'Gravity' - Interview with the Film's VFX Editor, Tom Woodall
Here at Online Post Production, we have always considered ourselves to be a bit ‘out of this world’. Don’t worry, we haven’t got ‘stars in our eyes’, it’s just some might say that we go to ‘astronomical’ lengths to deliver projects that have our clients ‘over the moon’. It’s true, we never ‘space’ out on our work at OPP.
For those who think I might be ever so subtly labouring a point, I’ll cut to the chase. Recently, we’ve had a new member join our team here who has got us all a Buzz (Aldrin, get it?). Tom Woodall has joined us as Online Post Production’s new facility manager, and his background is certainly impressive. With previous experience at facilities like BFX Post and Framestore, on top of creating his own production company, we have welcomed Tom with open arms. We were even happier to hear that Tom happened to be a VFX editor on Gravity, the recent Hollywood release that’s got all the critics talking. I hope all those puns make sense to you now…
The office loved hearing Tom’s stories of working on the film, so we decided why not share a bit about how Gravity was made with our lovely readers.
1. What do you do, Tom?
I am the facility manager of Online Post Production. Before I arrived I was developing my own production company and before that I was a VFX editor at Framestore.
2. When did you first find out you were working on Gravity?
I found out way back in 2011, at the time I didn’t know much about it. I knew there was a project going on that had some incredibly long shots, and that was technically challenging, but that was all [Framestore] could divulge at the time. I later found out that the director was going to be Alfonso Cuarón, and knowing that Children of Men and the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban were both excellent films, I knew it was going to be good.
3. How did you feel knowing you were going to be working on such a huge project?
I had dabbled in film before, but never doing it full-time for a large post house. It was exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time!
4. What was your role on the project?
As one of the VFX editors, we were responsible for keeping control of the cut. We liaised with client editorial, and what we would do is update edits as and when they were needed. We’d also supply new shots, which had been reviewed and approved by Alfonso and our supervisor, Tim Webber. Review sessions were run with Tim every day. Alfonso had his own office at Framestore and we would show him shots once Tim had approved of them.
5. What were the different stages involved in creating the film?
The first stage was creating the Pre-Vis. Pre-Vis is short for pre-visualisation and it is essentially a moving storyboard; basic animation, plotting out every detail of what will happen in the scene before going to shoot. It allows the director and the creative team to experiment with camera moves and actors positions which aids setting the scene.
Creating the Pre-Vis took two years! Usually you only do certain scenes if they are quite visual effects heavy, but since the whole film was CG they had to do every scene from start to finish!
After the Pre-Vis was created and the final storyboard approved, the production team went to shoot. It was shot predominantly in a light box – an inward facing LED box where they could completely control all the lighting. A light box is made up of LED panels like you’d get in football stadiums which can project anything, whether it be a replica sun, moon or earth. This meant that the lighting could be exactly what you wanted – you could even use it to simulate movement. For example, if you have the light source move around the actor very fast with the camera focused on the actor and rotating in a similar fashion, it gives the impression that they are spinning.
The post process was also incredibly long. When a plate came from set Framestore handled the entire pipeline, from ingest to final composition.
6. Can you describe the post production process for us?
You start off by being given the Pre-Vis shot and technical data and plate from the set. Every single frame of the plate must be rotoscope, an artist must remove the actor’s body or face. As the actor wasn’t shot with a green screen background you can’t just key them out like you would in a traditional VFX shot.
Next the plate goes to the animation department, and the entire scene is animated. Suits, spaceships, tethers, arms – all these had to be animated. After that each scene needed to be lit and composited together with some nice touches – for example adding dust, lens scratches and other elements that help make the shot look more realistic. Things were made to look imperfect to make them look realistic. Alfonso really wanted Gravity to feel as if he’d sent a camera crew up into space to shoot a film, therefore realism was essential to its final look.
For the post production process we used a combination of Media Composer for editing, Maya for animation and Nuke for compositing.
7. What was working with Alfonso Cuarón like?
He’s a very down to earth guy, he knows what he wants and he wasn’t happy to send anything to the studio that wasn’t absolutely perfect. He worked very well with Tim, which was key because the process was so long. He’s definitely a visionary thinker, and a very interesting character. He’s meticulous and particular on fine details, which was essential to create the human quality.
8. Are you happy with how’s it’s turned out?
It looks amazing! Seeing it graded and with the final sound mix playing on the big screen, it’s just phenomenal.
9. Last question! Are you going to bring some of your experiences of working on this film to Online Post Production?
VFX is a very calculated industry, and everything I’ve learnt about project management and creative thinking in post production, I will bring to OPP. I’m also looking forward to our expansion into areas of production, we’re going to be providing the full package.
10. Could you almost say it’s one giant leap for Online Post Production?
Please stop. Your puns are bad.
And there you have it! You can check out Gravity in cinemas now. If you haven’t heard of it, here’s a trailer for your viewing pleasure:
We wouldn’t want to leave the rest of the team out of the opportunity for an interview, so here’s a mini Q&A about some of our favourite movies set in space:
Nonso: Event Horizon
“I like this film because it couples sci-fi with religious concepts; it makes me question whether our conventional assumptions about space and time travel can be linked to more superstitious beliefs.”
Michael: Sphere (This is set underwater, Michael! Cheating!)
“As you get older you learn to control your imagination. This film reminded me of what it’s like to be a child and to be over powered by youthful fantasy.”
Sarah: Galaxy Quest
“I love a good sci-fi parody and Galaxy Quest definitely ranks up there as one of the best. Any film with Alan Rickman playing a miserable sod is guaranteed to be a good laugh.”