April 24, 2023
Filming in Zero Gravity 101: Zero-G’s Director of Production Paul Gramaglia
Few space movies are considered complete without a quintessential scene floating weightlessly, and an increasing number of these scenes are actually shot in zero-gravity environments.
Technology like CGI has brought the likes of dinosaurs and extraterrestrial invasions to vivid reality, and it’s often assumed that similar tech is used for those iconic zero gravity scenes.
However, rather than using techniques like rolling stools, wires, and even shooting underwater, filmmakers are increasingly filming on parabolic flights to capture authentic weightless scenes– and creatives are using microgravity environments to expand their filmmaking horizons now more than ever.
Filming in zero gravity presents a unique set of challenges– your own body becomes an extension of the camera, the depth of field for your shots can suddenly change in unanticipated ways, and in rare cases, motion sickness can occur if your body and brain aren’t primed for the sensation.
The following article outlines the top challenges and considerations when filming in zero gravity environments. Paul Gramaglia–two-time Emmy award winner and Zero-G’s Director of Production–joins us to discuss the nuances of filming in zero gravity, the challenges a potential filmmaker may experience, and opportunities that have arisen over the past decade. With over 15 years of experience filming in zero gravity, Paul’s expertise in this field is unmatched; his shooting credits at Zero-G include working with Justin Bieber, Stephen Hawking, Sports Illustrated, Kate Upton, Google Chrome, History Channel, Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and more. Having filmed across hundreds of zero gravity flights and thousands of parabolas, Paul’s work spans across movies, TV shows, commercials, and other promotional campaigns.
Our conversation explores how to get the most out of your filming experience, tips for getting started, considerations for cinematographers before shooting, and best practices for planning and executing a successful shoot.
How is FIlming in Zero Gravity Different from Filming on Earth?
Floating in zero gravity tends to draw some comparisons to scuba diving, except you’re largely surrounded by air rather than having fins and water to push around you. There’s a fine distinction between simple buoyancy and true weightlessness, but it makes a world of difference when filming.
Without gravity’s graceful stability, the precision and stillness required for professional filmmaking are harder to emulate.
“The biggest difference is control,” says Paul. “You don’t have much control up there compared to Earth, and you have to learn how to maneuver yourself. People often think they should bring a gimbal up there, but that won’t do anything– you become a human gimbal.”
Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes 101
Forexpert filmmakers experimenting with zero gravity for the first time, being mindful of your legs during a shot can be surprisingly challengingYou may be hyper-focused on a great shot, only to realize in post-production your knee or tip of your shoe has drifted slightly into frame. Building this mindfulness takes time, but with enough experience in zero gravity, it can soon become second nature.
“The most significant aspect of learning how to move up there is not getting your feet into the camera, which is often the first challenge for someone who’s just learning how to shoot in zero gravity,” laughs Paul. “When you first start, your legs naturally begin floating up in front of the camera. You need to stabilize yourself when you start floating, which is easy once you get the hang of it. That’s why practicing beforehand is important, so you don’t get your feet in the way of the shot.”
However, being too aware of your extremities can also affect the quality of your shots.
“On the other end of the spectrum is a tendency to worry too much about stabilizing yourself and then missing the shot,” says Paul. “You can stabilize yourself fairly effortlessly by putting your hand on the ceiling, and then you can move whenever you want.”
Know Your Weapon: Cinematography in Zero Gravity
Your body becomes an extension of the camera, giving you unique capabilities. For example, you can shoot low to the ground without supporting the weight of your body and equipment in awkward, knee-popping ways.
“What’s happening is that the plane you’re inside is moving around you. If there’s any turbulence and the plane shifts slightly one way, the subject will shift in the opposite direction– and you will, too,” explains Paul. “You’re not in a complete vacuum of space; you’re still in microgravity. If the plane goes forward fast, you’re going to move back. You’re in constant motion. Let’s say you position yourself, so you’re stationary and just focusing on the subject. You can use your fingers on the ceiling or wall to move back with the subject or forward. It’s a bit of a dance, so while the environment comes with a few uncertainties, some things can flow much more fluidly up there than on the ground.”
Paul points out that production companies may worry too much about not messing up in zero gravity and fail to take advantage of the luxuries a low-gravity environment offers.
“Once you’re stabilized, you can move around as needed,” says Paul. “You don’t need a zoom up there since you can move towards the object without much friction. You can still use your creativity; just be aware of the environment you’re filming in. Recreating the same shot in full gravity versus zero gravity is nearly impossible without adjusting your technique and tools.”
Planning for a zero gravity shoot should be viewed from a different lens– you’ll have difficulty producing identical shots designed for a sound board in an environment that can be pretty unpredictable.
“Production companies often go into zero gravity filming thinking they’re on a sound stage,” elaborates Paul. “They have this real creative thing they want to do and lenses they want to use. They don’t realize there are a bunch of nuances of filming in zero gravity until they get up there. On a soundstage, with gravity, the subject stays in one spot which lets you plan detailed angles in advance. You measure the distance and use the lens you want to get that perfect shot. But, in zero gravity, your subject can be six feet in front of you, and then within seconds, they’re four feet in front of you. There’s no time to focus.”
The depth of field stays the same, but the objects move in ways you wouldn’t anticipate, all from different angles. So, not only are you adjusting to filming in zero gravity, but your subject is likely acclimating to moving in zero gravity as well.
“I often recommend shooting in wide– you don’t have to shoot fisheye, but you want to shoot wide,” explains Paul. “ You can use primes up there; you’re just shooting wide a lot of times. Use at least 22; I use 17 up there. Then, if you’re using 6k, it’s even better because it lets you push in. If you want to maintain 6k, then the wider the lens the better, because you’ll always maintain the focus. It’s also helpful to train your subjects in zero gravity environments beforehand so they can help maintain that depth field by keeping spacing from the camera. If they don’t, then that person will float with less control and likely drift towards the camera.”
How Do You Get into a Career in Zero Gravity Filming?
“When we train videographers and photographers for our own crew, the first thing we have them do is just go up on a Zero-G flight– if you do fine, then that’s the first step completed,” says Paul. “You have to be OK, physiologically, in a zero gravity environment. Then, after that, we’ll have you go up with a camera in your hand. Since you’ve already experienced zero gravity, you know what to expect. Now, with a camera, you have to work on keeping everything in focus, not moving around too much, and just keeping the flow.”
An expert zero gravity filmmaker sits on the fundamentals of cinematography and adjusts to the intricacies of zero gravity– which range from keeping your shot composure while floating to managing any potential motion sickness from looking through a lens at an environment where things move in seemingly unnatural ways.
“When I first did it, I found I was either holding onto the rope the entire time or just grabbing aimlessly,” laughs Paul. “When you start grabbing and moving around, your feet start floating, and you don’t know what to do, so you start kicking, and there’s nothing to stop you, so you start falling backward while your feet are going up. Your camera is shooting one way, and when you try to bring it down, you’ve got your feet coming up into the shot.”
Part of operating a camera in zero gravity is just getting acclimated to look through a stationary small screen or lens while you and everything around you floats. The vast majority of flyers never experience motion sickness during a recreational Zero-G flight. However, looking through a lens or screen while floating in zero gravity is a different story. It can be quite disorienting and may cause motion sickness for the uninitiated filmmaker.
“You also have to work with subjects who may be in zero gravity for the first time,” says Paul. “So the same things that can happen to you are happening to your subjects. You may have a great shot, and then all of a sudden, they shift to the left quickly, and you have to be able to move with them.”
What Do You Recommend for a Production Crew?
As word continues to get out that filming in zero gravity is affordable and high-quality shots are feasible, an increasing number of creative agencies are beginning to plan their shoots accordingly.
However, without experiencing a zero gravity environment first-hand, it’s tricky to dial in the specifics of a shoot.
“When some companies are spending a lot of money on a big production, we always tell them to fly with us first– please, at least do a flight, just to get your gravity legs,” says Paul. “Experiencing zero gravity can have a night and day difference on a shoot. We’re not coming at anyone saying they’re incapable of filming in zero gravity, but filming up there is tricky if you’ve never done it before. We just want to help people get their product finished the way they envisioned it.”
Paul encourages creative studios to take a Zero-G flight before spending money on a full production Filming in zero gravity can be difficult if it’s your first time experiencing weightlessness, but taking even a single flight beforehand makes a drastic difference in your film quality
“I know the environment, so it’s my responsibility to help you get the shots you need,” adds Paul. “By me being up there, you know that it’s going to get done, whether directly using the footage we capture or just helping your team get the shots themselves. For example, we had a shoot recently where I was holding the cameraman as he was filming, and he would just tell me when he wanted to go from Point A to Point B.”
It’s not uncommon for a large company to plan out an elaborate zero gravity shoot, fly with Zero-G, and then say they have to go back and rethink their creativity. Without having experienced zero gravity firsthand, it’s hard to envision how filming might be different. Then, after reworking their gravity and planning for a zero gravity shoot, the teams come back with an improved gameplan and end up with excellent results.
“It’s not a battle of having creativity squashed,” explains Paul. “We’re fully supportive of your creativity and storyboards, but just advocating for the reality of the environment you’re going to deal with. If you plan the shoot with everything based on normal gravity and a soundstage, you’ll set yourself up for failure and have to adjust on the fly.”
It’s also highly recommended to have a filmmaker with zero gravity filming training either support you while you’re filming or play an active role in filming specific shots.
“We don’t have to shoot it for you, but I guarantee you’ll want us up there,” says Paul. “We had one big commercial where they chartered the plane for two days. A great group flew in from LA; the cinematographer has done incredible work on the ground. Anyway, he went up there and got sick. So now, they would either lose an entire day of shooting or have me step in, so I did. They got their shots, the commercial was done, and everyone was happy.”
Since being comfortable with any potential motion sickness that results from looking through a lens is a must, many studios would be keen not to gamble on having to pay for another flight to get the exact shots they need.
Opportunities and Challenges in the Zero Gravity Filming Landscape
The buzz around filming in zero gravity is partially fueled by creative competition to capture the unexplored possibilities of shooting in this new environment.
“One person sees someone else do a Zero-G flight on social media, and they start thinking about how to top that,” says Paul. “There have been some creative shoots up there for influencers. We’ve done gameshows, TV pilots, movies, commercials, YouTube shorts, multimedia art, you name it. As a matter of fact, we even had Keanu Reeves’ stunt double on a flight during the earliest days of the Matrix so they could research different poses and movements in zero gravity.”
The filming in zero gravity snowball effect drives awareness and actionable attention to how accessible, fun, and creative shooting in microgravity can be. The increasing popularity of filming in zero gravity has spurred a snowball effect within the filmmaking industry. Each new twist on zero gravity filming spurs 3 new ones as fellow creatives elaborate on each others’ ideas.
“Directors and creative departments worldwide are thinking of innovative ways to go up there and do things that are impossible on the ground,” says Paul. “It’s a much more authentic environment to create those weightless scenes than on the ground– no strings attached. It doesn’t look fake like you’re on wires, and you don’t need to use a lot of CGI and rotoscoping. Considering a ticket to the International Space Station costs tens of millions of dollars with months of training, filming on a zero gravity flight is far more time- and cost-effective. I think we’ll see even more scenes filmed in zero gravity over the next few years.”
There’s even room for innovation in the very equipment people bring up to film in zero gravity.
“One of our most significant challenges in the early days was that we couldn’t use certain equipment due to FAA regulations–like sliders, for example. You’re still on a plane, so you have to plan accordingly,” says Paul. “As we progress, we can configure our gear to pass the engineering standards to get it up to zero gravity. There are very few things we can’t do right now, which means people have a much larger opportunity to let their creativity flow.”
The myriad of challenges that come with filming in zero gravity may even lead to advances in filmmaking equipment. Filmmakers must not only figure out how to execute flawless shots in this unique environment, but the equipment itself must be safe to take on a plane and be resilient enough to withstand 9G’s.
Final Thoughts: The Future of Filming in Zero Gravity
Paul has run the gamut on every form of media in zero gravity throughout his time working with companies like Google, HP, Dell, 7 UP, and more. Still, he feels we’re only skimming the surface of zero gravity’s potential for filmmaking and encourages creatives to let their imagination run full force.
“You can do so much with video these days that wasn’t possible before, and younger generations of filmmakers and creatives have so much opportunity,” Paul envisions. “Before, you had to fly a helicopter, and now you have tiny drones that can get comparable shots. Similarly, you had to engineer a soundstage and tie wires all over the place for ‘weightless; scenes. Now, you can actually film in actual weightlessness. You don’t even have to go to NASA and undergo astronaut training. You can just come to Zero-G and say, ‘This is what we want, is it possible?’ and there’s a good chance that it is. We’ve seen a surge in the use of microgravity environments for recreational and commercial filming– Hollywood blockbusters, independent productions, and even Weightless Weddings.”
Zero gravity is a canvas for filmmakers to explore innovative new filming techniques and capture incredibly unique scenes. However, filming in microgravity requires intimately familiarizing yourself with the environment, careful planning, and consideration of cast and crew.
Some of the future’s most illustrious commercials and films may be filmed aboard a parabolic flight. And some of those storyboards may be circling creative rooms today.