Ian Hunter, one of this year’s Oscar winners, unveils the secrets behind the visual effects in “Interstellar”!
Ian Hunter, whose credits include Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” and “Inception,” won this year’s Academy Award for Best Special Effects with the film “Interstellar.” He demonstrates the magic of special effects, ranging from traditional miniature/stop motion techniques to the latest digital visual effects. Don’t miss this opportunity to catch his seminar again here! Here is the final installment, Part 3:
Ah, the next show I got to work on for him was called ‘INTERSTELLER,‘ and this was somewhat different for us… well, maybe not that different, but by this time we’d worked with him several times, so he’d asked us to work on INTERSTELLER. And in this case, I sort of jokingly say “We put the INTER in INSTERSTELLER,” in that we built the spaceships and photographed those spaceship models that are so integral to telling the story.
Show of hands again, how many people have seen ‘INTERSTELLER?’ Alright. Excellent!
So, one of the nice things we got to do on INTERSTELLER was actually get involved very early on and help in the design process of the spaceships. The main spaceship was called the ‘Endurance,’ and it’s circular and spins to create gravity, and then attached to the Endurance are smaller spaceships called ‘Rangers’ and ‘Landers.’ So the Rangers are the sort of sleek ‘sports car’-looking spaceships and then Landers are the more blocky sort of utilitarian truck-like spaceships. And we’d gotten some designs, some initial looks of the spaceships from the art department, and we also got some designs of the Ranger with all the detail on it.
And we took those designs and again, created a preliminary CG model. So, here is the Endurance as a CG model. Very simple but as… good for us as a guide. And here are the Lander and Ranger. And we took those CG models and added lots of detail to them, in terms of adding stribe lines and thrusters and rockets and things like that. And then, because we wanted to make them exactly as the art director, props designer, Nathan Crowley had asked us to, we involved ourselves in a lot of I’d say, ‘modern manufacturing techniques.’
And one of the things we did was a lot of 3D printing, so we actually would use 3D printing to create details andwe also use CNC to create the bodies. And we took the CG parts again in the 3D world, created this the rapid-prototype printed details, added those details to the model, and here we are building the Endurance itself. Sort of an assembly process, but we were adding all those little 3D printed parts to the Endurance here.
And here we are, building more of the model. This took…this was photographed on a Friday, I know that because that’s when I wear colorful Hawaiian shirts, so just so you know. Um, that’s er… John Favor who was the lead model maker on the Endurance itself. Now, the Endurance in a… for most of shots was in 1/15 scale. So it ‘s 15 times smaller than a full size spaceship would be. We built it with a steel frame, and then clad it with these light weight plastic shells. And then, on the plastic shells, we added all that detail. And here’s a demonstration of how we built the
Ranger spaceship. The Ranger, again, was built in er… 15th scale. We’ve started with a pattern which is on the upper left. We added those 3D printed details on the lower left, which is like a thruster or something like that. We then created a mold. And from that mold, we were able to cast lightweight fiberglass bodies, which is you see on the lower right. That allowed us to build two of the Rangers and two of the Landers. And also meant that they were lightweight so that we could stick them on to the Endurance model. And here we are taking one of the Rangers and attaching it to the Endurance.
And this again is a time-lapse showing us building the miniatures. And again, these are the 15th scale models, and these were photographed motion-control, which meant that we would set them up on our stage and shoot them with a camera that could be controlled with a computer that allowed us to repeat the motion on the model. And the… so, the motion-control camera is on the right, it’s that big tower, and it’s got a boom on it, and it’s got a camera on the end of it.
And for the most part, most of the shots in INTERSTELLER that involves spaceship, involved our miniature and shot with this motion control camera. And we would shoot it with a beauty light which would be the main light which is the sun. And a little bit of fill light, and we put practical lights that are on board. Any actual light that was on the spaceship would actually be a physical light on the model. And we shot those altogether. And normally when you would shoot something like this, you might shoot them separately. You might shoot the beauty light separately, the fill lights separately and the practical lights separately. And Christopher Nolan asked us specifically to light and shoots everything as one.
And again, this goes back to his like… striving that he’ll make it look real. In that he said, well he, you know, sort of suggested that if we’re gonna shoot this model, let’s shoot everything as if we were shooting it like we were shooting a documentary. If we were actually there in space, and we had to shoot this spaceship, where would we put the camera? Well, we’d put the camera… We would attach it to the spaceship, or it would be another spaceship looking at it. So we’d always been very close proximination to the spaceship when it was being photographed, so that it appeared to be documentary photography, and it helped sell the idea that it was real.
So, that was er… again, part of a creative decision to help make the miniature, just integral to the telling of the story. One another thing was that the design of the spaceships was based on taking NASA and the International Space Station, and looking at that for reference. So the windows on the Rangers, for instance, and the heat tiles on it, and all the other details that are on it, look like they’re from the space shuttle. It’s not the same shape, but you are familiar with the shapes of the details, and so it feels real…
when you look at it, feels believable. Doesn’t feels fantastic. And we wanted to make sure that the
spaceship felt very familiar and it supported the characters and what they were doing, and didn’t draw attention to itself, but actually became another part of the storytelling. You know, imagine you’re making a movie about Columbus. And so he is gonna get onboard a sailing ship and travel across the Atlantic.
Well, we wanted to do the same thing with the spaceship models. We wanted to make them appear to be contemporary and realistic to the era that characters are in, so that you believe what you’re seeing, it doesn’t distract you from the storytelling, and then you are able to keep up with the story.
So, we’ve shot our 15th scale model, we shot that for quite a while, motion-control. But there’s a scene in the film where… there’s a character named Dr. Man and he manages not to dock his spaceship very well into the Endurance, the big spaceship. And so, for that scene, we get to go back to what we love to do best which is build models and then blow them up.
So, in that particular case, we had to build a larger version of the Ranger. And so, this is 1/5th scale, it’s much bigger than the smaller models were. And that’s so when we blow it up, we can see this realistic destruction and pieces breaking apart. This is a shot of the Ranger. It’s again, built of foil and resin, so it’s very lightweight and very fragile. That is a guy named Doug Ziggler, he is a pyro-technician. He is very calm. That model was full of explosives in this particular case, but he seems to be handling it pretty well. He would be the only guy at this stage who would be operating on the model, because it’s full of explosives. Here is the same model before we put explosives in it where we are adding the floor and the windows. Where we added a lot of detail. And again, the nice thing is, we… since we started with a CG model, and we used CNC, and Laser cutting, and 3D printing to create this first model in 15th scale, we used all those same techniques to create the 5th scale models. So we just, you know, changed the scale on the machine, so to speak, and were able to recreate them in much larger scale. That way, the miniature in 15th and the miniature in 5th, and the full size set that they built of the Ranger would all match in detail. That way, we were able to inter-cut from one to the other without losing continuity. Here, we are building larger scale of pieces of the Endurance. This is where this will attach the Ranger to that… when it blows up. And we made duplicates for scenes where the… excuse me, where parts of the Endurance explode when the Ranger blows up. There’s some giant engine bells there, those were kinda cool to make. This is an airlock. That was used… again… the Ranger spaceship gets attached to this airlock and airlock itself was made of break-away material. So when the Ranger explodes, so does the airlock.
We also needed to create something that was not seen very often, which is an explosion in space. And the trick there is that if something explodes in space, you don’t have oxygen, you don’t have an atmosphere, so the explosion has to go… appear very quickly and then dissipate and disappear. And so we had to come up with a way to make that explosion appear, to look exciting, and then to continue the force of the blast without the flame.
So, in this particular case, my pyro-technician’s name was Richie Helmer, and Richie’s been around for a long time. Richie worked on ‘JAWS’, and he blew up the jungles in ‘Apocalypse Now.’ So, he’s er… really familiar with creating explosions. He is very creative person. And he came up with a solution, which was to make these explosions appear very quickly and then burn out very quickly, and then to keep the debris moving he used air. So, you first see an explosion which is flame. The flame burns out, and then air continues to push the debris. So, those are some of the tests that Richie did, with some break-away test pieces, just to get this look down for the explosion. We, then took the model outside, as we often do, and hung it.
Now, if you were shooting a spaceship in space, and you were to shoot it conventionally with the camera pointed horizontally and the spaceship horizontally, as soon as it blew up, all that debris would fall down and give away the illusion of it being on the ground, and not in space. But we actually took advantage of gravity in this case and if you look in the right hand picture, you’ll see the camera is actually below the model. So, we hung the model from a crane in the air, upside down at an angle. And then, put the cameras looking straight up at it, so that when it blew up, the debris wouldn’t fall down to the camera, it would fall at the camera, and appear to be weightless. And that’s actually what we call a ‘zero gravity’ shot where in fact, we’re, like I said, using gravity as an advantage in this case.
And… here we are, setting it up outside. We basically used the night sky as our background, and… Here is a nice shot showing the model outside before we shoot it. That is the sun, which is a 20k light, HMI light, that’s lighting it.
One other thing that we needed to do on this show was, again, Chris believes in shooting things for real as much as possible. And he wanted an effect of Matthew McConaughey’s character ‘Cooper’ when he enters this black hole, he wanted to see the effect of all this debris that’s been colliding with the black hole and falling into it, and give a sense of horizon. And so, what we came up with from his suggestion was something as simple as pouring salt down on the camera. And it seems like a very simple idea, but it actually created some really amazing wave patterns. And shooting it at high speed, it created this sort of gossamer feel that you wouldn’t get from doing it strictly as a CG version, so this very organic, very simple technique became very ethereal, actually the way it was ultimately put together in the film. And that’s us taking our Ranger model and shooting that… pointing straight up, camera looking up, and then above that we would pour the salt on it. So, that all was fine and dandy, and we love the model, and it looked great.
And then came the fateful day where we had to blow it up. So we got to, again, hang it outside at night, and then put our camera below it, and photograph it as it comes apart. This is a witness camera showing what happened at normal speed, not at high speed, but you get a sense of what occurs. And even at that angle, you can kinda get a sense of what happens with all that debris flying at you as opposed to across from you. By the way, those really are… that was the applause of my crew, again. Nothing gives you better satisfaction than to spend again about 14 weeks building a model, and then blow it up in front of a bunch of people who worked day and night on it. It’s pretty exciting.
One of the things about this shot, this is in the movie by the way, this is the first time we shot this miniature. We built two of them, so we could get another crack at it. And in one of the previsualizations that Christopher Nolan had created for the film, er… the cameras actually attach to the nose of the Ranger when it blows up. Well, the Ranger’s blowing up, so we couldn’t attach the camera to it, so we did the next best thing which was to put the camera on a crane and follow it as it explodes. And he liked the shot well enough, and he had it ‘in the can’, so to speak, but then he said, well, can’t you attach the camera to the nose of the spaceship when it blows up? And we said, but it’s blowing up. It’s… it’s physically is exploding. He says, yeah, yeah, yeah, but can’t you put the camera on it, like in the previz, so that it exactly matches what’s in the previz, so we see the camera moving with the spaceship as it explodes? I kept saying, but…, well, I shouldn’t say I said anything. I was nodding a lot. And he… he expressed to Paul Franklyn, he says, put on the camera on the spaceship. And when the spaceship explodes, let the camera be on there. So, we had to figure out a way to do that, because the camera has to shoot the shot of the exploding spaceship, but it’s attached to the spaceship that’s exploding. So how do you do that? Well, we came up with a method we called the ‘Peli-Cam.’
We took something called a ‘pelican case,’ which is a big plastic camera case, it’s very durable. We cut a hole in it, put our camera in there and attached our camera to the nose of the spaceship. But we were using an explosive timer, so we could make the spaceship explode at a certain specific time when we did the shot. And we attached the camera in that case, on its own explosive bolt with a cable on it. So, at a specific time in the shot, while the ship is swinging, but before it actually blows up, we were able to cut the camera away and pull it out of the shot and save the camera. Which was good because the camera itself was what we call a ‘Vista Vision’ camera.
Now, a Vista Vision camera is a film camera, if you are not familiar with it, it’s er… Normal film cameras, the film runs through vertically, and you get four perfs, you get like a little negative out of it. Because this scene was gonna be in the film and it was gonna be in IMAX, we needed a larger negative. And so we needed to photograph it with a camera that gave us a larger negative. So we used something called the Vista Vision camera, where the film run sideways through the camera and creates a much bigger negative that can be blown up in vista. And… but these cameras haven’t been used since, well they haven’t been built since the 50’s. We had one that was re-furbished since then, but I can kind of imagine that this camera was actually used on ‘The Ten Commandments.’ And we are sticking it in this box, and we’re about to blow it up, so we had to figure out a way to save that camera.
Anyway, INTERSTELLER was like for me, a really great sort of culmination of working with Christopher Nolan. In that, we were much more involved in this film than we had been in previous films of his. We certainly enjoyed the work we did on the two ‘Dark Knight’ movies and on ‘Inception.’ But in this case, INTERSTELLER, we were actually creating a pretty significant part of the location, in that we built the spaceship, whenever you see it as an exterior. And we also were involved very heavily with the design of the spaceship ‘The Endurance’ with the art department. And creatively, it got much more involved for us. When we started the film, Paul Franklyn, the supervisor from Double Negative, who was ultimately going to put scene together, or all the scenes together, started out with the thought that there would be a ratio of… he thought maybe 60% of the shots would be miniature, and 40% of the shots would be CG, or it may have been actually 40% miniature and 60% CG. He came into it with that expectation. But as we continued to shoot the model more and more, the ratio started changing, and we ended up doing something like 90% of the shots are miniature, and 10% of the shots ended up being CG.
He used CG specifically for things like entering the atmosphere and wide shots. But for the most part throughout the film whenever you see the Endurance spaceship in space, it’s gonna be our miniature, photographed and then composited into backgrounds. By the way, in this day and age, when there’s so much done with green screens in movies, where
you have very little bit of a set, and you have green screens outside and it’s ultimately all replaced with some sort of digital environment… INTERSTELLER is a… is er… I don’t know whether it’s notorious, or
infamous, or just amazing in this day and age, there are no green screens in the movie. Basically, they photographed everything as much as they could in camera. They went to locations like Iceland. Whenever you see anything out the window of the spaceship, there were projectors on stage projecting space or planets for the actors to react to. And when we photographed our models, we shot them all against black. We would shoot a separate pass, where we lit the model bright enough to create a matte,
but we never put a green screen behind it. This again, really created, a very great sense of… sort of a documentary feel, because we were getting pure photography that then could be combined with the backgrounds and… in this case, for INTERSTELLER, the miniatures served their purpose, which was to create this sort of grounded reality of earth, and then that combined with the incredible CG work that was done by Double Negative to create the black hole and worm hole, the black hole especially, to me, was really well done. It’s a great combination of techniques to sell the story and tell the story as Christopher Nolan envisioned it.
So, here is an example of some of the work from… I can’t show you everything that we did on INTERSTELLAR, but here’s an example of some of the shots.
And that’s how you take miniatures and use them with CG to create great illusions. Thank you very much.
MC: Well, Ian… Thanks for a wonderful, wonderful presentation. We’ve got so many, you know, young creators and film-makers here. We’ve got time for one question. Why don’t we do one question?
IAN: One question? Yes.
Well, interestingly, I think the really big high-budget tent-pole movies, some of them will still continue to use CG quite a bit. The main difference between using CG and using miniatures is that miniatures require you to pre-plan, and CG allows you to continue to work on the shot to the very end. And so, on a really, really big budget superhero movie, the studios can continue to work on them up until, you know, almost up to release date using CG. These examples that I showed you had directors who are willing to commit to what their vision was gonna be. And they would give us very clear direction, and Christopher Nolan is great example. He tells you exactly what he wants to see. So, it requires commitment on the part of director to use a miniature, because he has to understand what he is gonna get and tell us what he wants. And then we deliver that. So, that’s one thing, is it takes away some of the control of the studio, and gives it back to the director to use miniatures. So, I think on big tent-pole movies, you’ll still see quite a bit of CG done, frankly.
However, there are some directors and some movies being done where we are doing some of the work
as miniatures because it turns out sometimes miniatures are less expensive. As a for instance, you know, going back to ‘Night at the Museum,’ someone would say, why didn’t you just build… finish the CG version of the interior? Well, it turns out that the amount of time it would take to texture, render, light and output the CG version of that set, it was actually more expensive to do it as a CG version than for us to go and build it as a miniature. Also, building a miniature oftentimes is faster, because you can put more people on it, and do things the same time.
So, to answer your question, I think you’re still going to see quite a bit of digital work done, probably not as much miniatures in these big tent-pole movies as you might expect, but you’ll see a lot more miniatures coming in on moderate… medium-budget movies, because it turns out to be a less-expensive option. But, it’s all about the vision of the director. If the director can commit to what he wants to see, then miniatures become a great option because they are ‘real’, we are photographing something and handing it to him.
MC: That would also kinda force the director to be… to really get into the craft of making a film. To commit to that, wouldn’t it? So that’s… that would actually be a better way for a director to really, you know, grow as an artist. Instead of relying on CG.
IAN: Yeah, that’s true. It means that, instead of just going on to a set, and having a big green screen, or back behind there, and letting the visual effects company deal with it, it means that they have to visualize what it’s going to be ultimately, and translate that vision to the artists, so that they can build to it. And again, some directors have that strength, and I’ve been in the business long enough to hear people say, how can I visualize it without seeing it? And I’m thinking, but you’re a director. That is your job, to visualize it without seeing it. So, and tell us what that is. So, sometimes directors use that as a crutch, that they don’t… You know, there’s a green screen back there, someone else will figure it out later on. And the better directors can see it in their head, and tell the artists what they want to see.
MC: And that’s where you come in!
MC: Mr Ian Hunter. Such a great pleasure to have you here. Thank you!