Researching Space Missions, Which Bits of Bullock Were Real, and the Future of VFX Films

During the past four years, visual effects supervisor Tim Webber has concentrated largely on one film: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. During his career, though, the Framestore visual effects supervisor has split his time between broadcast television and feature films and picked up several awards along the way:  four Primetime Emmy Awards, a BAFTA TV nomination for television movies and mini-series, and four BAFTA and two Oscar nominations for best visual effects in feature films. 
Webber’s first project as a visual effects supervisor was the 1996 television movie Gulliver’s Travels, which resulted in his first Emmy. His most recent television project was another Emmy award winner, the 2002 mini-series Dinotopia. His first feature film project as a visual effects supervisor was the 1997 FairyTale: A True Story, which won the BAFTA Children’s Award. Since then, he has supervised Framestore’s effects in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (BAFTA nomination), Alfonso Cauron’s Children of Men (BAFTA nomination), The Dark Knight (Oscar and BAFTA nominations), Avatar, and Where the Wild Things Are.
Webber shares his nomination for Gravity with fellow Framestore artists Chris Lawrence (CG supervisor) and David Shirk (senior animation supervisor), and with special effects supervisor Neil Corbould. The Warner Bros. production has earned $691 million at the box office and received 10 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, 11 BAFTA nominations, and 11 Visual Effects Society nominations. 
StudioDaily: This is your second Oscar nomination. You’re on the road toward matching Joe Letteri’s eight. 
Tim Webber: I did notice during the bake-off that he knew what he was doing and could give his presentation exactly to time without looking at his watch.
Of all the candidates for an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects, I bet you were the least surprised.
It is all a bit Gravity, isn’t it? In some ways, that’s great, but it makes me feel very nervous.
Why do you think your peers voted for this film?
I hope it’s because of the impact of the visual effects work. The film is groundbreaking, and visual effects is a large part of that. Many people have said how it is sort of a new type of cinematic storytelling and that would have been impossible without the visual effects.
Making the film the way we decided to make it — and the way we realized was the best way to make it — was a huge risk. We were trying to do many things that hadn’t been done before, and we wouldn’t be able to see the results until after we were almost finished. 
How did working with Alfonso Cuarón on Children of Men help you with Gravity?
There is an obvious similarity with his style of long shots. Beyond that, his striving, and for that matter my striving, for something grounded in reality. We’re totally in sync with that. The work has to have that feel of verisimilitude to it. So even though these are two different situations, that was true across both films.
Alfonso is a courageous director. He had his vision and he was determined to make it happen, even if it meant doing things that might seem crazy. Because I had worked with him before, he could trust what I was saying. He knew that I meant what I said and would stand behind it.
How did you decide how to make the film? 
It came about in a variety of stages. It wasn’t like we sat down and said, "This is the way we’ll do it." The first big decision we made fairly early on was to do it predominately in CG, with just the faces and minimal bits filmed. From there we worked out the camera moves and the lights. From there, the robots. Then, the various techniques for the lighting and the light box. Many of the people on our previs team went all the way from previs to final animation.
During that process, we tested out other rigs, other more traditional methods that didn’t work out, and crazy things. We put people in a little mini hovercraft to see if they could look like they were floating. We had strange spinning rigs that supported people around the waist so they could twist and turn in every direction. We tried doing the faces completely CG. We tested out the Light Stage to do moving facial capture of a performance. We tried lots of things, slowly, gradually working our way toward a solution. 
How long did you work on the film?
It’s hard to say because the definition of when I was working on the film and not has gray areas. I was absolutely flat out with a proper team for three years, and there was talking about it beforehand, so there were bits and pieces earlier. 
It took a while before casting was sorted, which delayed shooting a bit. Post-production was a year and a bit — longer than most films, but not massively longer. Pre-production was longer, and we were involved longer with that than with most films.
Three to four years is like a schedule for an animated feature.
It is. And in many ways, this is like an animated film.
In fact, four Framestore artists received VES nominations for Best Animated Character in a Feature Film — for the astronaut Ryan played by Sandra Bullock (nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress).
We consulted with the VES to see if this character counted as an animated character. She’s the main character in the movie. Apart from her face, for most of the movie she is an animated character. And sometimes, even the face is an animated CG character. There is much more screen time of animation for this character than any other character nominated. So it counts as an animated character.
Did you use performance capture?
We couldn’t use performance capture. The character is pretty much all keyframe animation. She’s guided by [Sandra Bullock’s] performance, but not her movement. A lot of the guides for animation came from her face. Because what she was doing was in the world of gravity and she didn’t have the various elements around her, her body performance couldn’t give us the right physical movement. We used video as reference and we did put markers on her to make the video nice and clear, but I don’t think we ever tracked her body properly apart from a few moments for technical reasons. While they were filming her face with the main camera, we had video cameras on her body so we had as much reference as possible.
Did you ever consider doing this as an animated feature?
There’s something different about having a human performance. CG still can’t do humans absolutely believably. And this was a movie that had to not feel animated. It had to feel absolutely real. It’s a contemporary thriller, not a fantasy in any way. We had to not only do the CG, we had to make it feel 100 percent real.
How did you ground Gravity in reality?
It starts with research and having a true understanding of the mechanics of being in space, the way things look in space, the way characters would behave in those circumstances. Luckily, NASA produced a lot of materials. So, we read up, understood how people would react, how things work. It was all the usual techniques in filmmaking really – researching and understanding what the story is about and staying true to that in the film. Sometimes to do that, we have to go a little away from reality to make the story interesting.
Did you rely on computer algorithms to create accurate movement in zero gravity for the characters? 
Algorithms are a useful help, but we chose to use them as a guide rather than an automatic correction — not so much to correct things but to alert animators when the movement wasn’t correct. Sometimes you want to break away from that slightly. They were animating a CG character, not correcting a real person, so it was better if animators could understand what was happening. It really came down to the craft of animators learning what was and wasn’t correct.
How big was the crew?
It wasn’t as big as you might expect. I think around 250. It might be 270. Across the whole length of the project, 400-something. That’s another reason why the film took so long to make. We had very long shots, so we couldn’t have a lot of people working on shots at the same time. We couldn’t give everyone three-second shots. We had a smaller crew working longer to get the work done.
Were you aware going in that the long shots would impact the crew size?
We knew to an extent that would be the case, and we knew in many ways the long shots would cause many problems. Being involved in the previs meant we could work out all these problems as we were going along. That was definitely a critical part of the planning.
What do you think the impact of Gravity will be on future filmmaking?
I hope it means that visual effects will more often be an integral part of filmmaking. Visual effects are often integral, but in Gravity, they were really a large part of making the film. It was filmmaking through visual effects, rather than putting visual effects in a movie. Hopefully, Gravity will open the door to more of that. This isn’t the only film moving in that direction, but it’s one, I think, that will have an impact in general. It offers new possibilities for stories and new ways in which films can have an impact on audiences. Immersion is tricky and you have more control in the world of visual effects. It can be more easily achieved through visual effects.
What are you working on now?
I did a bit of second unit directing on Paddington Bear, a very different film. I love the whole concept of using visual effects to make characters as well, so it was great in that way. I’ve finished that and am looking for my next project. I want to find something as satisfying as Gravity. That will be tricky.

For more on the making of Gravity, see StudioDaily's previous coverage