Space, Space, Everywhere, Not A Place to Rest!

Space, Space, Everywhere, Not A Place to Rest!

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I'm going to narrate a story to you… this story has no antagonist… it has one person either talking to herself or to a voice without a face for the majority of the film… the film is roughly an hour and a half long with only one person showing her face for about an hour of it… and there is no scenery to speak of, as the entire film is happening in space (in the literal sense - blackness, distant view of the earth included). Did I mention there was just one character for two-thirds of the film, and we get to see her in almost every single frame? Well, if someone had narrated me these lines and asked for some money, I would've probably directed the person to the mental asylum… and how wrong I would've been!
As I saw the first trailer of Gravity from Alfonso Cuaron, I thought, as had many others (I am guessing?) that this was but one scene in a movie that would probably have, if not anything else, more people. However, I have to admit I had my apprehensions about Cuaron. To me, he will always be the main who robbed the Harry Potter franchise from Chris Columbus and took it in a direction that was neither a pure adaptation nor a standalone movie that made sense. I consequently blamed all the pitfalls of the future editions of Potter on the misdirection he gave it in the first place (I do not know if ardent fans of PD James had similar opinions with Children of Men as well). So, I was a bit relieved when I saw Gravity was no adaptation.

When the movie finally came out, and the reviews were rave, my curiosity got the better of me. I have to admit that I was far more curious to see how 3D worked in a space movie than how Cuaron has handled the script. I have been a 3D stereographer for about 8 years, and I've always told my students and colleagues that 3D requires cluttered compositions with a lot of objects to work, so the viewer can subconsciously position every object in 3D space correctly. Since the day I saw the trailer of Gravity in 3D, I started experimenting with minimalistic 3D, and found to my amazement that good stories can still be told effectively with this technology! Then again, I was a bit skeptical if this would work for a 90-minute film. So, as I raced against time (quite literally in my case) and settled in my seat just as the film started, I had no idea my perceptions of cinema and the use of technology were in for a toss. 
As the first frame of Gravity unfolds, the vastness of space starts engulfing you - it draws you in, gives you all the space in the world, and makes you feel claustrophobic at the same time. The characters in the film come in matter-of-factly, and ensure the awe of space doesn't leave us just yet. By the time the disaster strikes, we are in no way left rooting for the protagonist, except that we realize subconsciously that the space that had us trapped just trapped someone else. This sudden realization connects us to the protagonist in ways much deeper than any elaborate setup. Then we start spinning along with her waiting for the spinning to stop, and then… wait! Did we just become one with the protagonist here? From here, the film traces the journey of the protagonist - scientist Dr Ryan Stone - and her travails, taking the viewers with her on one heck of a breathtaking journey.
I don't want to discuss the story aspects of the film here, as it might spoil it for people who have not seen the film. From a technical standpoint, this film is nothing short of a masterpiece. It takes tremendous guts to make a movie like this, and even more guts to act as the central character of such a film, completely before a green screen. Hats off to Sandra Bullock for pulling off a stellar performance! She really managed to pull off the entire film on her shoulders. I read a bit of trivia that Sandra got the part after Angelina Jolie and Natalie Portman had to refuse the role. But come to think of it now, I am unable to visualize either in Dr Stone shoes, or should I say suit?
The VFX department has worked extremely hard to create the nothingness of space and make it an integral character in the film! The team at Framestore deserve a pat on their backs for taking us to space! Prepare yourselves for an Oscar, people! You earned it!
The 3D conversion by Prime Focus has been top notch once again! I find it very hard to think how this movie would look in 2D! This is one film that says it out aloud, "3D can be used to tell a story, and not just bring objects out of the screen". Well said, people!
As John Lasseter, the founder of Pixar Animation Studios said, "The art challenges the technology; and the technology inspires the art". When these two combine, the result is nothing short of a spectacle. Gravity, to me, is just that - a spectacle. However, the kind of turmoil one has to go through in realizing a movie of these proportions is often lost on the audiences when they see the end product. Not for a moment do they realize that 95% of this movie has been created digitally. There are several shots in the film where Curaon has just used the head of the actor and replaced everything else in the frame with digital sets and props and digital body doubles. For all that work these people did, I only wish the audiences stayed till the end of the end credits and acknowledge the technicians who brought this film to life. It's all these people live for!
As I stepped out of the theater after the film, I started feeling a myriad of emotions - I felt elated I was a part of this amazing industry and yet felt a twang that I haven't made a sizable contribution to it yet, I felt satisfied for seeing such a wonderful film and yet felt depressed that science fiction was still not a mainstream genre in our cinema, I felt uplifted that somebody proved once again that technology can be used for effective storytelling and yet felt skeptical if everyone would see it that way, I felt proud that I was a part of the generation witnessing the change and a responsibility in my capacity as a teacher in this field to help bring in a few more.
I quote often in my classes, "Rules exist only to be re-written". I know re-invention and re-discovery form the roots of filmmaking, and more so teaching about film making! So, as I prepare to make my way into the classroom next week, I'll do so, having updated myself with this re-invented style of filmmaking.
A word to Mr Curaon - I forgive you for ruining Potter! You've more than redeemed yourself!


Anandh Ramesh

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