“Gravity” Rising, RSP crafts a spectacular re-entry sequence for Alfonso Cuaron’s new space thriller.
Gravity, the sci-fi adventure film from Warner Bros and director Alfonso Cuaron, is one of the most highly-anticipated releases of 2013. Academy Award-winners Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts who become stranded above Earth during a visit to a Chinese space station. A tense tale of survival, the film is also a visual tour de force. Writing in the Hollywood Reporter, Scott Feinberg called Gravity “one of the most visually magnificent films that I have ever seen.”
Rising Sun Pictures’ role in Gravity centered on a sequence late in the film when the mammoth Tiangong space station reenters Earth’s atmosphere and plunges toward the ground. Working under the direction of Alfonso Cuaron, visual effects supervisor Tim Webber and visual effects producer Nikki Penny, and alongside lead visual effects provider Framestore, RSP produced a stereoscopic 3D sequence spanning 17 shots and two and a half minutes of screen time that follows the spacecraft as it dives through the atmosphere, colliding with debris and breaking apart, before parachutes slow its fall.
Tony Clark, RSP’s co-founder and visual effects supervisor for the project, says that the sequence is among the most intricate work the company has ever produced, citing the speed of the spacecraft’s fall, the length of the sequence and the number of objects and physical forces that come into play.
“The hardest thing to visualize is something that everyone knows to exist, but no one has actually seen,” Clark explains. “We all have an idea of what happens to a spacecraft as it enters the atmosphere, but no one has witnessed such an event from the outside at close proximity.”
Design and execution of the sequence took more than a year. Framestore initially provided RSP with the digital model of the exterior of the Tiangong space station that it created for the film. RSP artists matched the textures of the Framestore asset using its own rendering tools while adding many new details, visible only in its shots. The complexity of the space station led to extremely long render times—two and a half days per shot on average—and pushed the limits of the operating system due to the thousands of textures that had to be managed.
As part of the design process, RSP artists studied images of real-world spacecraft and how they behaved in space and upon reentering earth’s atmosphere. “We obtained amazing, high-resolution photos from NASA of their crafts in orbit,” recalls Ben Paschke, look development supervisor. “That reference was indispensable to the look development.”
Production of background elements was equally challenging. Artists created detailed matte paintings of Earth, as well as the space environment and a debris field consisting of thousands of fragmentary particles caught in low-earth orbit. RSP generated background elements for some low altitude shots by strapping high-resolution cameras to weather balloons and sending them up into the sky, 36km (23 miles) above the Australian Outback.
As the space station begins its descent, it accelerates quickly and is buffeted by atmosphere and debris. It also becomes engulfed in flames and ablation caused by the melting of its heat shield. Plasma forms around its nose. As it drops further, it begins to break apart. Each of these forces and physical processes needed to be charted and simulated with pinpoint accuracy. “One of the challenges was conveying the immense speed with no visual point of reference,” explains. Prema Paetsch, lead FX artist.
Ablation and plasma appearing around the craft forms a kind of deflection shield. Artists applied animated shockwaves along this shield to indicate the forces encountered by the falling craft that are causing it to break apart. Parts of the craft were designed to tear and break off along painted seams, and to deform or flap as they encounter wind resistance. “The plasma and ablation are composed of lots and lots of fine particles that interact with each other and the craft,” says Paetsch. “It took lots of exploration to find the right balance.”
RSP’s compositing team was tasked with blending all of the elements together. “We had an exhaustive list of components to manage and each was highly dependent on the others,” observes Dennis Jones, asset manager. “We effectively compounded these into sets that were as small as possible to conserve resources.”
The result, says Clark, is one of the most thrilling scenes in the film. “It’s a big layer cake,” he concludes. “In every shot there is an enormous amount going on, literally hundreds of layers of renders and simulations that are being set off. It’s a wonderful example of what we do as a company: we solve problems with great efficiency and we deliver beautiful images that audiences enjoy.”
For more information on Gravity, visit the official site.
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