“Normally you’d walk into a room, the set dresser turns up three days before with 20 prop men, and they dress it. You’d look at it, you think of it, and you move things around. This was not like that at all,” said Andy Nicholson, the Oscar-nominated production designer for Gravity, who started working on the project in April 2010. This was an unusual project, an out-of-this-world set where ideas and tools and effects were created every day to bring Oscar-nominated director Alfonso Cuaron and his son, Jonas’ screenplay to life.
Nicholson had a career in architecture before he made the transition into the movie business and worked as an art director on several Tim Burton films, including Sleepy Hollow, Frankenweenie, Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He has won numerous Art Directors Guild Awards and won this year’s ADG for excellence in production design for a fantasy film for Gravity, an award he shared with his team. This is his first Oscar nomination.
So how do you do production design on such a visual effects-driven film? Nicholson first started researching everything he could on the International Space Station (ISS) — without the help of any NASA experts (the production did get a consultant in later astronaut Andy Thomas, who had been at the ISS in March 2001). As he began looking into the ISS, Nicholson found reams of information online that gave him the insight into what the space station looked like inside and out. Gathering up as much as he could about the dimensions and details, he eventually handed it over to the art department and visual effects team so they could start working. After combing through hundreds of photos and reading page after page of information, he also became very familiar with different space program shuttles. “They have different tile patterns. I’d study all of that, and for me it was about what was important to show to the texture guys who are the guys who develop what all of those looks are like,” said Nicholson, who worked closely with the director Cuaron and refined the sets over and over again. “[The shuttles] age … then they replace some of the tiles. So how do we patch this together? We’d talk about that, we’d come up with these four pictures.” The four with the right kind of texture and aging. “This brown staining here, that’s good. Let’s do that. We’d agree and approve a bunch of images. We were basically recreating it. We were saying this is the International Space Station, and look at all these details. This is how all the rivets work, and these are the colors.”
Nicholson had to be concerned with both realistic exteriors and interiors of a shuttle, the Soyuz capsule and the ISS. “Alfonso was really keen to use the Russian sections of the ISS because, texturally, they were more interesting than some of the NASA and European sections. I mean, one of the nice things about all the details, which are what’s charming about the interiors … is sort of the human touches of things people take into space,” he said. In the Russian section, they put up religious icons, different saints and even crucifixes. When it came to set decoration, that’s when Oscar-nominated Rosie Goodwin and Joanne Woollard’s talents came into play. They all worked together in what truly was virtual set decoration. With special effects, the set dressers would literally be sitting at the computer with the visual effects guys. “We had 70 items being repeated in different ways, or change colors up, all dealing with that kind of animatization of workflow,” said Nicholson. “I worked on what these interiors would be with Alfonso. We had modeled them in the art department in their basic form because he was also working in frames doing the other part of the same building on the animation for those. Once we’d done all of that and Alfonso had approved the animation, I needed to approve the set design, approve the dressing of the set with the animation and the cameras. We could then give it to Chivo, who then turned up on that stage. He would then light it.”
The way the Gravity team had to work together had never been done before. Their work overlapped day by day as the crew worked to give the realism to every aspect of the film. The results were impressive with believable and intricately designed exteriors and interiors. And the level of detail was paramount to Nicholson and Cuaron. “The engineering detail was there to study,” said Nicholson. And study he did. And what they didn’t have, they would create. “I’ve looked at all these Russian tools, and there’s a very specific NASA tool kit that looks very specific. The Russian things … they’ve got a few things. They don’t have a drill, so we said let’s come up with something that looks like it could be theirs.” And therein lies the passion of the team that made the magic.