Gravity - Mo-Sys heads to space

With now two Academy Awards (Gravity, Birdman) calling his own, Emanuel 'Chivo' Lubezki is the DoP in much demand. He is acclaimed for his work with film visionaries like Terrence Malick, the Coen Brothers, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu. A friend of Mo-Sys for a decade, Chivo knows and appreciates the advantages of our remote heads, seeing that reliability and robustness are two major keys for high end film productions.

After pushing technical boundaries with Gravity he went back to a more traditional, but no less compelling, camera work in Inarritu's 'Birdman'. In both films he used our Lambda head for crane shots. The challenge to find an enthralling space aesthetic for Gravity required technological innovation. Read here how Mo-Sys became an integral part in finding practical solutions and how our technology was used in the filming process.

Why did Gravity approach Mo-Sys?

After initial tests in San Francisco, where our Lambda remote head was introduced to Bot&Dolly - a high precision robotic motion control rig, Chivo and his team were convinced that our equipment was up for the task. With 20 heads already in use in Hollywood, the Mo-Sys Lambda, with its three axes, high precision and zero backlash was the best possible companion for the Bot&Dolly robot.

 

However, in order to film inside an LED box - a five by five metre cube that lights the actors on a gimbal inside the box according to their CG environment presented an interesting challenge. Chivo requested a transparent frame so no shadows would be cast on the actors when the camera goes around them. One of Mo-Sys strengths is to adapt to customers’ demands and our team readily came up with a suitable solution. After several design iterations and prototypes made out of wood, we ended up with a triangulated aluminium space frame construction. The result was that the Gravity-head didn’t block the light coming from the LED box. Later this concept grew into our new gyro stabilised Exim.

Almost every shot was made with robotic camera heads from Mo-Sys. We used four Mo-Sys heads attached to industrial robots and cranes. For filming in the lightbox we needed a head that reduced shadows on the actors faces. Mo-Sys came up with clever ideas and their reliability and precision was essential for this production.
- Emmanuel 'Chivo' Lubezki 

With the ultralight design and the high standard performance and all the features of the Lambda head, the Gravity-head was ideal for the special task and ready to meet Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Equipped with two customised heads and two regular Lambdas, for interior shots inside a space capsule, the Gravity team began filming the technically ambitious project in March 2011.

 

How did Gravity and Mo-Sys work together?

The story of two astronauts marooned in space is told with the camera. “Generally the camera would be moving instead of the person,” says Tim Webber, the VFX supervisor, who also worked on Avatar. The camera floats around the characters and changes from breathtaking wide shots of space to intense close dialogue shots and back again, often within a few seconds.

 

This kind of camera work required a system that was able to move the camera freely around the actors without putting them in uncomfortable positions. The complex moves were planned out, choreographed and recorded inside Autodesk Maya and later during production played back by the Bot&Dolly robot. “It’s always difficult to translate these virtual moves into the real world,” explains Olli Kellmann, motion control operator. “These things have to be tested, and there are many factors that could mess up a move on set that have no impact on the virtual camera inside the CG environment. Things like the strength of a motor, and how the acceleration and the gravitational force affect the rig.”

 

To test the waters, Olli and his colleague, Raul Rodriguez, started playing the moves back with 10% of their actual speed and then gradually pushed it up to the full 100%. The slow-motion playback gave them the time to tidy cables that were in the way and make adjustments when the head reached its limit, which according to Olli was rarely the case - another testament to the strong performance of the Lambda head.

In addition the Mo-Sys head gave Chivo the option to load and playback the pre-designed moves. Although these pre-recorded moves were a crucial part, it was also of great value to have enough flexibility during shooting. “You need to be able to respond to what they want out of a shot” says Webber. Reframing a scene, refining camera moves, and reacting to the timing of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney was only possible with the live-operated Gravity-head.