'Interstellar': Space crafts, robots & science
Issue: November 1, 2014

'Interstellar': Space crafts, robots & science

In the November issue of Post, we speak with VFX supervisor Paul Franklin of Double Negative about how he and his team worked closely with Christopher Nolan ( Batman, Inception) on the director’s latest sci-fi epic, Interstellar. For the film, which stars Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain, Franklin tells us how he and his crew created a number of planetary environments, such as an ice planet, a water planet, and teamed with Nolan’s DPs on creating incredible dust storms on our dying planet, Earth. 

Here, in this continuation of our interview with Franklin, he discusses working on the film’s two robots, TARS and CASE, creating the film’s space crafts and the visual effects in those scenes, and in our sidebar, how Franklin and his team aided Caltech astrophysicist Kip Thorne with some scientific discoveries involving black holes and worm holes, all in an effort to create a realistic and scientifically-grounded sci-fi film. 

POST: You mentioned how you were impressed by miniature work that was done for movies, such as Star Wars, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and some of the early Star Trek films. Can you talk more about how you used miniatures, working with LA’s New Deal studios, on the space crafts?

“Rather than go with a digital solution for all the space craft, we went with miniatures. Initially, when we were in the planning stages, I thought we would use miniatures for one sequence in particular, which is where one of the space crafts gets badly damaged, there’s an explosion on board and it begins to spin out of control. I thought that would be great for miniatures because miniatures are fantastic for destruction effects. You can get a real, unexpected nature to the reality you get from those things. You can create very detailed, very richly-sophisticated digital destruction effects these days and we certainly used some of that in this film. But what a miniature gives you is the unexpected nature of reality. Chris describes it as ‘the disappointment of reality.’ It has an authenticity to it that you just don’t get if you do it digitally.

“With digital, you’re going from a pre-contrived position. You say, ‘Okay, I want this explosion to look like this. All these bits are going to spiral off in this direction, I want this level of detail,’ and you try and do that with a miniature. But, when you blow it up, it just does what it wants to do and the reality of physics dictates this far more than anything you attempted to do setting it up.

“We had a fantastic special effects guy, Richie Helmer [effects, props and miniatures], working with us. He’s a real veteran of the special effects and miniatures business. He started on the original series of Star Trek back in the ‘60s. Also, as we started to develop the miniatures, I started to realize that the models that the guys at New Deal were putting together were looking so good that I thought we could use these things to get a lot more material. If we’re going to be filming these miniatures, then let’s try and see if we can get as much as we can.

“I started talking to them about whether we could actually mount the cameras onto the models so we would get these fixed viewpoints on the miniatures themselves as they moved because our hero spaceship, the Endurance, rotates to generate gravity. I thought that might produce a really interesting perspective on the background universe as everything is wheeling around the space craft and yet it’s staying fixed. 

“By the time we finished, I’d say that in excess of 90 percent of space craft shots in the film are achieved with a miniature and we really just used the digital stuff for the wide shots where we needed to see the space craft crossing the surface of a planet or doing something specific, like when they come to land on the water planet or later on, when they’re making their final approach to the black hole. That was fantastic.” 

POST: Did you shoot the miniatures using green screen?

“We didn’t shoot any of the miniatures against green screen. We did the whole thing against black background or outside at night against the night sky and shot it as if it were really in space. We cleaned up rigs and support rigs as necessary and added star fields where we felt they were justified. Because again, if you’re exposing the space craft to daylight, then you can’t see the stars. You can’t expose the stars at the same time. We only see the stars when we’re not looking at a key light source. So, that was another big thing in the way we made the movie work.

“The other piece behind the space shots were the interiors of our space craft when we were looking out through the windows. We didn’t use any green screen for the space-craft interiors. Instead, what we did was, we kind of took a lesson at how films used to get made before digital effects came along and did a lot of front projection onto large projection screens outside of the windows of the space craft. The great thing about today, of course, is that we have the advantage of these great, big powerful projectors, which are much more portable and faster to set up. And, we fed content for them on a much quicker turnaround, so we have the visual effects team up and running during pre-production developing things like a black hole and a worm hole, and we had an early version of those we were able to project outside the windows through these Barco 40,000 lumen projectors — we had two converged onto the same area of the screen to beef up the exposure, so we would get enough exposure through the windows.

“It did all sorts of things I hadn’t even thought about. First, we got all the correct reflections and refractions through the windows. You’d see the light bouncing off the surfaces of the inside of the space craft, off of display screens and space helmets, refracting through the glass on their helmets in a way I don’t think we ever would have achieved had we been doing it as a digital comp. 

“But the other thing that we found was that the actors really liked it, because we were giving them something to look at. We were saying to them, ‘You’re flying your spacecraft towards a black hole,’ and rather than just saying, ‘There’s a big green screen out there, and you’re just going to have to imagine it because we don’t know what it looks like yet and we’ll put it in in post, but it’s going to be really impressive,’ we were showing them the thing and they could really put themselves in that place mentally. And they all came up afterwards and told us how much they loved it and how big a help it was to them. And it wasn’t something I ever really thought about until I was actually out there with the cast, seeing how they were working with this stuff. Later on, during post, it meant that we already had stuff in the windows. So Chris, and Lee Smith our editor, could start cutting the film and not have to wait for us to start removing the green to start telling the story — they had stuff in there already. 

“Now, some of the stuff, because it was at an early stage, we did replace digitally. We didn’t have the starfields working properly; they were flickering, and things like that. So, it is a visual effect, but it’s a visual effect that was created while they were shooting the movie, the way they used to do it, back in the ‘40s and ‘50s.  I think if we were ever to do this sort of thing again, I’m sure Chris will want to work in exactly the same way — it was a challenge, wrangling projectors on the set. They were big, cumbersome things; we had to have them mounted on a great big forklift. They are not light enough to move on your own, they are 600-pound projectors — big cinema style. But it was pretty special.”

POST: Can you talk about TARS and CASE, the two robots in the film?

“Yes, they are ex-military robots. Chris didn’t want to have anything that was anthropomorphic — he didn’t want to have a robot that looked like a human being or an animal. I think we’ve seen all that before. And the reality is, that robots in our real world, if you think about industrial robots or robots you have in the home — your microwave oven or a Roomba — they don’t look like people; they are functional. So, we wanted that kind of idea and we were also inspired by abstract sculpture. We’re both big fans of modern art. I’m a fan of American sculpture Donald Judd, who made these amazing minimal aluminum sculptures in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and that was kind of the inspiration for what our robot would look like. TARS, for instance, is basically a big slab of steel, about six-feet tall, three-feet wide. The big slabs are divided into four smaller bars, like four fingers on a hand, and the idea is that they are connected by a series of pivots. There’s a pivot that runs through the top of the bars, through the very bottom of the bars and then through the middle, so there’s three different positions that you can have these pivots, and the pivots can be locked and unlocked at will. So the robot can set itself into different configurations depending on if it’s walking or climbing a staircase. 

“It was quite a challenge because they are proper, full-blown characters in the film. They have personalities and they are part of the cast. With TARS, we needed to work out how to get it to do all the different things in the script, because it had a wide range of different actions and yet still stay true to this very minimal design. So we spent quite a bit of time doing animation concepts, working out how it might run, how it might move in zero gravity, how it might turn a corner, which is quite a bit more difficult than we originally thought it would be. 

“To make it a little more challenging, Chris didn’t want this thing to be a completely digital solution; he wanted something that could be filmed, so special effects came up with this big physical puppet. They made a physical robot that our performer, Bill Irwin, who was the voice of TARS, sort of strapped on to the back of this thing. For the most part, the robot hid Bill, but every so often, his head would stick up over the top of it, so we would digitally paint him out. He was able to get it to go through quite a wide range of movements, but when it needed to do something like run through the water, carry something, or climb up a staircase, that’s when we would turn it into a digital robot. But despite the minimal nature of the thing, it was very full of character and personality. It’s all about very subtle nuances and very small movements, which actually translated to a lot of personality on-screen.”

POST: How different was working on this film from others you’ve worked on?

“When you’re trying to depict things like black holes and wormholes, you’re getting into the whole business of these very abstract concepts. The only place you can go to is your imagination, and that makes it a lot harder because you don’t want to just do stuff that’s arbitrary. Science fiction films tend to impose a layer of fantasy over everything to give it that kind of look in which the audience expects. We didn’t want to do any of that, we wanted it to be spectacular because we wanted a level of cinematic experience that people might feel they could go to this place and really be there.”

To read more on Double Negative’s planetary and environmental work on Interstellar, see Post’s November print issue or visit the article online HERE.


During Post’s recent conversation with Double Negative’s Paul Franklin about the work he and his team did for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, our conversation took an interesting turn, when Franklin went further into the science of renowned Caltech astrophysicist Kip Thorne. 

As one of the executive producers, and scientific advisor, Thorne was able to weave his ideas about space, black holes, wormholes and more into the storyline and helped “perfect” the science. But Franklin (pictured) says it went even further. In their efforts to create accurate VFX based on real science, the team actually ended up aiding Thorne in new discoveries about black holes. 

“You start out thinking you’re making a spectacular science fiction film and you discover new science as you go along,” says Franklin. “Kip had worked out all the physics and mathematics behind [black holes and wormholes] and we implemented his math in our software, allowing us to actually ray trace these things — so we would be theoretically correct. Things like wormholes and black holes are common in science fiction, but what Kip tells me is that they’re typically represented in an incorrect way. Black holes and wormholes are three-dimensional holes in space, so they actually are spheres, and they affect the universe around them. The gravity is so strong, that it produces a noticeable, physical warping affect on the background universe.”

According to Franklin, the scientific community has made visualizations of black holes before, but not in the same detail they needed for this film. Aside from ending up with some “powerful, compelling images,” Franklin reports that Thorne credited the visualization of the black hole as being so detailed, “we started seeing things that we had never seen before. Kip maintains that we’ve uncovered new science, and is in the process of writing a series of scientific papers that the team at Double Negative will co-author, explaining the new science of the black hole. I think that’s pretty special.”