Introducing the secret star of ‘Gravity’: an LED light box

 

One of Future of Light’s favorite places to discover lighting and design innovations is London’s Barbican. After visiting the venue a few months ago for UVA’s Momentum, we were thrilled to be invited back there for the new Digital Revolution exhibition.


Among the exciting exhibitions on offer, one of the most interesting things we got to experience was how lighting innovations were directly involved in some of our favorite films. For example, the Oscar-winning Gravity features in an immersive installation that explains the technology behind the imagery’.

The fact that LED lighting can be connected to stimuli such as coding or motion sensors, paired with its low maintenance requirements and predictable output, has made it a great solution for cutting-edge lighting design within film.


When Gravity’s director Alfonso Cuarón, cinematographer Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber were establishing how best to depict the dangers of space in an unprecedented level of detail, they first took a trip in a zero-gravity aircraft. Ruling this out, they went on to conduct tests with traditional film lights mounted on robots, before turning to LED as a potential solution.


Because taking the actors and crew up into real space presented what would be mildly termed ‘logistical issues’, – namely, the exact unpredictability of space upon which the film is based - the live elements of the movie were filmed on soundstages in the UK’s Pinewood and Shepperton Studios.


In many parts of the film, the only non-computer-generated elements in the shot are the actors’ faces. In order to achieve genuine reactions to the environment, Lubezki and Webber oversaw the construction of a light box: a 10m by 10m rig, covered on the inside with approximately 1.9million LED lights.


This rig, dubbed ‘Sandy’s Cage’ by the crew allowed Lubezki, in collaboration with Webber and his team at creative house Framestore, to light the actors with a previously impossible level of detail. Instead of using a combination of larger spotlights on rigs to create an approximation of a scene, Lubezki and Webber were able to use LEDs to project the images of Earth, stars and space shuttles that would be seen in the final film – as the characters themselves would be viewing them.


The visible effects of this approach are perhaps most pronounced in the film’s opening shots, which see Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) sent spinning into space by the momentum from a detached structure. As the audience, we view this as an extreme close-up on Bullock’s face, seeing even her eyes react to the Earth’s light as it continually flashes past her eyes, getting further and further away.


However, the lighting effects produced by the light box are seen throughout the movie, because the entire film was pre-visualized prior to principal photography (in this case, the process of filming the actors). As such, the corresponding reverse shots could also be designed and played on the light box, producing a broader range of lighting environments for the actors to react to.


The end result of using lighting technology in this way is a spectacular reimagining of what is possible in cinema. The best part? If you’re able to head along to the Digital Revolution exhibition, you can get a very small taste of what it was like to be in the light box for yourself.

What’s your favorite example of lighting on film? Is it a really obvious lighting scheme shining a spotlight? Or do you think more subtle lighting is best to showcase the action?


Special thanks to Framestore for their help with putting this article together.

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