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10 Things to Know About Gravity

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Director Alfonso Cua­rón’s latest film, Gravity, hits theaters today. The sci-fi flick is receiving rave reviews from critics and other filmmakers alike. Here are a few things you should know about the production. Warning: Spoilers below!

1. Its premise isn’t far-fetched.

Russia’s planned destruction of one of its own satellites kicks off the events in Gravity. Debris from that event destroys Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney)’s shuttle and strands them in space. It might seem like no nation would ever do this, but, in fact, it’s actually happened: In 2007, China took out one of its own defunct weather satellites, sending a cloud of shrapnel “hurtling at nearly 16,000 mph along the main thoroughfare used by orbiting spacecraft,” according to Popular Mechanics. That debris joined the veritable garbage dump already orbiting above Earth, which consists of everything from rocket boosters to paint chips.

“On all of my missions, [we got] some warning from Mission Control about possible conjunctions—possible close approach by orbital debris,” former astronaut Tom Jones said at a special Popular Mechanics screening of Gravity. “You can see on radar everything that’s bigger than your fist. NORAD tracks it, and if you have to, you can maneuver the shuttle—even the [International Space Station (ISS)] has some small thrusters where it can nudge itself out of a critical path. So far we haven’t had any big impacts on human vehicles, but we’ve lost a couple of satellites from space debris.” Even small debris, traveling at those speeds, harms space infrastructure. Jones said the 2007 Chinese ASAT test doubled the debris risk to astronauts on the ISS. (Debris in space does eventually succumb to Earth’s orbit and burn up in the atmosphere, but depending on the size of the object and its orbital height, that process can take decades.)

The dangerous chain reaction of destruction seen in Gravity has a name: Kessler Syndrome, when there’s so much debris in space that everything crashes into everything else, creating more debris and therefore more collisions, rending space exploration too dangerous. It was a direct inspiration for Cua­rón and his son, Jonas, when they were writing the film.

2. It took 4.5 years to make…

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Often, the only real things in a shot are Clooney's and Bullock’s faces. Everything else, from their space suits to Mother Earth, is computer generated. So Cua­rón and company created the entire film as animation first, working with sound effects, music, and lighting. “Then all that animation translated to actual camera moves and positions for the lighting and actors,” Cua­rón told Wired. “We did a whole exploration of the screenplay, every single moment; we made judgments about everything. Once we began shooting, we were constrained by the limitations of that programming.” The animation process lasted almost 2.5 years before they even began shooting with the actors.

3. ...and they had to invent new technology to do it.

“You want to pretend this is going to be easy,” Cua­rón told TheWrap. “Then it’s months and months of trying to figure out how. You come to the theory, and then you have to apply the theory, meaning to develop the technology.”

Among the new technology created for the film was a 12-wire rig devised by Special Effects supervisor Neil Corbould and his team that was controlled by puppeteers (from the play War Horse) to give the illusion that Bullock was floating through space; specialized rigs that could rotate or lift the actors at many different angles; and huge, computer-controlled robot arms typically used for car manufacturing that instead wielded cameras.

But the piece de resistance was what the filmmakers call the Light Box, a hollow cube with interior walls fitted with LEDs. The brainchild of Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki—who got the idea from LED lighting effects and projects at a concert—and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, the Light Box was necessary because animators had to match up the lighting in the animation with the live action shoot perfectly. Cua­rón told ComingSoon that the finished box was raised on a six-foot-high platform and was 9 feet by 9 feet on the inside. It was fitted with 4096 LED bulbs that could show any CG image—the Earth, the sun, the stars—to get the correct lighting. According to The Wrap, about 60 percent of Gravity was shot in the box.

All of the technology could be synced with computers so that the filmmakers could move the universe around the actors.

4. Rejected strategies for filming "microgravity" included using wires and flying in the vomit comet.

Typically, wires have been used to suspend actors and give the illusion of floating, and Apollo 13 famously built sets and filmed inside a parabolic plane, which plummets for 25 seconds to create Zero Gravity. But though they were both considered, ultimately the filmmakers determined that neither would work because of Cuarón’s love of long takes (Gravity opens with a single, 15 minute shot). Bullock, who had signed on when the Zero G plane was still the plan, was relieved when it was scrapped. “I’m petrified of flying,” she told Vogue. “Plummeting out of the sky was not my idea of how I wanted to work with Alfonso Cua­rón. But at one point I sat down and said, ‘What is it about this movie that is telling me to get off my ass and get over something that has paralyzed me?’” Cua­rón said the system they eventually came up with was painful for Bullock, “but after not having to do the Vomit Comet, she was so happy, she didn’t care.”

5. Bullock trained to mimic movement in microgravity.

Her background as a dancer certainly helped Bullock pull off Gravity’s most difficult trick: Making it appear as though she was in microgravity. She worked with a pair of Australian dancers to retrain her body “from the neck down, to react and move as though it’s in Zero G, without the benefit of Zero G moving your body,” she told Collider. “Because everything that your body reacts to, with a push or a pull, and on the ground, is completely different than it is in Zero G.”

6. And she got advice straight from the ISS.

Bullock told Collider that Dr. Cady Coleman called her from the ISS to impart some advice. “I was able to literally ask someone who’s experiencing the things that I was trying to physically learn about how the body works, and what you do, and what I need to re-teach my body to do, physically, that cannot happen on earth,” Bullock said. “It’s just the oddest thing to reprogram your reactions. It was just a really coincidental, fortuitous thing that happened, over wine, that got me the final piece of the information that I needed.”

7. Cua­rón consulted with advisors, too.

The director very much wanted to make a film that was based in reality, with technology astronauts use today. (Even though the shuttle program has been discontinued, he made a decision to include it as a touchpoint for the audience.) He told ComingSoon that after he and Jonas wrote the first draft of the screenplay, they began involving experts because “we realized all the stupid things that we have described that would be completely implausible. Then, throughout the process, we kept on having advisors, not only NASA and astronauts and other people that are experts in different fields, but also physicists, trying to explain to us how objects react in micro-gravity and zero resistance. That was probably the toughest innovation, because what happens in micro-gravity and zero resistance is completely counter-intuitive.”

8. While taking liberties, the filmmakers tried to be pretty true to reality.

“We went through pains to make sure that the behavior of objects in micro-gravity and no resistance was as accurate as possible,” Cua­rón told the Huffington Post. At this same time, “this is not a documentary. We took certain liberties. Part of the liberties we took were in the sense of we would stretch the possibilities of certain things.”

There’s no sound in space, so Cua­rón mostly stuck to silence (there is a score, though). “The only sound you hear in space in the film is if, say, one of the characters is using a drill,” he told Wired. “Sandra’s character would hear the drill through the vibrations through her hand. But vibration itself doesn’t transmit in space—you can only hear what our characters are interacting with. I thought about keeping everything in absolute silence.” Another big no-no: Fires. “There’s no fire in space. At one point there’s an explosion, and the only fire you see is the bit that was inside the shuttle and then extinguished.”

9. Astronauts have given Gravity their seals of approval.

In the Hollywood Reporter, moon walker Buzz Aldrin wrote that “I was so extravagantly impressed by the portrayal of the reality of zero gravity. I was happy to see someone moving around the spacecraft the way George Clooney was. It really points out the degree of confusion and bumping into people, and when the tether gets caught, you're going to be pulled—I think the simulation of the dynamics was remarkable.”

At the Popular Mechanics screening, Jones called Gravity “probably the most realistic space film that I’ve seen,” pointing out that, in particular, the tethers outside the spacecraft in the film behaved as they do in real life. Jones told mental_floss that “When she’s moving inside the spacecraft, and she’s seeing things drifting around her, the helmet floating around, all of that was really realistic. That’s what was the most evocative of my experience.” Jones even watched a part of the ISS he helped build be destroyed, and said that the inside of the station was just as he remembered.

Not that the filmmakers got everything right: Aldrin notes that he and his crew weren't as carefree as Clooney's character, and Jones said that "in that initial collision, they’re bouncing around so much, your suit can’t withstand that—it would rupture," Jones said. "The movie would be very short! That's where they took some [creative] license." They also took a little license with the location of the orbiting spacecraft, placing the Hubble Space Telescope, the ISS, and the Chinese space lab Tiangong 1 all in the same orbit, when in fact, they're all in different orbits. In an interview with Space.com, the director said that "we did a draft where we tried to respect everything. Everything was just about explaining to the audiences all of that stuff, so we had to try to create a balance."

10. Even James Cameron loved it!

“I was stunned, absolutely floored,” the director and innovator told Variety. “I think it’s the best space photography ever done, I think it’s the best space film ever done, and it’s the movie I've been hungry to see for an awful long time.”

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14 Deep Facts About Valley of the Dolls
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The Criterion Collection

Based on Jacqueline Susann's best-selling 1966 novel (which sold more than 30 million copies), Valley of the Dolls was a critically maligned film that somehow managed to gross $50 million when it was released 50 years ago, on December 15, 1967. Both the film and the novel focus on three young women—Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke), Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), and Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins)—who navigate the entertainment industry in both New York City and L.A., but end up getting addicted to barbiturates, a.k.a. “dolls.”

Years after its original release, the film became a so-bad-it’s-good classic about the perils of fame. John Williams received his first of 50 Oscar nominations for composing the score. Mark Robson directed it, and he notoriously fired the booze- and drug-addled Judy Garland, who was cast to play aging actress Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward took over), who was supposedly based on Garland. (Garland died on June 22, 1969 from a barbituate overdose.) Two months after Garland’s sudden demise, the Manson Family murdered the very pregnant Tate in August 1969.

Despite all of the glamour depicted in the movie and novel, Susann said, “Valley of the Dolls showed that a woman in a ranch house with three kids had a better life than what happened up there at the top.” A loose sequel, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—which was written by Roger Ebert—was released in 1970, but it had little to do with the original. In 1981, a TV movie updated the Dolls. Here are 14 deep facts about the iconic guilty pleasure.

1. JACQUELINE SUSANN DIDN'T LIKE THE MOVIE.

To promote the film, the studio hosted a month-long premiere party on a luxury liner. At a screening in Venice, Susann said the film “appalled” her, according to Parkins. She also thought Hollywood “had ruined her book,” and Susann asked to be taken off the boat. At one point she reportedly told Robson directly that she thought the film was “a piece of sh*t.”

2. BARBARA PARKINS WAS “NERVOUS” TO WORK WITH JUDY GARLAND.

Barbara Parkins had only been working with Judy Garland for two days when the legendary actress was fired for not coming out of her dressing room (and possibly being drunk). “I called up Jackie Susann, who I had become close to—I didn’t call up the director strangely enough—and I said, ‘What do I do? I’m nervous about going on the set with Judy Garland and I might get lost in this scene because she knows how to chew up the screen,’” Parkins told Windy City Times. “She said, ‘Honey, just go in there and enjoy her.’ So I went onto the set and Judy came up to me and wrapped her arms around me and said, ‘Oh, baby, let’s just do this scene,’ and she was wonderful.”

3. WILLIAM TRAVILLA BASED THE FILM'S COSTUMES ON THE WOMEN’S LIKES.

Costume designer William Travilla had to assemble 134 outfits for the four leading actresses. “I didn't have a script so I read the book and then the script once I got one,” he explained of his approach to the film. “I met with the director and producer and asked how they felt about each character and then I met with the girls and asked them what they liked and didn’t like and how they were feeling. Then I sat down with my feelings and captured their feelings, too.”

4. SUSANN THOUGHT GARLAND “GOT RATTLED.”

In an interview with Roger Ebert, Susann offered her thoughts on why Garland was let go. “Everybody keeps asking me why she was fired from the movie, as if it was my fault or something,” she said. “You know what I think went wrong? Here she was, raised in the great tradition of the studio stars, where they make 30 takes of every scene to get it right, and the other girls in the picture were all raised as television actresses. So they’re used to doing it right the first time. Judy just got rattled, that’s all.”

5. PATTY DUKE PARTIALLY BLAMES THE DIRECTOR’S BEHAVIOR FOR GARLAND’S EXIT.

During an event at the Castro Theatre, Duke discussed working with Garland. “The director, who was the meanest son of a bitch I ever met in my life ... the director, he kept this icon, this sparrow, waiting and waiting,” Duke said. “She had to come in at 6:30 in the morning and he wouldn’t even plan to get to her until four in the afternoon. She was very down to earth, so she didn’t mind waiting. The director decided that some guy from some delicatessen on 33rd Street should talk to her, and she crumbled. And she was fired. She shouldn’t have been hired in the first place, in my opinion.”

6. DUKE DIDN’T SING NEELY’S SONGS.

All of Neely’s songs in the movie were dubbed, which disappointed Duke. “I knew I couldn’t sing like a trained singer,” she said. “But I thought it was important for Neely maybe to be pretty good in the beginning but the deterioration should be that raw, nerve-ending kind of the thing. And I couldn’t convince the director. They wanted to do a blanket dubbing. It just doesn’t have the passion I wanted it to have.”

7. GARLAND STOLE ONE OF THE MOVIE'S COSTUMES.

Garland got revenge in “taking” the beaded pantsuit she was supposed to wear in the movie, and she was unabashed about it. “Well, about six months later, Judy’s going to open at the Palace,” Duke said. “I went to opening night at the Palace and out she came in her suit from Valley of the Dolls.”

8. A SNEAK PREVIEW OF THE FILM HID THE TITLE.

Fox held a preview screening of the film at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, but the marquee only read “The Biggest Book of the Year.” “And the film was so campy, everyone roared with laughter,” producer David Brown told Vanity Fair. “One patron was so irate he poured his Coke all over Fox president Dick Zanuck in the lobby. And we knew we had a hit. Why? Because of the size of the audience—the book would bring them in.”

9. IT MARKED RICHARD DREYFUSS'S FILM DEBUT.


Twentieth Century Fox

Richard Dreyfuss made his big-screen debut near the end of Valley of the Dolls, playing an assistant stage manager who knocks on Neely’s door to find her intoxicated. After appearing on several TV shows, this was his first role in a movie, but it was uncredited. That same year, he also had a small role in The Graduate. Dreyfuss told The A.V. Club he was in the best film of 1967 (The Graduate) and the worst (Valley of the Dolls). “But then one day I realized that I had never actually seen Valley of the Dolls all the way through, so I finally did it,” he said. “And I realized that I was in the last 45 seconds of the worst film ever made. And I watched from the beginning with a growing sense of horror. And then I finally heard my line. And I thought, ‘I’ll never work again.’ But I used to make money by betting people about being in the best and worst films of 1967: No one would ever come up with the answer, so I’d make 20 bucks!”

10. THE DIRECTOR DIDN’T DIG TOO DEEP.

In the 2006 documentary Gotta Get Off This Merry Go Round: Sex, Dolls & Showtunes, Barbara Parkins scolded the director for keeping the film’s pill addiction on the surface. “The director never took us aside and said, look this is the effect,” she said. “We didn’t go into depth about it. Now, if you would’ve had a Martin Scorsese come in and direct this film, he would’ve sat you down, he would’ve put you through the whole emotional, physical, mental feeling of what that drug was doing to you. This would’ve been a whole different film. He took us to one, maybe two levels of what it’s like to take pills. The whole thing was to show the bottle and to show the jelly beans kinda going back. That was the important thing for him, not the emotional part.”

11. A STAGE ADAPTATION MADE IT TO OFF-BROADWAY.

In 1995, Los Angeles theater troupe Theatre-A-Go-Go! adapted the movie into a stage play. Kate Flannery, who’d go on to play Meredith Palmer on The Office, portrayed Neely. “Best thing about Valley of the Dolls to make fun of it is to actually just do it,” Flannery said in the Dolls doc. “You don’t need to change anything.” Parkins came to a production and approved of it. Eventually, the play headed to New York in an Off-Broadway version, with Illeana Douglas playing the Jackie Susann reporter role.

12. JACKIE SUSANN BARELY ESCAPED THE MANSON FAMILY.


By 20th Century-Fox - eBayfrontback, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The night the Manson Family murdered Tate, the actress had invited Susann to her home for a dinner party. According to Vanity Fair, Rex Reed came by The Beverly Hills Hotel, where Susann was staying, and they decided to stay in instead of going to Tate’s. The next day Susann heard about the murder, and cried by the pool. A few years later, when Susann was diagnosed with cancer for the second time, she joked her death would’ve been quicker if she had gone to Tate’s that night.

13. PATTY DUKE LEARNED TO EMBRACE THE FILM.

Of all of the characters in the movie, Duke’s Neely is the most over-the-top. “I used to be embarrassed by it," Duke said in a 2003 interview. "I used to say very unkind things about it, and through the years there are so many people who have come to me, or written me, or emailed who love it so, that I figured they all can’t be wrong." She eventually appreciated the camp factor. “I can have fun with that,” she said. “And sometimes when I’m on location, there will be a few people who bring it up, and then we order pizza and rent a VCR and have a Valley night, and it is fabulous.”

14. LEE GRANT DOESN’T THINK IT’S THE WORST MOVIE EVER MADE.

In 2000, Grant, Duke, and Parkins reunited on The View. “It’s the best, funniest, worst movie ever made,” Grant stated. She then mentioned how she and Duke made a movie about killer bees called The Swarm. “Valley of the Dolls was like genius compared to it,” Grant said.

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6 Tips From Experts on How to Fake Loving a Gift You Hate
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In this season of holiday giving, it's almost inevitable that you're going to get a gift you just don't like—and nobody wants to hurt another person's feelings when they went to the trouble of buying you a gift. So as you struggle to say thanks for that gaudy scarf from a beloved relative, or that stinky perfume from a well-meaning coworker, we bring you these tips from Jack Brown, a physician and body language expert from New York, and Alicia Sanders, a California-based acting coach with the conservatory program Starting Arts, for how to fake enjoyment—at least until you can exchange your gift at the store.

1. FIND ONE TRUE THING YOU CAN SAY.

Your inner voice may be saying "No!" the moment you peel pack that paper, but there may be a hidden yes inside you somewhere that you can mine for.

Sanders explains that the key to successful acting "is finding the truth in your scene." She encourages her students to tap into a moment when they felt the emotion they are trying to convey, for authenticity. "So you get an ugly sweater with a hideous shape and a terrible image, but you think the color blue is not so bad. You can say, ‘This color blue is so beautiful,' because it's truthful," she explains. The more you can find a real truth to speak from, "the more convincing you can be."

By opening with a grain of truth, you don't set yourself off on a chain of lies. "When you have to start to lie, that's when it's going to show through that you're an inexperienced actor, because you'll be more transparent," Sanders says.

2. WATCH YOUR HAND GESTURES.

However, faking joy runs deeper than just the words you speak. Sanders reminds us to think of what our hands are doing. "If you sit there statically, it feels like you're working too hard," she says.

Your hands can be a telltale giveaway that you don't really like a gift, according to Brown. People experiencing unhappy emotions tend to ball their hands into fists, tuck them against their bodies, or put them in their pockets. "If a person likes what they are getting, their arms and hands are going to go further out from the body, and tend to be more loose and relaxed," he says.

Similarly, we can reveal falsehood by touching our face or head, which often signals lying, anxiety, or discomfort, Brown says. People in these emotional states "tend to touch their face with one hand, and slowly. They might scratch near their eye, right in front of their ear, or their forehead."

Sanders suggests you put a hand on your chest or bring the gift closer to your body as a way of showing that you can stand to have it near you.

3. AVOID GIVING A FAKE SMILE …

Indeed, the gift-giver is most likely going to be looking at your face when they assess your reaction, so this is the canvas upon which you must work your most convincing efforts at false gratitude.

While you may think a bright smile is the perfect way to fake joy, Brown says smiling convincingly when you're feeling the opposite is not as easy. "Most people aren't good at it," he says.

A fake smile is obvious to the onlooker. These usually start at the corners of the mouth—often showing both top and bottom teeth, he points out. A sincere smile almost always just shows your top teeth, and begins more from the mid-mouth. Another giveaway of a fake smile is tension in the mid-face: "If you see someone with mouth tension, where the mouth opening gets smaller, the person's got some anxiety there."

4. … AND USE YOUR EYES.

Smile with your eyes first, Brown advises. "Completely forget about your mouth," Brown instructs. "If you smile with your mouth first, you're absolutely going to mess up."

And be sure to make eye contact, which Sanders says is "crucial to convince someone that you like their present."

But keep in mind that there are degrees of appropriate eye contact if you want to look natural. "If the eye contact is too little or too much, it'll feel like it's not sincere," Brown says. You want to be sure to avoid a stare—which can feel "predatory or romantic," he explains. Instead, make "a kind of little zig-zagging motion that people have when they look around a face."

5. SKIP THE CLICHÉS.

As you unwrap your unwanted gift and have a moment of unpleasant surprise, you may be tempted to reach for the simplest phrase, such as "awesome," which Brown calls "a one-word cliché" that tries to convey a happiness you don't really feel. Brown says this is a no-no, too: "If you use a cliché, your body language will parallel that."

Instead, eliminate canned words and phrases from your repertoire, he urges, "because then you'll think more about what you're going to say."

Aunt Suzie will also notice if your voice is strained or you have to clear your throat before choking out a "thanks." But how do you convincingly soften your tone of voice so that your words sound as authentic as they can?

Back to acting. Sanders suggests mining your own personal happy experiences for honest emotional content; you may be seeing an ugly sweater you'll never wear but thinking of those prized theater tickets you received another year.

Brown, meanwhile, recommends you think of your favorite comedians; they're good at improvisation, and are often laughing or smiling. "When you do that, you're getting yourself in a better emotional state," Brown says. "Or you can think about a funny time in your own personal life."

A mental rehearsal before you get a gift is a good idea too. Brown says you can imagine a gift that this person could realistically have gotten you and draw on the joy of that imagined gift instead.

6. NOW, DO ALL OF THIS AT ONCE.

If you aren't completely overwhelmed yet, keep in mind you must try to get these small communications by your eyes, mouth, hands, language, and tone in alignment with one another. Brown calls this "paralanguage."

"If they're not congruent, if they don't all line up, then you're not going to come across as sincere," Brown says.

If all of this advice has you contorting yourself into a state of confusion, Brown says that if you remember nothing else, just smile with your eyes. You might just fake it until you make it.

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