Scene Is Believing: Interstellar

Interstellar waterworld

“Time and tide wait for no man” – Chaucer

The water planet

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is full of spectacular images and locations, both space and planet bound. One of the most deadly is the watery world perched perilously on the limits of an orbit around a black hole, labelled Gargantua by the crew of the exploratory ship Endurance.

The Lazurus mission set out before that of Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, Anne Hathaway’s Amelia Brand, Wes Bentley’s Doyle, and David Gyasi’s Romilly, the crew of Endurance. It’s mission – a seeming one-way ticket to find a habitable planet on the other side of a wormhole parked near Saturn, that exists in an entirely different galaxy, and relay data back to Earth. Coop and the others have travelled through the wormhole to follow up on their findings, while Amelia’s father Professor Brand (Michael Caine) wrestles with the solution to a gravity equation that will enable the earth’s population to leave their dustbowl, dieing planet and begin a new life elsewhere.

Director and scriptwriter Christopher Nolan worked closely with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne on pushing the science to serve the story (Thorne had initially wrestled with an even more complex screenplay with Nolan’s brother Jonah – at one point Steven Spielberg was lined up to direct).  For Miller’s world (named after the explorer who found it) one hour on the surface equals seven years on earth, or off surface. Nolan’s insistence on this time dilation led to Kip re-evaluating his theories. He told Wired magazine:

Chris wanted a planet with time dilation unbelievably greater than I have ever seen in physics, and I just didn’t think that was possible. And he said, basically, “I gotta have it.” I went home, slept on it, did a calculation, and found that if you have a black hole that spins rapidly enough, and a planet that is very close to the last stable circular orbit, you could get the time dilation he wanted. It just amazed me.”

Above us the waves

The effect, in layman’s terms, was as if a basketball was perpetually spinning on the rim of a hoop. This powerful gravitational factor threatens to end their mission almost before it has begun. The shallow expanse of water they land in is not a lake – it’s the shallow break caused by gigantic tidal forces. Those aren’t mountains in the distance behind them – it’s a 4000 ft wave, created digitally, ready to crush them and their Rover spacecraft unless they can take off in time, after retrieving the dead Miller’s data.

Building better worlds

Practical full scale effects, punishing location photography, miniature and CG work went into the creation of Miller’s world. It was while location  scouting for another planet in Iceland (Eyjafjallajökull, a 5,000foot volcano, covered by an ice cap) that Nolan and long-term production designer Nathan Crowley were directed by local farmers to the shallow, expansive delta where they would settle a full-scale Ranger spacecraft down in the two feet deep water. An expanse that stretched to the horizon in every direction. He told Wired:

“The back door opens,” Crowley says, “and the actors get out. We’re in water, in this odd landscape, the sky is heavy, and there it is—this strange world with a spaceship in it.”

That full scale 12 ton spacecraft was disassembled, transported in a 747 to Iceland, and reassembled, lowered by giant crane, settling on working hydraulics. The effect is somewhat like James Bond’s “Wet Nellie” Lotus Esprit settling on the  water, rather than emerging from it.

interstellar practical water world

Anne Hathaway nearly caught hypothermia, submerged for long takes as her character attempts to retrieve the probe data from Miller’s wreckage. Monolithic robot CASE rescues her from the approaching gigantic wave. Both CASE and his more verbose, sarcastic robot colleague TARS were operated practically, and voiced by, actor and comedian Bill Irwin, effects house Double Negative removing Irwin and any operating rods in post production.  “The early shots in that sequence consist of the CASE robot walking through the water,” says effects supervisor Paul Franklin. “That’s the physical puppet and we just removed the performer from behind it.” Irwin crouched behind CASE in the water – the 200 pound robot spent so much time in the water the metal corroded, requiring a rebuild.

interstellar robots5_g

The robots are designed as many smaller rectangular blocks that slot together magnetically, reforming in multiple configurations. Four main blocks can be joined in three ways, with further subdivisions, proportionally. They can “walk” and “run”, also unfolding “fingers”. The CG team prepped up to five subdivisions, each appendage getting smaller and smaller. A rare instance of CG is when CASE speeds along like a spinning wheel, clutching Amelia, although practical work set up the finished effect.



Franklin explained: “What special effects gave us was, they built a little water rig attached to a quad bike we could drive through the water and derive interactive splashing. We had another rig again built off a quad bike which essentially had a forklift on the front of it, so that carried our stunt performer. We had the arms of the robot holding the stunt double for Anne Hathaway. The thing would churn up the water and then we got rid of the quad bike and then replaced it with the digital robot.”

Bookending CG work with practical methods sells the impossible – the CASE that clambers into the Ranger’s hatch after the rescue is the practical robot, manipulated by Irwin. The model Ranger is then almost swept away by the gargantuan wave. “I think if Chris Nolan could have built a spaceship and just shot it in space, he probably would have preferred that,” said Ian Hunter, New Deal’s miniature effects supervisor. “He likes to shoot things as real as possible…Subconsciously they (the audience) know it’s really there in front of the viewer. It’s not a fantasy, it’s a drama that just happens to be taking place in space.”


Originally posted 2014-12-13 17:33:49. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Read and post comments on this article