The Magic of Gravity

I find that for me, there are few bonuses working in Computer Science. Today however, was one of those rare occasions. I attended a talk this afternoon from two University of Nottingham alumni (one was from Computer Science!) who work for a company called Framestore, a special effects company who notably worked on Alfonso Cuaron’s amazing block buster, Gravity.

Richard Graham (Visual Effects Producer on Gravity) and Mark Hills (Framestore’s Head of System Development) gave a unique and fascinating insight into how they overcame the obstacles of creating 3D graphics.

I won’t give away the secrets. We were actually asked not to photograph or video the presentation, as one of the conditions of the talk being able to take place was on the understanding that the techniques described were not made public. This might sound silly, but a lot of ground breaking techniques were developed especially for this film and it is a competitive business.

I will say that the amount of work involved in the 3 year long production was immense. It apparently takes one 8 processor computer 24 hours to render a single frame. The film was shot in  24fps. It would have taken a single computer 7000 years to render the whole movie.

The effort they went to to create realistic lighting alone was mammoth, and deserves an Oscar.

The highlight for me was when one particular pedant (the token physicist apparently) mentioned how there were some inaccuracies in the movie. I have seen know-it-alls puffing their pigeon chests out over this time and time again on social media, and laying claims of ineptitude at the door of the effects company. The two guys answered his question with far more grace and patience than I could have mustered.

gravity_movie_stillGravity is a movie. A drama. Drama being short for dramatisation. It is not meant to be 100% scientifically accurate. First and foremost, the film is a representation of the director’s vision. The remit of the effects team is to supply what the Director demands. They expended countless hours and expense trying to achieve unprecedented levels of reality, but sometimes, reality just isn’t enough.

For instance, they had to ensure that there was always interesting land mass on view when the earth’s surface was in shot because no one wants a scene over the Pacific. Flames were added to some of the explosions. In an environment containing no oxygen, this is pure fantasy. Sometimes, poetic license is entirely appropriate.

There is a scene where the protagonist, played by the beautiful and talented Sandra Bullock, disengages an escape pod from the International Space Station. This scene took less than five minutes. A NASA consultant said this procedure takes approximately 45 minutes. Not really appropriate in a 1hr 30 movie, when you are trying to maintain levels of tension.

If you haven’t seen Gravity yet, I urge you to do so while it is still on in theatres. It is a truly breathtaking movie and needs a large screen to do these guy’s work justice.

If you need more convincing, please see the lovely Ren Warom’s review (may contain spoilers)


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