What the making of “Gravity” can teach us about patience


Getting a scene to look like it was filmed at zero gravity isn’t easy.
(image via Warner Bros. Pictures)

While “Gravity” is getting a lot of attention for its stunning visuals and intricate special effects, here at Idealist we’re more interested in what the space survival epic says about persistence in the face of loneliness, isolation, and fear.

We hope you won’t ever have to test your tenacity and problem-solving skills in such an extreme way—like figuring out how to survive after being pummeled by space debris—but we all face overwhelming challenges at times when we make important decisions than can affect our dreams, careers, and projects. 

Director Alfonso Cuarón is no stranger to obstacles and setbacks himself. In this Vulture interview (originally from New York Magazine), he says the film took him nearly four and a half years to complete. His idea was met initially with a lot of skepticism.

“It’s a very unlikely film, first of all, to put together,” he tells interviewer Dan P. Lee. “It’s basically one character floating in space.”

People told him it was impossible to make a movie like this. They wanted him to change the story. They wanted him to take shortcuts. But he believed in his original vision.

Cuarón describes some of the obstacles he and his collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki faced while trying to film something that was thought of as nearly impossible:

They tried the conventional methods. With wires and harnesses, “you feel the gravity in the face, you feel the strain,” Cuarón says. (In a few shots they would prove unavoidable, so the filmmakers designed a complex twelve-wire puppeteering system.)

They tried the infamous “vomit comet”—a specially fitted airplane that flies in steep parabolic arcs to induce brief spans of weightlessness inside the open fuselage, which was used to great effect in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. Cuarón found it impractical: “You’ve got a window of twenty seconds if you’re lucky, and you’re limited by the space of a 727.”

They flew to San Francisco to view robots as stand-ins for the actors. They tried motion capture. They considered creating a “CG Sandra,” but “the fluid in the eyes, the mouth, the soul—there’s something that doesn’t work yet,” Lubezki says.

Cuarón consulted the director James Cameron and Lubezki the director David Fincher. Both had the same advice: Wait for the technology.

The leadership at Warner Bros. changed. Actors took other jobs and dropped out. There was the constant concern of money—the studio had only budgeted the film at a reported $80 million, a relatively modest amount given that, as they were slowly realizing, they’d have no choice but to largely invent the technology that would allow the film to be made.

So what did they do?

“How do you eat an elephant?” Cuarón asked me. “One spoonful a day.”

Can mainstream movies like “Gravity” make a positive impact on our society? What other inspiring ideas can we take away from the film and the story of how it was made?

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