Over the weekend, I picked up the excellent new Blu-ray release of Gravity, and I spent most of last night watching some of its riveting special features. I’d long since been blown away by this film’s cinematic and technical ambitions, which have been amply chronicled elsewhere, but seeing the production footage took my appreciation to another level. Alfonso Cuarón, his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber began with a considerable logistical challenge—how to depict weightlessness with a constantly moving camera and many extended takes—that required both the development of new technology and a considerable amount of ingenuity. Many of you have probably already read about the light box that was used to film the actors’ faces and integrate them into digital environments, the robotic cameras, and the innovative wirework, all of which required obsessive dedication and attention to detail, and the result is simultaneously spectacular and meant to be taken for granted. If the lighting on Sandra Bullock’s face hadn’t matched her surroundings, few of us would have been able to articulate the issue, but it would have subtly undermined the entire film.
And what strikes me the most about Gravity‘s accomplishments is their specificity. These techniques were designed at great expense to address the particular problems that this story presented, and it’s unclear how often something like Lubezki’s light box will be used again. For most movies, even ambitious science-fiction epics, the existing toolbox of visual effects is more than adequate. Digital head replacement, for instance, has been used for a long time, and for a film that doesn’t need to confront the complicated filming and lighting challenges that this story involved, there’s no reason to move beyond what has worked in the past. (It’s also important to note that these virtuoso extended shots serve a clear purpose—to recreate the feel of real space footage, which doesn’t have the benefit of rapid cuts and multiple cameras. Again, the storytelling drives the technology, not the other way around, which is precisely how it should be.) As a result, the behind-the-scenes footage from Gravity has a very different feel from similar material about, say, Avatar: in the latter case, you have a movie that points the way forward for countless similar films, while the former feels like a gorgeous set of solutions to problems that may never arise again.
But of course, every artistic advance, in any medium, results from an attempt to tackle something specific. It always comes down to artists confronting the projects they’re working on at the time, and if the solutions they discover happen to have a more general application, that’s just a happy accident. As a writer, you’re never thinking in terms of conscious innovation; you’re just trying to get a character out of one room and into another, or to evoke a particular theme or emotional state. The innovations themselves arise from the difficulty of the problem you’re trying to fix, which is contingent on many other factors, and will often end up being greater than you originally expected. Cuarón didn’t set out to invent a new kind of filmmaking with Gravity; he states repeatedly that he originally saw it as a small, relatively simple movie with two characters that could be made in a short period of time, but in the end, it took him half a decade. (I’m reminded a little of the French director Leos Carax, who wanted to make an intimate film set on the Pont Neuf in Paris, which was closed for construction at the time. Unfortunately, by the time he started shooting, the bridge had reopened, so he simply built his own bridge from scratch, as well as much of the city to either side, and the result was the most expensive movie ever made in France.)
And there’s no way of knowing how the specific solutions created by Gravity will be used in the future. In all likelihood, it’ll be in ways we can’t expect. Maybe, if they ever get around to the remake of Ben-Hur they’re always threatening to produce, it’ll be used to convincingly put actors into an extended take of the chariot race, with the camera moving fluidly among the wheels and the horses’ hooves; maybe it will be used in a dream sequence by the likes of David Cronenberg; or maybe it will be something else altogether. All that matters is that the solutions exist, and in time, they’ll be used to tackle problems that nobody could have imagined. And innovations don’t need a budget of millions of dollars, as long as you remember that they come from an extended engagement with specific problems. I’ve pointed out before that what we call genre is really a set of best practices, a collection of conventions, worked out by trial and error, that have proven to work for a wide range of stories and audiences. If they seem inevitable now, it’s only because the solutions—which originally were designed for the benefit of just one story—ended up being so powerful. There’s no such thing as pure research in the arts: it’s all about getting the sentence or the shot you need today. And if achieving it sometimes requires inventing a new science or art form, well, that’s just part of the game.