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CGIFeature FilmTech

Is Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” An Animated Film?

Animation plays such a seamless role in live-action production nowadays that some films which are identified as live-action are mostly animated. This may seem like a trivial distinction, but when such films are presented to the public as live-action, it devalues the role of animation artists in the process. Quite simply, these films would not exist without animators.

A perfect example of this new technology-driven, animation-heavy hybrid film is Alfonso Cuarón’s highly anticipated space movie Gravity, which opens this Friday. The film used previsualization to a larger extent than almost any other live-action film to date, and was animated once in its entirety before actors even entered the production. The Wall Street Journal’s Don Steinberg explained the process:

First, a complete version of the movie was made inside a computer. The animation process called previsualization is a way that many filmmakers plan scenes, as a step beyond illustrated storyboards. But it’s unusual for an entire film to be “prevised.” Here, they essentially created a Pixar-style animation of the movie containing everything but the actors. The simulated spacecraft and tools other objects needed to look ultra-real rather than cartoony. Rather than just serving as a reference and planning tool, detailed imagery created in the previsualization became the movie…In some scenes in the film, the only thing on the screen that’s a “real” camera shot rather than something computer-generated is Sandra Bullock’s face. The spacesuits often are computer imagery. A couple of physical ship-console sets were built, but actors also interacted with white cardboard panels just to give them something to touch. Even a third astronaut who appears briefly is computer generated, with an actor providing only his voice.

Cuarón should be commended for his ready acknowledgement of animators in the filmmaking process. It’s a marked difference from just a few years ago when Avatar director James Cameron tried to diminish the role of animators in his production through obfuscation and misleading statements. Cuarón, on the other hand, openly discussed his film’s heavy use of animation in a Wired interview:

“We had to do the whole film as an animation first. We edited that animation, even with sound, just to make sure the timing worked with the sound effects and music. And once we were happy with it, we had to do the lighting in the animation as well. Then all that animation translated to actual camera moves and positions for the lighting and actors…We animated for two, maybe two and a half years before we started shooting the actors. Then we shot the film—and then the poor animators had to start from scratch because they had to base their final animations on what was shot. Someone suggested we just call Gravity animation, but I don’t think we can because there’s a fair amount of live action. And it was really hard work for the animators. After all, you learn how to draw based on two main elements: horizons and weight.”

As film production evolves, so too must our terminologies. If the heightened importance of animators in contemporary filmmaking is accurately represented, there is a net benefit to the community. The term ‘hybrid film’ has sometimes been used, which is a good start. However, that term does not effectively describe a film like Gravity which is an ostensibly live-action film that was conceived and produced from an entirely animated framework.

  • George Comerci

    This film would’ve been amazing if it was COMPLETELY animated.

    • jmahon

      the sad part is, if it was, and was advertised as such in any way, people wouldn’t go see it.

      • Dana B

        Pretty much this :/
        With so many films using CG, you’d think people would give animation the respect it deserves, but no…the general publc will just see it as a genre rather than a way of filmmaking.

        Also, the fact the actors are actually shown in the film, rather than just their VOs, is a big selling point as well I believe…

        • superbiasedman

          People generally don’t think of animation and CG as the same. They think of CG as a tool to fix some cracks in live action film and animation will look animated even if it’s highly realistic.

    • Ben

      But would it have been better?

    • Aymanut

      I don’t know. This might piss some people here off, but it sounds like a film that needs a live-action actor. Could a cartoon sustain that type of acting? Just a face for an hour? I’m not sure. What would even be the point?

      • ericlynch990

        you are right. it did need real actors. the important thing about Gravity is that it looks real, regardless if its animated. you dont really feel like youre watching an animated film, you feel like the characters really are in space and thus requires real actors.

  • Pedro Nakama

    Sandra Bullock all by herself panicking for over an hour in space. I’d put a bullet in my head at that screening.

    • wgan

      have you seen the movie?

  • Platynews

    Well …. Wall-E had actors too and was considered an animated film…..

    …AND they are both set in space.
    Coincidence ?
    I think not ! =O

    • Xavi

      Every time i hear the phrase “Coincidence ? I think not!” that scene from The Incredibles pops into my mind when Dash was being accused by his teacher XD

    • tedzey71

      Well, we did get that scene with Sandra Bullock propelling herself through space with a fire-extinguisher!

  • Mister Twister

    No it isn’t.

  • AmidAmidi

    In “Gravity,” the main actors are half-animated and half-live. The lines are blurring, but they increasingly leaning toward animation.

    • George Comerci

      So…would it be animated? This is so confusing >_<

    • The Tacticalist Milk Around

      I wouldn’t call it “half-animated”. It was well over the 75% amount required to be called an animated film. The only shots that had full live action actors was any interior shot (even then, some of her legs were replaced), and before before sea weed part (she was all animated after she went though it). Not to mention it was all hand keyed, not motion capture.This was one movie that definitely should be considered, and we’d look back at it and realize it was a mistake that it was not submitted. Maybe they will make a new category for these types of films.

  • GW

    The film was animated, but wouldn’t it be delightful if they were able to launch probes and film a movie like this from space? On an unrelated note, you could create a talkback for the movie since it uses so much animation.

  • Michel Van

    They notice that only Now ?
    WAKE UP Wall Street Journal !
    Already Clint Eastwood “Space Cowboys” Was made this way.
    Wen was that movie made ? a yes in 2000, THIRTEEN years ago !
    Wall Street Journal journalist to the white courtesy phone…

  • christy

    they must have done an amazing job because currently with 86 reviews its 98% on rotten tomatoes!!!!! wow- read this insane review of it on ‘aint it cool’-i had no interest in this and now i’m really interested!

  • Kara Philip

    (Please, forgive my bad english)
    I don’t see the problem. Since TRON in 1982, The Oscar academy asked itself what is 3D : FX ? another site of animation ? Since the FX industry can make photorealistic FX, it’s not “strange” to see more 3D animation more than real actor’s shots. It’s just… Well… “another” vision of the cinema.

  • HalSolo

    First AVATAR, then LIFE OF PI, now this.

    GRAVITY is not an animated film. Period. There is no argument that will win this.

    Yes, Cuaron used tons of animation and visual effect work, but they were all in the service of matching the REALITY of the live action filmed and the performaces of the actors, whether in reality or on a green/blue screen. This is a marked difference from entirely animated features, which have an entire self contained, self defined reality. That is what separates “animated” and “live action” films in any meaningful way. We can actually debate the visual effects/worlds of AVATAR, PI, GRAVITY, THE MATRIX, 2001, STAR WARS, BLADE RUNNER etc. against one another contextually and it works.

    It is impossible to compare CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS to FROZEN to SNOW WHITE to SPIRITED AWAY to RANGO etc. in the same way, because each is an “animated” film in the truest sense – artists are responsible for every aspect that defines the cinematic reality, from performance to lighting to the physical properties around them, even when actors (such as mo cap or rotoscoping) are used as reference.

    With an “animated” film its fair to argue that the QUALITY of the animation suffers in comparison to other elements in other animated films, but we would not say the animated elements were out of place because they didn’t replicate reality unless they pull us out of the artificial reality of the animated feature, like when bad CG is integrated into otherwise consistent hand drawn animation.

    But when Jerry danced alongside Gene Kelly, nobody argued that suddenly ANCHORS AWAY became an animated film – it was astonishment that the animators were able to seamlessly integrate animation into our “real” world.

    In a “live action” film, even one using as many animators and cg artists as GRAVITY and giving any PIXAR movie a run for its money, the moment those animated visual elements are not in the service of a “real” world around Sandra Bullock, the illusion is ruined for the audience. On their own, those CG space craft, debris and earth would still feel “real” but the moment we say Sandra Bullock is actually in that space, the whole dynamic changes and the audience doesn’t buy it.

    That’s because it is operating on the same terms as a film shot on film with no animators, whether animators like it or not. We only talk about and admire the films that succeed in convincing us we are not looking at an animated world, but one as tangible and believable as our own. AVATAR was not an animated film, because it played by those same cinematic rules.

    Please, no more articles about this. Its simplistic. Otherwise, be consistent in your arguments. If GRAVITY is an “animated” film, so was STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, PACIFIC RIM, WORLD WAR Z and IRON MAN 3. Most of those were pre-visualized almost in their entirety before the cameras rolled, and each of those required hundreds of animators for some element of almost every single shot. Each of those films had entire sequences that exist only as animation.

    I don’t think anyone here would argue those films are “animated” film, neither is GRAVITY.

    I’d consider a really excellent argument about Stephen Chow’s KUNG FU HUSTLE being an animated film, but that’s about it. Please don’t waste time about rotoscoped films live Bakshi or Linklater’s work, we all know those are animated.

    • I know I’m coming to this a little late but I have to disagree with you. Animation IS a medium, not a genre.

      Everytime I see a big FX movie I can almost always tell the CGI from the live action actors. (It’s so hard to make it perfect that my animator eyes can tell right away). In the case of Gravity, I knew that most of it had to be CGI except when a full figured actor was on screen. Even then, it’s getting hard to tell what is and “isn’t” real.

      BUT, and it’s a big but, considering how much is “realistic” and not REAL doesn’t matter in this sort of hair-splitting, nerdy argument.

      Once the Uncanny Valley is closed, it will be impossible to tell the real from the unreal and therefore all films (made this way) will be animated.

      This is where I intrinsically disagree with your argument as it relegates animated films to a ghetto of a lesser art when the truth is the opposite.

      North American audiences might not respect it as a medium but the rest of the world does. And animation will eat live action’s lunch before live action realizes it’s lunch is computer generated. Whatever that means!

      EDIT: using previz to figure out what a live action film looks like before shooting does not make it an animated film. Previz is a great tool to make sure everyone is on the same page, no matter how real it looks.

  • HalSolo

    They did something interesting though, didn’t they? Not just by using the live action, but by blending the “real” photos of the early captains into the cartooney form of the current captain over time, arguing the cartoony characters are our evolution. That’s way too sophisticated a gag to just throwaway like that.
    It plays into the satirical narrative of WALL-E, which is I think the real value of that gag as a filmmaker. From an animated standpoint, it sucks. It puts a line in the sand to compare “real” footage with the animated world around it. Kind of flaunts the uncanny valley.
    From a narrative angle, it clearly puts a line in the sand to the audience “change how you approach the world or this is what YOU will become.”
    That makes it probably the boldest thing Pixar has ever done.
    Had the President been animated, the audience could distance themselves from the message. That’s why so many people were upset WALL-E suggest we are a fat, dumb consumer-obsessed society. It wasn’t so easy to dodge the message and just enjoy the film as a cartoon for kids.

  • filmie

    The content of this article consistently praises Cuaron’s acknowledgement for the animators’ work in Gravity, but the title on the other hand misleadingly inform the readers that films have to be labeled largely by the medium of choice used in the making. Gravity is made and marketed as a live-action film and while a ton of animation work went into the making of it, they are catered to only achieve the illusion of realism, which is Cuaron’s intention. As much as I appreciate the work of the animators in Gravity, I think the discussion on whether or not it should be classified as an animated or non-animated film should best be left alone. The bulk of people working in the animation industry sees animation as a medium, not a genre and to so often categorize a film through its medium is utterly pointless and redundant.

  • jassim

    thank you