When director Alfonso Cuarón co-wrote Gravity (rated PG-13, out Oct. 4) with his son Jonás, he knew that he had a thrilling story on his hands: A medical engineer (Sandra Bullock) fights for survival after a freak accident that strands her in the depths of outer space, far from her ship and mission commander (George Clooney). What Cuarón didn’t know was how he could possibly film it. ”We realized that it was impossible to do because everyone is in zero g throughout the movie,” he says. ”So we had to invent the technology.” That meant developing a groundbreaking system of LED panels, computer-controlled cameras, and complicated wirework — and then digitally erasing it all in the final film to provide a believable, invisible framework for Bullock’s performance, much of which she delivered while strapped to a rig in the middle of a box of computerized lights. ”If you’re acting to no one and seeing nothing, you think, as an actor, I don’t know what part of my body I’m going to pull this out of,” says the actress. Judging by the roar of Oscar buzz around her performance, Bullock managed just fine — and here’s a glimpse at how she and the Gravity team did it.
Inside the light box, which projected motion-controlled light onto her face, Bullock was strapped to one of several rigs that would move her body to simulate zero-gravity conditions. ”It took so long to get in and out of the rig that if they knew it would be an hour before the next setup, it was just easier and less painful mentally to stay in there,” says Bullock. ”There were always people down below going, ‘Do you want a cup of coffee? Do you need to email someone? Do you want [Bullock’s son] Louis in here?’ But if I had the cup of coffee, then I’d have to pee. And if they brought Louis in, then I’d be sad that I wasn’t with him and he was concerned — ‘Why are you in that contraption?’ They were so sweet about just trying to make my time better, but everything actually just made it worse. I said, ‘Just leave me alone and I’ll just stay here.”’
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Shooting with cameras mounted on computer-controlled arms (a contraption that the crew nicknamed Iris) was a challenge for the actors, who had to mentally stay in the scene while machinery swirled around them. ”Here comes this seven-ton machine 30 miles an hour toward your head, and you’re bolted from the chest down into this other rotating machine, and the camera will come flying into you and stop literally six inches from your nose,” recalls Clooney (pictured above rehearsing with Bullock and Cuarón). ”And you can’t duck because you’re bolted in. And there are a bunch of technogeeks up there going, ‘We got it!’ I was like, ‘I know — but if you don’t, my head comes off!’ It was funny. We made a lot of jokes about it.”
When Clooney joined Bullock on set for a few weeks of the three-month shoot, the actress says, ”It was like the party entered the room.” And since some of their onscreen moments together are lighthearted, the pair allowed themselves to have fun between takes, especially with their behind-the-scenes soundtrack. ”George and I are literally separated at birth. I mean, musically…we would just punch up the playlist and it was music and joy and joking,” says Bullock. ”We both love the song ‘Rapper’s Delight.’ We’d compete to see who knows the words more. That was a daily occurrence. It still is a daily occurrence every time we’re around each other.”
While filming an underwater scene, Cuarón held his breath along with Bullock to make sure he wasn’t asking too much of his star — but he soon found he couldn’t match her lung power. ”Halfway through the take, I was gasping for air — and she just kept on going,” says the director, who got worried when the actress seemed too relaxed underwater. ”At some point we were like, ‘Sandy, are you okay?”’ he recalls. ”And she would say, ‘I’m fine! Don’t ruin the take!”’