VFX: 'Interstellar'
Issue: November 1, 2014

VFX: 'Interstellar'

Even before its nationwide opening on November 7th, there was lots of buzz surrounding director Christopher Nolan’s new sci-fi epic, Interstellar, starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain. On board the Endurance starship, a group of space explorers travel to a distant solar system in search of new planet that can sustain human life, thus saving humanity. This is in response to our dying planet, Earth, plagued by drought, famine and radical climate change. Paramount Pictures’ Interstellar, headed by an award-winning cast, takes on wormholes, black holes, space/time, love, family and human extinction, and is seemingly a serious contender for some of Oscar’s top prizes.

The film, shot on-location in Canada, Iceland, and LA for the stage work, was captured in 35mm and 65mm IMAX by DP Hoyte van Hoytema.

Prior to its opening, Post caught up with Oscar-winning VFX supervisor Paul Franklin (Inception) of London-based Double Negative, the sole vendor for the film’s visual effects. Having created 700-plus shots, Franklin discusses, here, the film's numerous planetary environments.

How involved were you with the film, aside from your role in visual effects?

“I was with the film during production and post. I came over to LA early last year and worked in the pre-production office for the three or four months we were in prep and then I was with the movie all the way through the shoot.

"Chris likes to have all his creative leads with him the whole time. So, I was on-set to ensure things had been shot correctly, that we’re getting the right information, and for the ongoing creative discussions, which starts when we’re in pre-production, with the first reading of the script and trying to work out how we were going to tell the story. Once in post, I presented the work every day to Chris to show him where we were with the work.”

What was your understanding of what Christopher Nolan wanted from you?

“Chris called me up and said, ‘I’ve got this new script and there’s some really interesting visual effects challenges in it.’ So I flew to LA and read the script in his office. We went straight into a discussion about how we might visualize the particularly-abstract parts of this film.

"Without giving anything away, the whole third act of the film goes into a very interesting place. We’re dealing with big cosmological themes, time, space, distance, big astronomical objects like black holes, stars, wormholes and the vast distances in the universe — and it’s about working out an effective way to tell that story without it just becoming a big science documentary or becoming so abstract that the audience doesn’t know what they’re looking at.

"We started thinking about ways other filmmakers or artists have approached the grand cosmological themes and, of course, as a filmmaker, you always come back to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey because it’s the big thing that hangs over all of us attempting to deal with this kind of subject matter. It was a very incredibly-interesting process. But at a certain point, you have to start thinking about how you are actually going to start realizing these things, so we start talking about technique and that’s how we arrived at things like miniatures, for example. [All miniatures and models — predominantly the spacecrafts — were created by LA’s New Deal studios.] 

"We wanted to give the film a degree of 'tactile reality,' a term Chris used to describe it. He wanted it to look as if you can really reach out and touch these things; that they’re not these beautifully-pristine, computer-generated images; that there’s something a bit more gritty; a bit more real about what we’re looking at. We felt it was a shame to just assume that the default position would be that we would do all these things digitally.”

Can you discuss some of the VFX?

“One of the things that was striking about this film for us was how diverse the effects work was in the movie. As soon as we leave the Earth and travel into space, we have space rockets, giant space ships traveling cross the solar system, we’re encountering the outer planets, flying through the wormhole, and then we arrive in the new galaxy, which is supposed to be on the far side of the universe. And, we’re encountering exotic alien environments there. And then, of course, we finally meet the black hole.

"A big part of what we did for Interstellar is what I call the terrestrial work — the surface of the planets — whether it’s our own Earth or the other planets they visit in the film. For Earth, we created the dust storms for the opening of the film where the idea is, the Earth is in some sort of unspecific ecological collapse, and there are dust storms, and we see this towering colossal dust storm sweeping in and smothering the town at one point, and the majority of that is achieved in-camera.

"Scott Fisher, our special effects coordinator, did an amazing job actually making a physical dust storm — with great big air movers out on the set and blowing dust through the streets. But when we established the thing, we see the big dust clouds coming towards us — that was a computer-generated effect. So there was quite a lot of physics simulation work that went into that. We spent a lot of time looking at archived footage of real dust storms — and, of course, looking at the old 16mm B&W films and The Dust Bowl itself, that amazing Ken Burns documentary, which was a big source of inspiration. What was interesting about that work was that it sort of set the tone for a lot of the terrestrial work.”

What about the other planets?

“Later on, our astronauts travel across the universe and they land on this water planet, which is very close to the black hole, and one of the effects of the black hole is that it raises these colossal waves on the surface of the planet. There’s an actual location we found in Iceland, this amazing coastal lagoon, which is about two feet deep, fed by glacial melt water, and it stretches off completely flat in all directions for about two or three miles. We erected our space ship set in there, and we had our cast lumbering around in the water. 

"What we had to do digitally, were these giant waves. The idea is, these waves are truly enormous — they are 4,000-foot-high mountains of water, bigger than any wave we’ve seen on Earth. And, this sweeps up the spacecraft and they go on this wild, roller coaster ride down the back of the wave, and we did a bit of work there. Again, Scott Fisher provided us with water canons on the location to have water hitting the spacecraft and hitting the cast. But everything else was done with visual effects, which meant, simulating this giant wave, which we animated using straightforward animation performers, so we could control the shape very carefully with what you might consider to be, for lack of a better term, traditional computer animation techniques.”

How difficult were the water scenes?

“To create the surface of the water over this thing, there’s a huge amount of physics simulation that went into that. Using our own proprietary [fluid simulation system], Squirt, and a lot of off-the-shelf software [including Maya, Houdini, Nuke, Photoshop, Renderman and Mantra], it was a very laborious process. Remember, we’re doing this all at IMAX resolution and I would see an early animation of the wave sweeping the space ship up and I would say, ‘Great, now let’s add all the wave crests, the spray, the white water and the foam.’ On average, it would be at least a month or six weeks before I would see anything because it would take that long to crunch all the numbers. It was a tricky process, but the result is truly spectacular. I think that visual effects, at their best, can really take you to a place that doesn’t exist, yet make it look believable.”

Wasn’t there also an ice planet?

“Yes, the third of the planetary environments we filmed on-location in Iceland. We went down into a glacier, and we spent a week out on one of these extraordinary glaciers and the weather was incredibly challenging. At one point, we had a 100-mile-an hour windstorm that blew us off the glacier and we were pelted by rocks and ash from volcanic planes. You can see a little bit of that in the film. Matt Damon and Matthew McConaughey are inside their space suits, so they were protected a little bit and could keep acting, but you can see there’s one bit where Matt Damon is getting belted by the wind. Shortly after, we were kicked off the glacier — it was unsafe.

"The glacier itself looks incredible and it gave us this amazing reality. But we also had these big green and black volcanic mountains, and this black volcanic ash covered in green moss. And, as spectacular as that looked, we didn’t want to have that because we didn’t want to have any kind of clue that this was a terrestrial environment. So, we replaced all of that with digital matte paintings, environments created from both the landscapes of Iceland, and also with lots of aerial footage that I shot with the helicopter crew over clouds and cloudscapes that we found over Iceland. So, doing all this 3D work, soaring landscapes of big arches of ice and rock and stuff that soar over the landscape. The idea is, on this planet, it doesn’t have any real surface in the classical sense. That's all the planetary work.” 

For more on Interstellar's robots, space crafts, miniatures and science, check out Post's November coverage HERE!