The Making of Gravity. An evening with Framestore’s Mike McGee


For the latest talk in the Typographic Circle ongoing series we decamped to JWT’s Knightsbridge HQ to hear Mike McGee of Framestore deliver a lecture on the making of the recent hit film Gravity.

The subject matter perhaps strayed out of the boundaries of what we have come to expect from these talks but that certainly didn’t deter the audience who turned out in numbers to hear McGee’s excellent presentation.

Essentially a tech talk - there was no discussion about narrative arcs or semiotics - this was strictly about the business of creating galactic verisimilitude, 4 and a half years worth in fact.

McGee kicked off proceedings with a screening of the company showreel and a look at the current advert for Galaxy chocoloate featuring Audrey Hepburn. At first this seemed as far removed from the international space station as one could imagine but of course it dovetailed in nicely as the motion-capture technology used to map Audreys face onto a body double was developed with Gravity and so served as a good taster.

On into the talk proper and we first heard how director Alfonso Cuarón came to the team with 3 key directives:

One: To better the 378 second long take used in Children of Men

Second: Make the film look like it was shot in a Zero G environment

Third: Create real space, to the point NASA might even be confused as to the reality.

What followed was a whistle stop tour through the effects and techniques used on the film, almost too much to take in and perhaps to write about but we’ll try and put across some of the key point that we found interesting.

(For a more informed technical briefing you can find a full case study here)

It is no secret that a great deal of the film was created in a computer but the real revelation was the actual extent. McGee joked that they wanted to enter the film into animation categories of film prizes but the fact is they probably have a case.

We heard of how before shooting began a full length animated feature or pre-vis, essentially a grey-scale working storyboard, was produced. From that the film-makers were able to work out how to shoot each shot in terms of how to bring in the actors, how to production design a feature that basically has no physical production design and how to light both realistically.

We discovered how no live action was captured apart from the faces of Clooney and Bullock. These were fully motion-tracked so as to be able to dropped seamlessly onto the animated models of their bodies. Other physical actions, namely inside the spacecraft were shot live action and then rotoscoped (manually cut out of raw footage and dropped into the CGI stage sets) before being usually topped and tailed with CGI..

We were also let in on the innovations created by the team for shooting. Cameras were mounted on robotic arms usually used for car production with 360 rotational gimbles to ensure that the camera could move swiftly and in all directions. The actors were themselves motionless, albeit standing on moving floors to ensure that they were never fully static. This ensured the nausea-inducing non-stop Zero G type motion that we see in the final film.  

A final breakthrough was the use of an LED based lighting stage on which the actors were shot. This allowed for a high level of control over the illumination but also gave an opportunity for playback of exterior scenes such as the spacescapes in which much of the action takes place. This gave the exact kind of light throw one would expect to see in a space environment, be it the glow from the sun, reflection from the Earth’s surface or intense shadow from the superstructure and fittings of the ISS.

An interesting point linked into this area is that no physical helmet visors were used due to difficulties with studio light reflections, all visors were thus put in via CGI. Amazing that this one aspect that arguably sells the film as being real, complete with misting from respiration, is the one aspect that is totally faked in post.

Of course all this took a massive amount of computer capacity to generate to the point that McGee revealed that Framestore had to invest in a new render farm to ensure that they could actually produce the picture. Some shots were so complex that it was taking over 10 hours in places to render one frame of footage. Amusingly someone on the team got their calculator out and worked out that if they were using one computer to render the film they would have had to set it running in 5000 BC.

McGee rounded up the evening by answering some questions from the floor where we heard that the film came in at around 5% over the agreed budget. They quoted £100 million and costed it per second. A final innovation of the production was to ensure that all creation of elements to help with post-production (i.e. developing camera rigs) came out of an external equipment budget. Savvy indeed which no doubt shows us why Framestore are leading the game.

And with all this mastery of the medium what would a genuine real life astronaut think? In a final anecdote McGee let slip that on seeing the final cut Buzz Aldrin was quick to pick out a fault. And which aspect? The visors. Of course in space visors need to be fully reflective as an astronaut would be blinded in seconds by the unshielded light of the sun but for a movie that relies on actors expressions this would be a definite no-no. A nice counterpoint to bring us all back to earth.



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