[Movie] Cinematography for Gravity

Gravity, winner of seven out of ten nominations for Oscar in 2014, presented to us a intriguing story of human’s struggle to survive in outer space of the universe. Numerous components contributes to this movie to achieve the great success it has today, including the integration of live action and CG, editing, lighting and other elements of mise-en-scene. However, the use of cinematography should not be overlooked, especially the long take in the first shot, the movement of the camera as well as the change of camera angle in the last scene. By employing these cinematographic techniques, Emmanuel Lubezki (the cinematographer of Gravity) and his colleagues introduced the story, presented the situation faced by the main protagonist and also demonstrated the overall theme: resilience of human being in extreme conditions.

One of the most famous shot in Gravity is the opening scene. This significant twelve minutes continual take of the movie reveals the background of the story — from the Earth itself to the spaceship “Explorer”, from the male protagonist Lieutenant Matt Kowalski to the female protagonist Dr. Ryan Stone — as well as the conflict which moves the story forward — the high speed debris traveling towards them, nearly crashing their space shuttle.

In this extreme long take, the distance of the shot range greatly, from long shot to medium close-up, from wide shot to close then back to wide shot, capturing the regular daily job of the astronauts during their mission. Also, the deep focus of the shot indicate a high depth of field, displaying ever party in the movie. This, along with the slow and steadily movement of the camera, delineated both the zero gravity of the space and the peace and orderliness of the regular working environment, more naturalistic and immersive than simply showing each character separately in different shots. Moreover, it slowly drag the audience into the story, as the movement of the camera focus on different object, simulating how a human being would shift their head and move to get used to the environment.

As the story develops, this shot continues to depict that their spaceship is hit by fragments and pieces of the debris. The slow movement of the camera contradicts with the fast spinning character, creating a sense of detachment, accentuating a sense of lost of control. However, what the audiences fail to realized is that while shooting, rather than following a moving object, the cinematographer in fact move the camera in order to create the effect of high-speed spinning of the character.

Instead of continuing the long take, Lubezki eventually ended this shot with Stone spinning further away from the camera lens into the immerse universe as the figure of Stone become gradually smaller and nearly invisible. This marks the end of the introductory of the story and the beginning of the solution to the crisis. Hence, we could conclude that this twelve minutes continued take introduced the background of story in a subtle manner and lead the viewers to be custom of outer space.

The second shots of the movie, which does not start until 13 minutes after the beginning, demonstrated the change of perspective, directly disclosing the intense atmosphere by presenting the POV of Dr. Stone. The beginning of the shot is relatively detached, act as a transition from the pervious shot. Then the lens continues to focus on Stone; however, as the camera slowly move closer to the Stone, the camera becomes an extreme close-up, gradually changes its perspective and goes into the helmet of hers, showing the audience what Stone is seeing and going through. This is a relatively innovative move; nevertheless, Lubezki perform this act so subtle that it is hardly noticeable. From the objective to subjective perspective, viewer could better understand the situation faced by the central character; furthermore, the emotions of fear and uncertainly are also better demonstrated by the constant spinning of the view. Then, the camera slowing fade out the the helmet, focus back to the development of the story.

As Lieutenant Kowalski found the main protagonist, the camera change back to the POV of Stone, as she trying to grasp the robe between her and Kowalski. In this case, the Point of View shooting intensify the situation as it clearly reveal the importance of the rope, which is a representation of survival to the desperate protagonist. The motion of the hand further enhance struggle of Stone in such dangerous situation. Without this technique, audience may never fully experience the striking moment. The relationship between the viewers and the characters also changed due to the use of cinematography. Before showing the the point of view of Stone, the objective perspective of the narrative maintain a neural and emotionless feeling. however, the POV lead the viewer slowing into the incenter of the character, creating a emotional break through.

Other than the first two shot, Gravity’s last shot also have significant meaning to the overall theme. After Dr. Stone crawls from the water to the ground, the camera is placed on the horizon line, as she stands up slowly, the audience could experience a deliberate tilting up of the camera. Shooting from her feet to her legs and then to her body, this kind of low angle shots makes the protagonist seems more powerful, indicating her success of the overcoming countless difficulties yet still return to Earth safely. This kind of angle change also symbolizes the empowerment of Dr. Stone as the camera tilts up. In addition, from underneath the water to soil and then to the sky, this perspective also insulate the evolution of the development of human kind, reflected in the story of the resilience of the need of struggle and survival. Hence, based on the cinematography, one of the most important theme of Gravity is revealed through the last scene.

As Emmanuel Lubezki has mentioned in one of his interview, “the story is like the cinematography, the sound, the acting and the color. They are tools for cinema, and what you have to serve is cinema, not story.” All the shots mentioned above are perfect illustrations of such idea. These three shots not only demonstrate how cinematography is used to serve the cinema, for instance the introduction of the plot, immerse the viewers into the film world, but also used to reflect the naturalistic of the outer space and how great human’s persist to find chance of survival. With the advanced combination of cinematography with techniques such as computer programming, Gravity has showed all of us the beauty of the planet Earth as well as the beauty of humanity.

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