LOS ANGELES -- Growing up, Alfonso Cuaron wanted to be two things: a director and astronaut.
He's been the previous for years, but after Gravity -- or, in particular, one scene from it -- audiences may buy he landed the second job, too.
Since it barnstormed the Toronto Film Festival earlier this fall, Cuaron's space odyssey has reached the stratosphere with critics, who hail it as a visual game changer. The Wall Street Journal called it the "most beautiful popcorn movie ever made" and "shows us cinema's future."
Much of the praise centers on the astounding 13-minute, uncut opening of the Sandra Bullock-George Clooney film. The sequence, which sets up the entire movie with a scene of satellite debris crippling a space shuttle, marks one of the longest "tracking shots" in Hollywood history, and the first of that length in 3-D.
But the men behind the shot had no idea they were tinkering with trailblazing. Just headaches.
"I have to say that I was a bit naïve; I thought making the film would be a lot simpler," Cuarón says. "Yes, I knew it would require a certain amount of tricks, but it was not until we started trying conventional techniques that I realized in order to do the film the way I wanted to do it, we were going to have to create something entirely new."
Which became the headache largely inherited by Emmanuel Lubezki, the director of photography for Gravity and prior Cuarón films. While Lubezki had worked on the tracking shot from Cuaron's 2006 film Children of Men, this one required not only that he orchestrate a 13-minute scene without a cut. He and crews had to invent virtual sets and cameras to capture stars dangling in orb
"We couldn't just hang the actors on wires because after a few minutes it would show the stress on their faces" Lubezki says of the film, 95% of which occurs in space and in zero gravity. "And it's not like we could shoot in space."
So Lubezki began a process called "previs," short for pre-visualization, in which he could digitally storyboard the scene with animation, like a Pixar film. Through the animation, Lubezki choreographed the scene so that the camera could follow astronauts as they drifted around their craft hundreds of miles above the Earth.
He then shot Bullock and Clooney (or their face and arms) for 13 minutes of dialogue before digitally painting them into space suits.
"Alfonso loves long shots because it makes you feel like you're really in that world," Lubezki says. And even with the aid of computers, he says, "you're still talking about something very complicated. That shot must have taken years, and it's the last one we finished."
Ironically, the reward is if few people notice the feat.
"We really don't want people thinking about the tricks we used," he says. "We want them to feel like they're in outer space."