Simulating a low-gravity environment on film

Yesterday’s New York Times had a Dave Itzkoff piece talking up Moon, the new SF film by Duncan Jones (aka Zowie Bowie) and starring Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey. The movie sounds interesting, and I look forward to seeing it. Itzkoff’s article, however, included a throwaway line about the “scientific accuracy” of 2001: A Space Odyssey that woke up my inner Aspergers’ child, because seriously, 2001 is a Bible picture for pot-smoking atheists, and the fact that they turn the sound off during the spacewalk sequences doesn’t change that.

Anyway, I was still buzzing about “accuracy” when I watched the Moon trailer, and, first, it looks like a very cool film, but, second, I noticed that they’d gone the usual route in portraying the Moon’s lower gravity—inside the moonbase, Sam Rockwell moves exactly the way he would on Earth, but when he steps outside, the camera switches to slow-motion. Which got me wondering: if you wanted to accurately simulate 1/6th Earth gravity in the indoor shots where he’s not wearing a space suit, how hard would that be to do, and would the audience accept it or would it look distractingly weird?

8 thoughts on “Simulating a low-gravity environment on film”

  1. You could always do it on the Vomit CometWeightless Wonder, like they did for Apollo 13. It can do lunar gravity even easier than freefall. Would be really expensive, though, and you’re limited to a very noisy soundstage the size of a C-9 fuselage.

    1. Interesting. I didn’t realize the Comet could simulate low gravity (of course, it’s always the freefall flights they show on TV).

      But yeah, that would be a pretty cramped environment to film in. Plus I imagine there are safety regulations against stuff like open flame, so the scene where we explore the comic challenges of stir-frying in low-g would have to be at least partially CGIed.

  2. I think it’d be extremely hard to do, and it would look distractingly weird. We have essentially no experience with how people walk or how objects move in lunar gravity.

    (Also, it’d be hard to use the Vomit Comit, because the floor of the plane isn’t horizontal when it’s flying parabolas. That doesn’t matter for a zero-gee scene, but it would for a lunar-gravity scene.)

    1. The apparent gravity inside the plane does stay perpindicular to the floor. That is, the magnitude changes throughout a parabola, but not the (relative) vector.

      My last time on it I sat through a lunar parabola watching the horizon out one of the windows. It was a very, very odd thing seeing it twist from -60 to +60 degrees, all while my personal sense of down never changed. My mind refused to interpret it as a horizon, since those don’t move.

    2. I was playing with this gravity calculator last night and thinking about non-obvious ways in which the lower gravitational acceleration would affect things. Over breakfast it occurred to me that you’d probably have to redesign my coffeemaker, since the drip filter would drain much more slowly but the mechanical pump that delivers hot water from the reservoir to the filter basket would continue to operate at Earth speed. I’d also have to drink it more carefully, since any sloshing would create ripples 6 times higher…

  3. I’m thinking overhead track(s), rope, pulley, and 5/6 bodymass counterweight, but the blocking/track positioning could be tricky…

  4. Re: low-gravity environment
    The “moon landing hoax” mythbusters episode has some footage shot inside the zero-G/”vomit comet” lunar gravity environment in its second half. It’s interesting to see how the non-suited-up helpers move – there’s a lot of hopping around more reminiscent of monkeys than humans.

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