Behind The Scenes on Interstellar

Behind The Scenes on Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is probably my most anticipated film of 2014, and one that I will enjoy seeing in 70mm film print at the IMAX in London.

Please note some of these links contain spoilers so watch the film first if you want to avoid being spoiled.

In these interviews and articles you can take a much deeper look into Nolan’s filmmaking process. In this ‘long-read’ from the Guardian (which you can listen to below if you wish!) you get insights from several different voices of the crew, at various stages of productions. And I know some colorists were riled by Nolan’s reported conversation with colorist Walter Volpatto.

“You know, when you left yesterday, I felt like I had maybe been a little rude to Walter,” Nolan told me the next day. “I haven’t worked with him before. He doesn’t know my sense of humour yet. He was trying to please me and I was like, yeah, you’re lying to me. That is my sense of humour. But I went in this morning to finish up, and he said to me, ‘Oh, I looked at the projector, and it was brighter.’ When he analysed it in terms of light output – because he is a very sharp man, Walter – it was exactly one point.”

In this Indiewire blog post you can read a short interview with Nolan’s long-time collaborator, production designer Nathan Crowley.

An even bigger challenge was the primary ‘bot, TARS, puppeteered and voiced by Bill Irwin. Partially inspired by the iconic monolith from “2001,” and with a more snarky personality than supercomputer HAL 9000’s, TARS started out simply as a block of metal. Why not start all over from the beginning?

“[Nolan] thought about the scissor effect. In between that, I was a fan of minimalism and [the late architect] Mies van der Rohe. We started with a monolith and divided it into four. Then we came up with mathematical divisions of four for something more sophisticated with the block breaking down into three pins and four legs. It was continuously matching divisions of itself.”

Jonathan Nolan is interviewed several times and the best of those have been collected together by Go Into The Story.

Movies are a little like space exploration: you just go. We’re lucky now, Chris’ kids are young enough, we’re able to shoot during the summer and his family can come with him. And I’m lucky enough to be working with my wife on a project right now and our daughter was able to come with us for the filming of it. And that’s really what the film is about: we’re all connected as a species, or trapped inside ourselves and disconnected from the other people around us. And it’s this paradoxical thing: we want to explore and achieve and see what’s out there — but we do it at the cost of not being with our families. It’s tricky.

UPDATE: In the New York Times Anatomy of Scene video below, Christopher Nolan describes some of the ways in which the filmmakers ensure a realism by doing many of the effects practically and capturing them in camera.

UPDATE: The American Society of Cinematographers has published their Interstellar coverage online, which is essentially an extensive interview with DoP Hoyte Van Hoytema and has plenty of great insights into the film’s challenges and aesthetic approaches. That and a ton of technical data.

With the understanding that the MSM 9802 Imax cameras are functionally similar to most other film cameras, van Hoytema focused his research into large-format cinematography on composition and operability. “Your principles of framing are simpler,” says the cinematographer. “The Imax image is 1.43:1, so it’s more of a square. Because of the size, the experience is more visceral than observational, so you end up composing much more in the center of the frame. You can stay wider while getting the same effect as a close-up. I thought, ‘What if we used this extremely beautiful medium, with so much depth and clarity and size, to do more intimate things with close focus and a short depth of field?’ It’s beautiful how the Imax lenses render faces. They’re like big-format still portraits.”

Handheld IMAX camera - Interstellar

UPDATE: Check out these two interviews for more voices from the crew of Interstellar over on HitFix.com. Firstly, DoP Hoyte Van Hoytema shares his thoughts on the film’s production process and aesthetic. This is Hoytema’s first film with Nolan who has pretty much always worked with DoP Wally Pfister.

You talked about the visual language. Where did that conversation start? Was there any referencing early on to kind of convey what Chris wanted the look of the film to be?

Yeah, the funny thing is that one of the strongest references in the beginning was a documentary, which was Ken Burns’ “The Dust Bowl.” Chris showed us some films, and these weren’t necessarily visual references. We screened, for instance, “The Right Stuff,” because it was a very all-American, hero pilot story. So definitely elements of that seeped through it. And I also showed Chris a Tarkovsky film, because I got very obsessed about the elements and about the tactility of those elements and somehow that also became an influence to the film. I collected a lot of stills that felt like what the tonality should be, a little bit, here or there. I think Chris and I agreed very early on that this film wanted to be very grounded in its language. It wanted to feel very down to earth, little-engineered in terms of look. It wanted to feel a little bit like a documentary. It wanted to feel much more sort of matter-of-fact, like you were encountering reality and trying to film it as good as you can without coloring it up with cosmetics. Very straight.

Shooting InterstellarThere is also a shorter write up featuring Editor Lee Smith, another long-time Nolan collaborator, with a few of his thoughts on the film. It is interesting to note that he felt trying to speed up the film didn’t make it more enjoyable. Personally I don’t mind a ‘long’ film as long as the story carries it, and with Interstellar it certainly did.

One of the interesting things about the film was the fact that time played such a key role in it, not unlike “Inception” (for which Smith was rather surprisingly overlooked for an Oscar nomination). “I think it’s a fascinating thing dealing with time in movies and the non-linear structure that Chris generally likes,” he says. “Chris has got a love of non-linear films and so do I. It was completely built into the way Chris imagined it and scripted it.”

Interview with Editor Lee Smith on InterstellarMovieola.com has a 24 minute interview with editor Lee Smith, primarily about his work on Interstellar, but also how he got his start in the industry and began his partnership with Christopher Nolan.

The Wrap has an extended group interview with Nolan and his sound, editing and design collaborators. Here is a quick quote from the section with editor Lee Smith.

Interstellar leans toward practical effects as often as possible. Considering it’s often an editor’s job to pick a performer’s best take, do you see this affecting their performances?

LS: Having practical stuff for the actors is enormously important because they’re in it—they’re seeing wormholes flying at them. They’re literally looking out the window at that, whereas in other films they look out and only see a green screen and some guy yelling, “Look to the left!”
When you work on a Chris Nolan film, it’s not a joy ride. You’re not sipping wine in the South of France. You’re getting wet, you’re cold, or you’re having things thrown at you like dust, shrapnel and fake glass.

Interstellar Filmmakers

Interstellar on IMAX

In this last video you can see what it takes to prepare a 70mm film print of Interstellar for screening and in this short article from Wired you can read about how Interstellar has set new records for the longest ever IMAX feature.

Christopher Nolan in Conversation

In this 45 minute interview from Studio 360 Christopher Nolan talks sci-fi movie history, futuristic design and his filmmaking methodology.

One striking thing about Interstellar is how ordinary things look in the future. That was a very deliberate choice, Nolan explains. “From a design point of view, we decided we didn’t want the appearance of things to be guessed at, as far as what will people’s trousers look like in the future, how will people’s hairstyles be, what will a truck look like in the future? We’re asking so much of the audience in terms of absorbing a set of ideas, going on a big journey, I wanted everything to be relatable.”

In this extensive interview from The Hollywood Reporter, Christopher Nolan and the lead cast sit down to talk about the film from all angles. If you want to read your way through their discussion check out this detailed post over on THR.

UPDATE – Christopher Nolan is one of the six directors involved in The Hollywood Reporter’s round table of 2014, which is 50 minute uncensored interview. You can read your way through it here if you like. 

Are you afraid when you make films?

LEIGH Yes. I’ve never made a film where I didn’t think, “This is the one; this is the disaster.”

MORTEN TYLDUM Seeing the first edit is the worst. You see the assembly, and you think: “F—! I f—ed up this stuff.”

NOLAN I don’t watch the assembly for exactly that reason. I’ve never watched it — I just couldn’t face it. Four hours is like the crummy version of what you’ve done. It’s funny because the editors call it the “editor’s cut.”

If you want to see Christopher Nolan on the Colbert report, here is 6 minutes of entertainment.

Sound Design on Interstellar

In this excellent SoundWorks Collection video you can hear from Interstellar sound designer Richard King on his work on the film and his excitement at collaborating with Christopher Nolan.

In this intriguing post Jim Hemphill talk’s about watching Interstellar 6 times in 6 days in 6 different formats. In a footnote he dismisses the ‘sound problems’ that some people seem to have had with Nolan’s occasionally dialogue disguising mix. Also over on Lift Gamma Gain, you can get several different colorists opinion on the film. You can’t please all the people all of the time.

Interstellar was released in 70mm, 70mm IMAX, digital IMAX, 35mm, 4K DCP and 2K DCP, and I sat through it from beginning to end in all six ways it was possible to see it. I started off on opening day with 35mm, and to give the 35mm Interstellar the fairest possible shake, I went to see it at the New Beverly Cinema, the theater owned by Quentin Tarantino himself. As noted, Tarantino is a celluloid fundamentalist, a guy who recently proclaimed that, “compared to film, digital projection is like coming to a gunfight with a knife.” When he took over programming at the New Beverly this October he announced that nothing would ever be shown there in a digital format — it’ll be 35mm all the time, with some 16mm prints thrown in on occasion.

The Science of Interstellar and other goodies

For a super detailed infographic on the science behind Interstellar’s space-time travel shenanigans check out this post from space.com

Wired magazine is being guest edited by Nolan in December 2014.

This has also resulted in a 7 page comic from artist Sean Gordon Murphy and Christopher Nolan which you can read online at Wired.com

Interstellar Comic

Interstellar Visual Effects

I’m sure this section will get updated with some lovely breakdowns of the VFX work in due course, but for now, here’s a short video of one very creative (and determined) chap recreating the ‘black-hole/worm’ hole from scratch!

Nathan Crowley Production Designer

Wired also has a nice article with Nolan’s production designer – Nathan Crowley, who has art directed most of Nolan’s films.

“People have forgotten the other ways to do visual effects,” Crowley says. It may be efficient and effective to decorate a scene with digital shapes or stretch its borders with CGI. But if you build from real materials and extend from a genuine landscape, the image has a sense of weight that would otherwise be missing. It also leaves you open to the unexpected.

Double Negative’s Visual Effects Supervisor Paul Franklin has some interesting things to say in this interview over on Post Magazine. His twitter feed is also well worth having a rummage in.

“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.”

Interstellar water simulation

FX Guide has a very detailed breakdown of some of the science and visual effects involved in creating some of the film’s most iconic sequences in this extensive post. As well as a long interview with Paul Franklin in this podcast.

Double Negative artists controlled the waves with animation deformers, sculpting them effectively with keyframes. “That gave us the basic shape of the wave,” says Franklin, “but then obviously to sell it as real you’ve got to create the surface foam, interactive spray, wavelets and tiny breakers on the surface. For that we used an in-house tool called Squirt Ocean. It’s been in development for quite a while, and then there was a lot of additional Houdini work over the top of that.”

The shots were being completed in high enough resolution to work for IMAX, a requirement that limited the amount of time Double Negative had to do iterations. “I would see the layout of the wave sequence and say great let’s get the wavelets onto it and everything else,” says Franklin, “and I’d have to wait about a month and a half to actually see this stuff come back – it was that long a process since we were doing all this IMAX resolution. So we didn’t have that many goes at it. Normally you would expect to have multiple iterations but we really only had three goes at it.”

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