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Gravity's Oscar-Winning Visual Effects Mastermind Talks about Computer Graphics and "Weightlessness"

Tim Webber won the Oscar this week for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for his work on Gravity
Scene from Gravity, movie.


"We had to invent, design and create it to solve the challenges and make Alfonso’s vision become reality."
Image courtesy of Warner Bros / Framestore

Originally posted on SoapBox Science, a community guest blog from Nature.com

Tim Webber is a visual effects supervisor  who has worked on an array of critically acclaimed blockbusters. He joined British visual effects company Framestore in 1988 and has been the driving force behind the company’s push into digital film and television, developing Framestore’s virtual camera and motion rig systems. He has worked on The Dark Knight, James Cameron’s Avatar and was second unit director on the Hallmark production of Merlin. He has most recently taken charge as Warner Brother’s VFX supervisor on Alfonso Cuarón’s space epic, Gravity. He won the Bafta Award for Best Special Effects and the Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects.

Tim Webber has become one of the most talked about people in film in recent months. In the past, he has been an ‘unsung hero’ of visual effects, who has wielded his magic on many memorable cinematic scenes. From his previous Oscar nod on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in 2008, to creating the CG baby in Children of Men with Gravity’s director Alfonso Cuarón ; Webber has been a visionary, who until recently, has shied away from the spotlight.

Thrust deservedly into the limelight with last night’s Oscar win (Best Achievement in Visual Effects) and the previous month’s Bafta success for space epic, Gravity, Webber and the influential team of visual effects artists from Framestore have taken filmmaking to a whole new level. Yet Webber, who had a passion for Maths and Physics at school, before completing a degree in Physics at Oxford, still finds the attention and acclaim surprising.

“It was difficult to know how it was going to go down with audiences. It could have fallen flat as a fairly unusual film, largely focused on one person in space. We thought it may be a tough film to sell to the public,” says a softly spoken Webber. “It was such a relief when it first came out and the reception has been very gratifying, with the award acclaim further acknowledgement.”

Science Grounding
For Webber, his scientific grounding has helped him explore the links between artistic and scientific creativity, none more so than in Gravity. “The physics grounding I had through education has often informed my work and knowledge, for example:  in understanding the way light bounces off objects and behaves, through to simulating water flow.  Also, when animating a simple character in motion, the understanding of the basic laws of physics is so important in getting the movement right.”

It was movement and weightlessness that were arguably the biggest priorities Webber and team were so keen to get right. Sifting through hundreds of images of NASA crew members and grilling astronauts was one part of the research, while physics lessons were another.

“We looked into considerable depth at the way astronauts move in space to understand the way orbits work and to make the film as real as possible. The key to good animation is giving a character weight, as if their feet are actually pushing on the ground,” explains Webber. “What we had to do with the animation team was completely change their inbuilt understanding, because suddenly we were in a world that was weightless. Trying to match that movement was totally different to the way in which the animators were trained.”

Webber hosted lectures behind the scenes on the physics of space and the rules of zero gravity and no air resistance so the animators could understand the theory. By assessing hours of NASA footage, many soon learned to change their habits and do things differently.

Early Innovator
Webber joined the British visual effects company Framestore in 1988, where he became a driving force behind the company’s push into digital film and television. An early innovator in the field, he developed Framestore’s virtual camera and motion rig systems. Supervising some of the most technically and artistically challenging projects, Webber has worked on an array of acclaimed films including the Hallmark production of Merlin, Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are and James Cameron’s Avatar.

“The visual effects world is one that is continually evolving and with every project we do, we make bold steps forwards. Avatar was a pretty complex film with a large budget. With Gravity, we had to film it in a much more affordable way and ensure it looked as realistic as possible,” says Webber. “The way in which we combined filming with CG was big progress and the fact that the shots were so incredibly long made it more complicated. We had to push major boundaries.”

Vision Becomes Reality
It is well reported that Alfonso Cuarón’s film took many years to come into fruition. The whole production of the film lasted roughly four and half years, with three years on visual effects. “It was a long process with a lot of work done in preparation for the shoot. We had nearly all the film designed beforehand in order to control all the contraptions and to see what we needed to shoot to fit in with the visual effects. The actual shoot was only three months long, compared to the post production process of two years.

“When Alfonso had the idea, he talked to many other people who had worked on complex visual effects films, some of whom said it was impossible to shoot for another five years. The technology at the time just didn’t exist. We had to invent, design and create it to solve the challenges and make Alfonso’s vision become reality.”

Pushing Boundaries
At the peak of filming, there were 270 people involved from Framestore and around 460 visual effects artists across the duration of the production.  Ground-breaking techniques were developed in three particular areas. Webber says putting cameras on robots enabled the team to very accurately control moving cameras at fast speeds and in flexible ways that had not been done before at that level. Then there was the much admired ‘lightbox’, a 10ft by 10ft cube, which enabled Sandra Bullock’s face to be filmed while the rest of her body was digitally recreated.

“The lightbox was a mechanical contraption we designed and built from scratch with 4,000 LED lightbulbs fitted. The inside of the cube essentially featured very bright tv screens based on the panels that are used behind artists at rock concerts. It enabled us to project and move lights around the actors to simulate the environment they would experience in space.”

The final technique was a 12 wire rig which the crew used to “puppeteer” actress Sandra Bullock. “We supported Sandra with 12 individual wires, four pointing on her, each one triangulated with three wires. So, by changing the length of all those wires individually we could position each of those four points in three dimensional space to be wherever we wanted – in a very stable and controlled way,” says Webber. He said it was a real added challenge for the actors Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, since it involved extra physical work. “We went to great lengths to make it as comfortable as possible, but more importantly we wanted to be sure it was as easy for them to understand what was going on around them, and that was one of the advantages of the lightbox. It was very tricky to act and I was amazed how brilliantly they were both able to adapt to these circumstances.”

Success Story
The success story that Gravity has become over the last year, both in moving cinematic experiences to a whole new level and in recognizing the achievements of the many visual effects people behind the scenes, has been monumental and inspiring. The team could not have imagined the success levels garnered through seven Oscars, including Best Director and Cinematography, as well as six Baftas for Best Film and Director. Webber admits this level of recognition is something very new to him. “People continually come up to me on the street and tell me they’ve been to see the film three, four, many other times. One mother, who took her son to see it the other day, came up to me and said ‘to see the look in his eyes, I knew it was the moment he realized what cinema can do.’ And to get those kinds of stories is unbelievably satisfying.”

For more weekly interviews, including Buzz Aldrin and Google’s Parisa Tabriz, view Soapbox Science.

This article is reproduced with permission from the Nature SoapBox Science blog. The article was first published on March 3, 2014.

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