Animation Director Daði Einarsson talks about the film’s technical challenges
When it comes to animation, Iceland’s Daði Einarsson is a real veteran. After spending several years working at London-based Framestore, Daði moved back to Iceland in 2008 to open an Icelandic branch of the renowned visual effects house.
The founder and creative director of RVX has since worked on a number of films here, including ‘Contraband’ (2012), ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2’ (2011) and ‘Clash of the Titans’ (2010). Despite being plenty busy in Reykjavík, Daði was briefly lured back to London’s Framestore in 2010 to work on ‘Gravity,’a disaster-flick starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as a couple of astronauts struggling for survival in the wake of an accident, adrift and alone in space, trying to get back home.
‘Gravity’ proved to be a box office smash worldwide, closing in on 700 million dollars in ticket sales. Furthermore, it has been nominated for Academy Awards in ten categories, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Visual Effects. We spoke to Daði about his work with the film’s director Alfonso Cuarón (‘Children of Men’) and what it was like to create this reality in outer space.
Tell us, how did you get involved in the making of ‘Gravity’?
When Framestore in London asked me to be its animation director, the film was still in its early stages. I was in Iceland running the company here, and all of my family is here, so it was going to be a bit tricky, but I thought ‘Gravity’ sounded like a very interesting project. A lot of the storytelling, camera-work and animation were done prior to any kind of shoot, so there was a big pre-production period where we needed to animate the movie with Alfonso Cuarón. Framestore talked me into coming back and I started flying out on Mondays and back on Fridays, and did that for like half a year.
How is ‘Gravity’ different from other films that you’ve worked on?
What we were doing was strictly, you could call it, pre-vis’ [pre-visualization, the process of visualizing scenes before they are filmed through storyboarding using rough sketches or animated computer generated imagery]. Usually when you do pre-vis’ it’s to flesh-out ideas and then you shoot something and it comes back, kind of, in the ballpark of what you were aiming for, and then most of the creative work happens after the shoot.
With ‘Gravity,’ however, everything that was shot on set with actors was determined by the animation that we did beforehand. So the cameras, and actors and lights were all attached to computer-controlled motion-rigs that we derived from our animation. So basically we had to lock-down the movie before we ever went on set.
How did Alfonso describe the film to you?
Alfonso is an intense and passionate storyteller. He was very visual and precise about how he wanted the camera to relate to the environment. That was clear though from his other films, such as ‘Children of Men,’ which features these really long single-take shots [single-take shots, otherwise known as a ‘long take’ is an uninterrupted shot in a film which lasts longer than conventional editing pace would normally dictate]. He likes to plan and think out what his camera is going to do.
We were with him for six months, and every day he would describe to us why he wanted to do something a certain way and what he was thinking. It was an amazing time to have access to his thoughts and his process in such a way. He works with “Chivo” [nickname of Gravity’s director of photography and Alfonso’s longtime collaborator, Emmanuel Lubezki] in developing that style. Finding out how to achieve Alfonso’s vision of what the camera-work should be meant a lot of collaboration between different departments. Whether you’re doing fifteen-minute single-take shots or three-minute single-take shots, you have to make sure you’re doing it in a very elegant and subtle way.
Alfonso was also very, very precise in his desire for things not to look like they were reacting to gravity, as the story takes place in zero-gravity. As an animator, pretty much your entire background is based on understanding gravity: how to make things look heavy or light. “Heavy” or “light” doesn’t have any significance in zero-gravity.
Was there a need for technical innovation, in terms of the visual effects needed for the film?
There certainly was from our end, as we had never really worked this way. Traditionally you would attach the actors to wires and move them around on a set, with a green-screen background. Then after filming you would remove the wires and add in a computer generated background. The level of complexity to achieve the camera movements—the distance travelled and multiple orbits that the camera would take around the actor, or the actor around a light-source—called for some serious innovation.
Tim Webber [the visual effects supervisor], “Chivo” and the core Framestore team developed something called the Light Box, which is a cube of LED panels. The animation they received from us was then reverse-engineered and split across three main robots, which controlled travel and orientation of lights on robot arms, of the camera and of the actor being spun around or moved by a robotic arm.
So rather than having conventional lights as you would on a regular movie-set, most of the lighting on the actors’ faces was from LED panels, which can spin around in any direction you want them, at any speed you need them to. That would have been impossible, without innovation and inventing that technique.
So what are you working on now? What’s next?
Right now I’m on set in the Italian Alps shooting ‘Everest’ with Baltasar Kormákur. It stars Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin and is based on the true story of an expedition that ended in disaster in 1996. We’re working in extremely harsh weather conditions in hard-to-get-to locations, but it’s looking fantastic already. Our job will be to make the non-Nepal locations and studio sets look like they’re shot on and around Mount Everest. We’ll be adding CG environments, snow and clouds amongst other things, so it’s quite a big job. It will be released in February 2015 in stereo [‘stereoscope’, i.e. 3D], so that should keep us off the streets for a while.