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Cinematagrophy Breakdown: "Gravity" (2013)

An autistic film geek lover who loves the art of film and is not ashamed of it.

cinematagrophy-breakdown-gravity-2013

Introduction

"Space: The Final Frontier." Those are the words from the great Captain James Kirk of Star Trek. With these words, it would be inspirational for anyone to go to space. However, it would be impossible to say yes after watching this movie. I think Gravity (2013) is the first movie to make people afraid of going into space.

Trailer

Plot

Gravity is the story of two astronauts in space. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a gifted medical engineer on her first shuttle mission. Commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is a veteran astronaut on the verge of retirement during this mission. But on this ordinary routine spacewalk, disaster strikes. With their shuttle destroyed, Stone and Kowalski must work together to survive in the darkness of space.

A Milestone in the Space Genre

There have been many space movies over the past four decades. While there have been classic films in the genre (2001 Space Odyssey, Apollo 13, The Right Stuff, and Alien), some have struggled with mainstream audiences in recent years. The late 90s and early 2000s were a polarizing era for movies set in space. Some of them have been great (Contact, Sunshine) or underrated (Event Horizon, Titan A.E.). Some have been not so great (Supernova, Mission to Mars).

However, there has been a resurgence during the 2010s with films like Interstellar, The Martian, Ad Astra, and First Man. Gravity is no exception.

Gravity marks a great milestone in the careers of Alfonso Curran and Emmanuel Lubezki. For Alfonso, it was bringing a childhood dream of being an astronaut to the big screen. For Lubezki, it represents a great leap of faith in being a cinematographer. So with a partnership that has lasted for two decades, this film represents the true value of collaboration.

This film is a milestone in filmmaking. It shows the role of cinematographers in films with digital components. You can feel Lubezki's craft in every stage of making real and computer-generated images believable on the big screen. He experimented with a lot of digital techniques.

  1. Virtual lighting
  2. Shooting live-action to match the CG footage
  3. Fine-tuning the final image
  4. Supervised the conversion from 2-D to 3-D

In other words, this is Lubezki at his finest hour.

"I was doing my work as a cinematographer on Gravity," he said. “In the process, I had to learn to use some new tools that are part of what cinematography is becoming. I found it very exciting.”

Emmanuel Lubezki's first Oscar win

Film Gear

Lubezki shot the live-action footage of space with the Arri Alexa Classics and wide Arri Master Prime lenses. The final scene on Earth was filmed on the Arri 765 and Kodak Vision3 500T 5219 65mm. Filming two sections of the film with two different cameras provided a striking contrast between the two pictures.

On the one hand, there's the whole film set in space filmed with a digital camera. And on the other hand, the entire sequence on Earth is actually shot on film. Good contrast between different worlds can add much more when doing the cinematography.

Intro to Breakdown

As always in my breakdowns, I'm going to analyze the elements of Gravity's cinematography.

  • Lighting
  • Shot size
  • Camera focus
  • Shot composition
  • Camera placement
  • Camera movement

Scene 1: Opening

In the first scene of the movie, we get our first sight of the Earth in space. It is a beautiful establishing shot of the planet. Then the camera moves closer as the space shuttle enters the frame. Keep in mind this is just in one continuous shot with no cutting.

Then the camera moves in closer as we get to see two astronauts on a space mission. Matt Kowalksi (George Clooney) and Sheriff (Phaldut Sharma) are clearly having some amusement with their mission. Kowalksi is the first person to come into the frame as he floats to the shuttle. The camera moves closer to the shuttle as he enters its area.

Finally, as Kowalksi is out of the frame, the camera is on Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). Stone is examining the pod maintenance all by herself.

That opening was just one continuous shot over 4 minutes and 57 seconds. No cuts, no second or third takes, just one continuous shot over five in half minutes. It just shows how skilled Emmanuel Lubezki is at being a cinematographer.

Lighting

For lighting, the filmmakers decided to use available light sources in space. Stars would have been useless as the primary source of light. So for the scenes outside in space, there were sources to use: the hard light from the sun, the soft bounce light from Earth, and the bounce from the moon. Using these three sources in the traditional way of lighting is very creative from a cinematographer's view.

A great example of this is some of the shots where you can see the earth. The sun reflects on the planet with rays. Half of the continents are shown thanks to the light coming from the sun.

A great shot of earth during the day.

A great shot of earth during the day.

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Beautiful sunrise

Beautiful sunrise

And when the moon is shown at night, the continents are shown from the city lights below.

cinematagrophy-breakdown-gravity-2013

Practical lighting is also used in great effect. This is seen through the scenes with the sun and moon not being present. When Ryan and Kowalski are reunited after the meteor shower, the only source of light being shown is their helmet lights.

cinematagrophy-breakdown-gravity-2013

Finally, there's natural lighting. In the scenes inside the space station or the pod, both of them are very well lit. And that's because the source of light is coming from the buttons and the lights inside the settings.

If this isn't a good example of great cinematography, I don't what world I'm in right now.

Conclusion

Great cinematography is about taking risks and following your instincts. Gravity looked like a huge risk for Lubeski and Cuarón. This film could have been a huge CGI crap fest with no style and substance. Luckily, the duo had good instincts right from the start. And it shows.

Gravity is a masterpiece from a technical aspect in its cinematography. And it is also an emotional one as well thanks to its visual storytelling. This is filmmaking at its finest.

© 2021 Theodore Turnquest II

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