TORONTO - It's the 13-minute shot heard round the world.
Festival audiences in Venice and Telluride have been floored by the lengthy opening shot to Alfonso Cuaron's 3-D space odyssey, "Gravity," which plunges moviegoers into space and leaves them reeling in weightlessness. When the film premiered Sunday at the Toronto International Festival, the lore of Cuaron's balletic beginning is sure to only grow.
"It's the idea of trying to create a moment of truthfulness in which the camera happens to be there just to witness, and respecting that moment in real time," Cuaron said in a recent interview.
The Mexican director and his longtime cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, beginning with "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and up to their last film, the gritty science-fiction thriller "Children of Men," have been renown for their propensity for long, unbroken, beautifully choreographed sequences. A four-minute uncut scene in "Children of Men" captured a playful conversation scene in a car suddenly ambushed in a forest by dozens wielding clubs and guns, and then carried on through the escape and beyond. For it, Cuaron built a track inside the car for the camera to move forward and backward.
The shot at the start of "Gravity" similarly moves from banality to mayhem, ending in uncertainty. Several astronauts (Sandra Bullock, George Clooney) are repairing a space station and bantering breezily with their NASA dispatch in Houston (voiced by an unseen Ed Harris). When a cascading storm of satellite debris caused by an asteroid rushes past, the space station shatters and the astronauts are stranded in space.
Cuaron and Lubezki capture it all seamlessly with a camera floating around the characters, moving variously into close-up and wide shots. It's, as Cuaron calls it, "a continuous moment."
"We feel like sometimes the language of close-ups and intercuts abstracts the characters from the environment," says Cuaron. "We wanted the environment to be as important in weight as the characters."
Variety hailed the shot as having "completely immersed us in the beauty and majesty of a dark, pitiless universe." The Hollywood Reporter called the film, which Warner Bros. will release Oct. 4, "the most realistic and beautifully choreographed film ever set in space."
There are several other minutes-long takes in "Gravity" of startling uninterrupted clarity, but the opening shot is the one cinephiles will drool over. Considered bravura feats of filmmaking prowess, long takes are the stuff of filmmaking legend with famous practitioners including Orson Welles ("Touch of Evil"), Alfred Hitchcock ("Rope"), Martin Scorsese ("Goodfellas"), Robert Altman ("The Player") and Michelangelo Antonioni ("The Passenger").
Cuaron doesn't like to draw attention to his long takes, which have been roundly inducted into that cinematic tradition. The director, who claimed not to know how long the first shot of "Gravity" is, fears turning into what he calls "Look, mama! No hands!" filmmaking.
"That's something I worry about sometimes," he says. "If it catches the attention of people, I'm not sure it works."
Advances in digital technology have opened up new realms for long takes (the 2002 film "Russian Ark" was made in one 96-minute Steadicam shot), but Cuaron had particular challenges operating in simulated zero gravity. He and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber created what they called "The Lightbox": a large cube surrounded by LED lights inside of which Bullock and Clooney were rigged to mimic weightlessness.
It was complex work, trying to stay faithful to the reality of movement in space. But Cuaron wanted an immersive experience, partly inspired by documentaries of astronauts on the moon like "For All Mankind" - films that didn't have the luxury of cutting to a close-up.
Instead, Cuaron's camera at times drifts into the perspective of Bullock's engineer character and then floats away "almost as if you're another astronaut following the journey," he says.
Though Cuaron revels in such choreography, even he was surprised by the size of the task. He started expecting to make a simple chamber piece with just two characters. It ended up - as his collaborators often reminded him - taking four and a half years.