What is the Science Behind “Gravity?”

Posted on October 9, 2013 at 8:00 am

Alfonso Cuarón told Wired Magazine about the 4 1/2 years he spent making “Gravity.”  gravity

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 did a whole exploration of the screenplay, every single moment; we made judgments about everything. Once we began shooting, we were constrained by the limitations of that programming….We shot space scenes in a sort of virtual-reality box that had the characters’ environments projected on the walls. The actors had very little room to change their timing or their positions. But we adapted. Sandra Bullock trained like crazy to be able to be a part of all these technological challenges. It was choreography for her. I think her background as a dancer helped a lot. It was so much by numbers. After all the training and all the rehearsals, she was able to just focus on the emotional aspect of her performance…..

The animators had a significant challenge.  “After all, you learn how to draw based on two main elements: horizons and weight…Exactly. They had neither of those things, poor guys. It was a nightmare for them. They would make stuff and I’d say, “Yeah, but that looks like they’re standing at a bar, not floating in space.” We had a physicist explain the laws of zero gravity and zero resistance.”  But he admits that “Apollo 13” may be more accurate than “Gravity.”

So, what does a physicist have to say?  Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted about some of what the movie got wrong, even if it did not relate to physics.  (He also said he liked it.)    George Clooney should not have to explain to a doctor the medical impact of oxygen deprivation, but that could be justified as a way of calming her down.  On the other hand, some of the science is wrong.  Why doesn’t Sandra Bullock’s hair float in zero gravity?   “Nearly all satellites orbit Earth west to east yet all satellite debris portrayed orbited east to west.”  “When Clooney releases Bullock’s tether, he drifts away. In zero-G a single tug brings them together.” “How Hubble (350mi up) ISS (230mi up) & a Chinese Space Station are all in sight lines of one another.” One thing they got right: “The film #Gravity depicts a scenario of catastrophic satellite destruction that can actually happen.”

One of the science advisors appeared on CBS to talk about the movie.

And Cuarón says he does not know what his next movie will be, but he is certain that the characters will all walk with their feet on the floor.


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Spoiler Alert The Real Story


Posted on November 18, 2008 at 11:06 am

Lowest Recommended Age: All Ages
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Tension and peril, themes of environmental degredation and toxic waste
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 27, 2008
Date Released to DVD: November 18, 2008
Amazon.com ASIN: B0013FSL3E

700 years after the last humans left the planet they had made uninhabitable through environmental degradation, one small robot is still continuing to crunch the mountains of trash. He is a Waste Allocation Load-Lifter Earth-Class, or Wall•E. His eyes are binoculars, his legs are treads, and his torso is a garbage compacter. But somehow, somewhere, he has developed the heart of a true romantic hero. His speech may be made up of beeps and squeaks but he thinks about the trash he picks up, puzzling (as well he might) over a spork and a Rubik’s Cube. He feels affection for the only life form he sees, a friendly brown cockroach. And every night he comes back to his little home and puts on an old video tape of “Hello Dolly,” watching the big dance numbers and dreaming robotic dreams of having a hand to hold, just like the characters in the movie. Just as we always suspected, after total annihilation of everything else on the planet, the only survivors will be cockroaches, Broadway show tunes, and Twinkies (okay, the lawyers made them call it something else on the package, but trust me, it’s a Twinkie). The genius of Pixar, the most successful movie studio in history, the only one ever to make more than $100 million with every one of its releases, is that they may spend blockbuster money on a film (reportedly $180 million for this one) but hold on to the soul of an independent movie made on a microscopic budget. They are happy to take on the consumerist culture that has made their corporate owner, Disney, a world power larger and more influential than most countries. They don’t rely on pre-sold characters (fairy tales, television shows) or focus-grouped storylines with all of the risk and quirkiness squeezed out of them — along with all of the authenticity and character. Like the humble little hero of this film, they hold onto their dreams. If that makes the films more challenging, less easily accessible, good for them and good for us, too.Indeed, that is one of the themes of this film, whose robot characters have much more wisdom, courage, intelligence, and personality than the humans. After 700 years away from Earth, humans have devolved into a sort of perpetual infancy, their minds and bodies all but atrophied. They float through their space station in hover chairs, mesmerized by media screens before their eyes that block their ability to see anything else. Food and drink are constantly brought to them by robot drones and they, like their space station, are on automatic pilot. One of the lovely ironies of this story is that the machine who watches “Hello Dolly” on a broken-down videotape is inspired by it to seek companionship and intimacy while the humans’ media immersion puts them in a constant state of dazed isolation. Wall•E’s life is changed when an egg-shaped space probe named Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator (EVE) arrives. At first, they seem like opposites. He is scuffed and rusty and she is sleek and pristine. He is a romantic and she is all business. But like all great screen romances, their initial disconnections spark their affection. In this case literally. Their kiss is electrifying.Wall•E and EVE end up on EVE’s space station where her mission is revealed — and then imperiled. It is the misfit robots and one brave human who discovers that he can think for himself who must find a way to bring the humans and their home planet back to life. Just as the first courageous little tendril of a plant is willing to give Earth another chance, so the first tender stirrings of empathy, affection, curiosity, and honor in the small robots and the oversize humans inspire each other — and us. (more…)

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Fly Me to the Moon

Posted on August 14, 2008 at 6:02 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: All Ages
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril and violence
Diversity Issues: Stereotyped portrayal of female characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 13, 2008

Don’t try to swat that enormous insect buzzing a few inches above your popcorn. It’s a hologram-like image hovering in front of you and it is part of the movie. Yes, you have to wear the clunky glasses, but within moments you will forget all about them and be caught up in the pure magic of the 3D technology in the first feature-length animated film completely produced in that format. It is stunningly beautiful and almost hyper-real in its depth of field and meticulousness of detail. The virtual reality is so believable you will feel as though you can reach into each shot and rearrange the furniture.

Unfortunately, the dull characters and weak story keep getting in the way of the gorgeously produced backgrounds. The plot about three young flies who hitch a ride on Apollo 11’s trip to the moon is almost an afterthought.

The starring role here is played by the techies, who focused not just on the 3D effects but also on the science and engineering of the Apollo 11 mission. They relied on NASA records, blueprints of the rocket ships and equipment, and even the audio recordings of the flight to bring extra verisimilitude to the screen. This part of the movie is a flat-out marvel, and the shots of the moon are breathtaking.

The artists who designed the environments designed a community for the houseflies that has some clever detail and some lovely touches, especially the rippling water, so tactile you may feel a little damp.

But all of the imagination seems to end there. The history of animated movies is abuzz with cute cartoon insects, from one of the very first animated features, “Hoppity Goes to Town” to the dapper Jiminy Cricket in “Pinocchio,” “A Bug’s Life”, and “The Ant Bully.” But there is no effort of any kind to give the characters here any distinctive fly qualities. They just look like little humans with antennae and wings, and they are almost interchangeable, with each assigned just one identifying characteristic. One is the leader, one has glasses, and one is fat. Then there are the Soviet flies who want to prevent the rocket from reaching the moon before they do, just poor copies of Boris, Natasha, and Fearless Leader from “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”

But the biggest disappointment is the script, as arid as last year’s Tang. It fails to make us care about the characters or identify with the flies’ dream of going to the moon. It was inspired by a fly grandfather’s reminiscence of saving pioneering pilot Amelia Earhart by flying up her nose (I am not kidding). It is not based on any interest or understanding beyond a vague quest for adventure. It assumes much too much knowledge from today’s children about the space race and the 1960’s. Kids are likely to be confused by the Cold War bad guys and the retro portrayal of the female characters. The girl flies toss their ponytails and giggle and the lead fly’s Stepford-like mother is pretty much limited to fussing over her larvae babies, making dinner, and fainting(!) whenever she is upset. The action scenes are poorly choreographed and hard to follow and the comedy tends toward potty humor and fat jokes. And then the big happy ending is followed by a live action coda with real-life astronaut Buzz Aldrin reminding us that it was all pretend.

The dazzling technology just puts a spotlight on the lackluster script, like a high-definition picture of an out-of-focus subject . If they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they tell a better story about sending some flies along for the ride?

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