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'Gravity' Oscar buzz showcases UK visual effects industry

LONDON (Reuters) - Some viewers love Alfonso Cuaron's space thriller "Gravity" and others think it pales in comparison with classics like Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", but pretty much anyone who has seen it agrees the visual effects are stunning.
/ Source: Reuters

LONDON (Reuters) - Some viewers love Alfonso Cuaron's space thriller "Gravity" and others think it pales in comparison with classics like Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", but pretty much anyone who has seen it agrees the visual effects are stunning.

While the film was financed and produced in the United States, the studio that created the visual effects - which have been nominated for an Academy Award - is British, adding to the accolades UK firms have accumulated in the field.

"It's not a movie where we're putting visual effects into a film," said Tim Webber, who was visual effects supervisor for "Gravity". "It's a movie that is created using visual effects from the ground up."

British talent was propelled into the industry limelight by the "Harry Potter" series, which involved UK companies Cinesite, Double Negative and Framestore, where Webber is director of visual effects.

"The Harry Potter series was a sort of backbone but the industry grew up to be quite significant around it and by the time it ended there was plenty of other work going through London to keep it going," Webber said in an interview.

In "Gravity", which has been nominated for a total of 10 Oscars, producers had to contend with the challenges posed by a film set entirely in space as well as replicating the look and feel of weightlessness in a 3D movie environment.

"Gravity affects every tiny movement," Webber said.

To ensure the film looked as realistic as possible, "an awful lot" of the film had to be created on the computer and shots of the actors' faces would then be added in, meaning the lighting had to be perfect, Webber said.

The first step was to create a previsualization of the whole film, basically an animated version of the movie where everything, from lighting to the actors' movements, was planned out in advance.

"When we got to the set ... we knew exactly what the movement was going to be at every moment and exactly what the lighting was going to be so that we could make sure that we were filming George's and Sandra's faces to fit in with that movement," he said, referring to stars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock.

To achieve the perfect effect, Webber's team devised a "light box", a 10x10-foot box with giant, bright screens on the inside, to replicate the environment around the actors.

Cuaron's shooting style compounded the difficulties. About 70 percent of the 91-minute film consisted of just 17 shots, Webber said, meaning a significant number of shots were several minutes long, in sharp contrast to most films in which shots only last a few seconds each.

The opening scene is almost 13 minutes long, starting with an awe-inspiring view of Earth from space and gradually zooming in to three astronauts working on the Hubble telescope.

The camera rotates seamlessly around the telescope, following Clooney's stomach-turning orbits and alternating between close-up views and more panoramic ones.

"All of those different types of shots would be rolled into one so we had to find solutions that worked across all (of them)," Webber said.

When Bullock says that keeping her lunch down in zero gravity is no easy feat, it is hard not to sympathize as the rolling movements of the camera recalls the nausea-inducing swell of the ocean.


The success of "Gravity" has highlighted the work going on in the visual effects industry in London, centered in the small, buzzing district of Soho.

"Lots of film studios or film directors are coming to Framestore and saying 'I saw what you did on "Gravity" and it was amazing and makes me keen to work with you'," said Webber.

The company has its hands full with a new film for Disney-owned Marvel Studios, "Guardians of the Galaxy", as well as two films that will be released later this year, "RoboCop" and "Dracula Untold".

The fact that the companies are all within walking distance of each other has fostered a healthy sense of competition which encourages innovation, Webber said.

"We all bump into each other down at the pub, that's a very strong environment for visual effects to develop in," he said.

Britain's 71.4-billion-pound ($118-billion) creative industry, including film, TV, software and music, was a bright spot in the economy in 2012, contributing 5.6 percent of UK jobs, according to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

While total employment rose by less than 0.7 percent between 2011 and 2012, jobs in the creative industry increased by 8.6 percent, it said.

The UK government has shown its willingness to support the industry in its half-yearly budget in December by offering more generous terms in its Film Tax Relief scheme.

(Editing by Michael Roddy and Sonya Hepinstall)