First, go see Gravity in 3D IMAX. Why? Because Patriotism: the ISS is partly Canadian, the Canadarm and Dextre appear in the movie, and IMAX is a Canadian invention. Also, IMAX has been to the real ISS. 3D is almost mandatory in a space movie, where there a fewer environment queues to indicate relative position, like say, the Earth 300 miles below you, or the peaks of the Himalayan mountains 1% closer.
The movie itself was made with the contribution of robotic arms to lend a complete sense of zero G choreography. Cameras have been controlled robotically for at least 40 years for special effect shots. Motion control cameras were developed for Star Wars (computer controlled) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (mechanical), since those films require repeated camera passes of the same spaceship models, allowing each passes’ film to be overlayed with the next, lining up things like lights, background, engine glow, perfectly. No human could match the repeatability. Check out this video about John Dykstra’s pioneering work on robotic camera control.
But robots have another capability other than endless perfect repetition – the motion can be planned, carefully, and in motion paths that would tax a camera person: simultaneous pan, tilt, zoom, dolly, rack, in smooth elegant arcs. In the world of CG, cameras have always had this freedom to move on gentle curves, maintaining flawless lock on a subject (in fact it takes quite a bit of talent to add back in the ‘human’ elements of a camera operator, as demonstrated so well in Battlestar Galactica.)
Putting those virtual camera moves into a real camera is something that Bot and Dolly handled in Gravity - their demo reel shows the alien smoothness and confidence of a robotic camera in action. Another demo reel by The Marmalade shows the new high-framerate possibilities of precise high speed motion control using their Spike robot camera system.
The technology is nothing without the illusion-creating setup. One robot can be fitted with the camera. Another can be fitted with, say, an actor/astronaut, or a keylight. Moving these two carefully can ‘null out’ any hint that a scene was filmed in gravity, since the gravity that we expect to be coming from one direction in a scene can now be coming from anywhere. In fact, full-motion flight simulators use the trick of “redirecting Gravity” to simulate the feel a pilot would have in a real aircraft. Like any good special effect, the trick is to fool the senses, not to simulate reality.
The big change in this technology is the real-time speed (i.e. fast!) at which the cameras can now be moved with high accuracy. The control software and motors have been refined so that the possibilities of motion are now beyond what a human operator can do. For example, here is an industrial pancake sorting robot (!), performing at about 3 pancakes per second, and another playing perfect pool.
Of course, you need a Director who is up to using these tools, and this was the case. Alfonso Cuaron has apparently wanted to be two things – an Astronaut and a Director, and being a director pays better. He is also known for his very long continuous shots with no cuts, and the opening scene, as one of the characters in the movie says, “breaks the record”. The cinematography really is the core of the movie, since the alien world of zero G, where momentum is dominant, is the Antagonist. (Check out a demo by ISS astronaut Mike Fossum on Angular Momentum before you see the movie!)
The difficulty is that the camera motion is now the star of the show, meaning the actors have to adapt to the shot, and the shot has to be pre-visualized and planned more carefully, as described here by the Director. Although the control system opens up new possibilities, organic control and intuitive direction of the tool become the next challenge. “Hey Robocam, orbit around Sandra B’s head as she squints into the sun setting behind the rim of the Earth”….no? You only understand 6-degree-of-freedom target points and motion splines? And you want a Union? Hmm.”
For a great Astronaut’s View on the movie, check out Mark Kelly’s write-up at the Washington Post.
For the excellent in-depth view of the movie’s tech, check out CG Society’s article.
And if you think that the plot line is somewhat infeasible, this overview from ESA might convince you otherwise: spacejunk is a huge problem for astronauts, and satellites and manned missions do have to get out of the way periodically!
If you are interested in the unique editing and shot style of the movie, contrast it with the “traditional repetoire” of editing techniques to move from one shot to the next. This oldschool web site gives a great overview, with long duration shots, or “Plan Sequence”, near the bottom.