Neil Corbould interview: ‘Visual effects supervisors ask how we did it – I don’t tell them!’

The special effects genius tells us how he made ‘Gravity’ sparkle

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Neil Corbould was the special effects supervisor on Alfonso Cuarón’s space epic ‘Gravity’, which has been nominated for ten Oscars including Best Visual Effects. Corbould is no stranger to Academy Awards – his team won for ‘Gladiator’ in 2001 and he’s been nominated three times since. Over 35 years in the industry, films he’s worked on include ‘Superman’, ‘Amadeus’, ‘Cliffhanger’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’.

Surely ‘Gravity’ has this year’s Visual Effects Oscar in the bag?
‘You just never know. I haven’t written my speech yet.’

What did you have to do on ‘Gravity’?
‘My job included all the mechanical rigs that Sandra Bullock and George Clooney were strapped into – having to move them around the lightbox or inside a green-screen space. I also looked after some element effects, like breath and fire.’

How did Alfonso Cuarón pitch the idea to you?
‘Normally I’d get a script, but in this case we just met in a café in Notting Hill and he described the movie in broad strokes. He was talking about building these big revolving sets, asking me to figure out ways that the wires could go round corners. I walked out scratching my head.

‘Alfonso’s vision is so precise, he knows exactly what he wants. And he’s like a dog with a bone: he won’t let go, he won’t compromise. It has to be absolutely perfect or he’s not interested. So we did lots of tests with wires and different rigs, and determined pretty quickly that such an approach didn’t suit this movie. It had to be computer-generated.’

How hard was it for the actors to work in these restrictive rigs you built for them?
‘They were patient, but it was frustrating. We had to strap them in because the machines can spin at quite a speed. Sandra spent many hours inside her “cage”: a box with LED panels all the way around. There was a charge in there like the static you feel underneath an electricity substation. If you walked out then touched someone, you’d get this massive shock. We had to earth her every time she went in. It was very effective but demanding.’

How do you feel when people grumble about ‘Gravity’, saying it’s not scientifically accurate?
‘It doesn’t bother me. They even nitpick with real space footage. I’ve had visual effects supervisors coming up and asking how we did it – and for peers to say that is an amazing feeling. I don’t tell them!’

How much has your job changed in the past 35 years?
‘Technology moves quickly. My job is to keep up. You can get space-age materials now, and Formula 1 carbon-fibre technology. There’s a lot more CGI these days, so that’s taken the limelight away from the practical side. But there are directors like Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan who’ll shoot as much practical stuff as possible. If they can do it for real, they will. For people like me, that’s a breath of fresh air.’

How important are the Oscars for you?
‘I take it seriously. I’m very proud of what I do, so to get the top award in moviemaking is incredible. Winning for “Gladiator” was a bit of a blur – I was overwhelmed by the whole occasion. You’ve got the who’s who of Hollywood in front of you. My eyes were darting around, looking at these big stars all clapping.’

Gravity’ is in UK cinemas now and will be out on DVD Monday March 3.

Watch the ‘Gravity’ trailer

Read our ‘Gravity’ review

  • Rated as: 4/5

Nothing Alfonso Cuarón has done before comes close to matching the astonishing beauty, force and originality of ‘Gravity’. This isn’t just the best-looking film of the year, it’s one of the most awe-inspiring achievements in the history of special-effects cinema. So it’s a shame that – as is so often the case with groundbreaking effects movies – the emotional content can’t quite compete with the visual.

See the full ‘Gravity’ review

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