For as long as there have been special effects, from the stop-motion marvels in Nosferatu and King Kong to the computer innovations of Jurassic Park and The Lord of the Rings, filmmakers have made use of animation in otherwise live-action productions. Over the past decade, the increasing usage of special effects has blurred the line between live-action and animation. What to make of Sin City, where every background is computer-generated, or Avatar, where half the characters are? What’s the line between films like those and films like A Scanner Darkly or The Adventures of Tintin, where no flesh-and-blood humans are on screen but are either traced over as reference footage or recorded and rendered into digital models? Gravity might just be that line.
Rather than a live-action film with animated special effects, I’m tempted to consider Gravity an animated film with live-action special effects. As I’ve mentioned, there have been movies before where the backgrounds are all or almost all computer-animated. The difference here is that the actors are almost all computer animated too. Outside of a couple of sequences where Sandra Bullock’s out of her spacesuit, the only part of the actors we actually see are their faces inside of CGI suits. There’s good chunks of the movie where we don’t even see their faces, and the performances of the actors are essentially voice-acting. One of the astronauts in the movie we only meet through animation and voice-acting (well, there is one shot of his face, but one that I assume had to involve some heavy effects work).
With so much of the movie animated, one may ask was it even necessary to include the live-action elements. Well, yes, it was necessary for the movie they were trying to make, since much of the appeal of the movie depends on its photo-realism, and computer animation has yet to create believable photo-realistic human faces. In that sense, having George Clooney and Sandra Bullock’s faces is a necessary and powerful special effect for selling the believability of everything else. How different is this from having Hello Dolly and Fred Willard in Wall-E? Different enough in that the live actors are playing the main characters, but still, only a fraction of the characters a fraction of the time. It’s a new breed of filmmaking that shatters the live action/animation divide.