 foot screen, 3D, and Dolby Atmos technology.  

This is definitely a film you have to see in a theater to truly appreciate – Cuarón calls it the "cinematic experience" and that it is.   I watched this on two 50 foot screens and one 30 foot screen – and experiencing this film on a 50 foot screen especially in 3D was simply out of this world.    I’d like to mention that I enjoyed both the 2D and 3D version of this film, but ultimately this is probably one of the best uses of 3D I’ve ever experienced.    One thing that I truly appreciated is that I could look at any point on the screen and never felt eye-strain (whereas a lot of stereo movies FORCE you to look at one spot of convergence… definitely something you don’t want to do when you’d like to scan the entire 50 foot image and look at distant stars for example, and get lost in the environment.)    It should be noted that this film was shot in 2K on an Arri Alexa and in 2D, and that all of the 3D conversion was done in post, which makes a lot of sense given that the entire world was built in a 3D virtual environment.    When you think that every single shot of the actors was rotoscoped (they didn’t shoot on blue or green screen, but against huge LED panels) your brain hurts.

SoundWorks Collection: The Sound of Gravity from Michael Coleman on Vimeo.

So how was this film made?  Well it’s hard to know where to start.   For one they used so many new techniques that the Gravity team has in effect come to reinvent many of the ways films can be made from this point on.   Here’s but one example – not actually behind the scenes of this film, but a reel showing how camera movement and lighting can be combined with robots by Bot & Dolly in a way that appears to defy the laws of physics (see the Astronaut example in their reel below…) 


I also highly recommend that you read a fantastic article on FX Guide on the technology behind this film – I’m not even going to try to re-hash the great article they’ve written, it’s just easier and more appropriate to send you straight to their article and if you want even more you can also listen to  VFX Supervisor Tim Webber on their Podcast as well.   You’ll read how giant LED panels were used not only to light the actor’s faces, to give them a sense of environment, but also to make sure that the reflections in their pupils were accurate.    You’ll see how an incredible amount of previsualization went into making this film come to life.    One of my favorite anecdotes is how Cuarón’s decision to change the orientation of the Space Shuttle (he wanted it upside down) in the 17 minute opening shot, took 4 months to redo… and another is how much computing power was needed to make this film:  had this film been rendered on a single core machine with a single processor, it would have taken more than 7,000 years to render!!!   Holy rendering farm Batman!   Had they started in 5,000 BC they still might not be quite done rendering the last frame…  In comparison the opening shot of Scorsese’s "Hugo" took a year or so to render… in fact it was rushed in just in time for him to give VFX supervisor Rob Legato a note of two about the amount of snowfall in the frame, before the film was mastered and shipped off to theathers (!)

In the end there is so much I can say here.    But the best thing I can do is encourage you to go see this film for yourself.   I’m a little taken aback at the lack of promotion leading up to this film given just how good it is… but the word is getting around and the reviews are coming in and they are almost as effusive as this post is.  

Gravity is truly an experience you will remember forever (I think)  if you love cinema.  

Personally, I also appreciate the fact that Cuarón did not only produce, co-write, and direct this film, and that given the film’s $50+ million opening weekend, and what I expect will be a several hundred million dollar rake over time, that this will give him financial independence to make similar films for years to come.

I also love that he has shown us that there IS still room for and in this case the necessity for a cinematic experience (and 3D!) on the big silver screen as opposed to just a home theater (or tablet) experience (although I will definitely own the Blu-Ray.)   I should also mention that Sandra Bullock did an exceptional job as well given the challenge of being a solo actor for the majority of the film, strapped to a contraption, and surrounded by LED screens… impressive to say the least.

I also appreciate the message that this film brings.    Without spoiling the ending, I will simply mention that one of the more poignant statements of this movie makes is how a modern high tech spy satellite being blown up by a missile ends with a scene reminiscent of the beginning of time and our evolution from the ocean to land … another poignant reminder of how fragile things are, even today.    

Finally, the biggest lesson this film reinforces is that the role of a filmmaker is not just to understand how to make the best of use of cutting edge technology, to know how to engage it to its extremes, but also to never let it overshadow the story or the emotional experience that ultimately drives a film.  In a world that seems to cherish new technology over craft, this is an important reminder of what is truly important.  All of those tools are there to make the audience FEEL something and hopefully THINK once they leave the theater (if not during the film.)   And that this film did.  

Cuarón and every single person on that cast and crew (down to the one person animating the smallest spec of dust being backlight in a scene with Bullock finding refuge in a capsule) effectively took me as close to going to outer space as I will likely ever get.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, who knows that the next 40-50 years will bring?  At the rate we’re going (the iPhone came out less than 8 years ago – think about it!) …. anything is possible!

If you can’t run to the theater just yet to see Gravity and want to see something amazing by Bot & Dolly with projection mapping, please check this video out and prepare to have your mind blown:


And the making of: