Visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin assumed he was setting out to make a science fiction film with his long-time collaborator, director Christopher Nolan. As it turns out, they made a science film, too in Interstellar, the holiday season blockbuster that follows Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in their don’t-call-it-time-travel journey from a dying Earth to the other side of a black hole, where habitable worlds may await.
This isn’t the only awards contender with a script that swirls around black holes; they’re integral to the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, too. But if that film’s great anachronism was putting the term ‘black hole’ into the mouths of cosmologists before it was coined, Interstellar takes on another facet of physics history: The formerly popular science quip that “black holes have no hair.” Which is to say, it was thought there was no easy way to detect the presence of a black hole in outer space because any information emitted by it would be permanently trapped behind the event horizon.
Though publicly acknowledging the influence of great sci-fi films like 2001, Nolan wanted his space epic to be as scientifically accurate as possible. So much so, that Franklin’s first pre-production meetings were at the Pasadena home of Kip Thorne, the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at CalTech and credited as an executive producer on Interstellar.
“Chris told me to get to Kip’s house,” Frankin said. “Kip was a scientific adviser on every aspect of the film.”
This included the theoretical wormholes, black holes and tesseracts, which are 3D representations of 4-dimensional constructs, as well as the nuts and bolts aspects like the space ships themselves. Franklin referred to the overview Thorne gave him and the crew as ‘Spacetime 101’, which he notes also showed up in the script, when a character lets McConaughey’s Cooper know that similar to the tesseract and its extra dimension, a black hole wouldn’t actually appear to us like a flat rabbit hole in a 2D Bugs Bunny cartoon, but instead like a sphere, in space.
Physics theory not only affected what was on screen, but even the kinds of software devised by Franklin and his team at Double Negative. There is a program called Double Negative General Relativity (DNGR) that renders images and cosmic constructs from what physics suggests. Franklin was able to produce concrete images of these theoretical structures — “pretty pictures of these things” — that Thorne told him scientists don’t spend their time making.
Of course those “pretty pictures” are part of the reason audiences are willing to pony up for tickets, but it wasn’t just rendering software that provided the otherworldly images on screen. Nolan is also known for his penchant for practical effects. So New Deal Studios in Sylmar was recruited to build both miniature and large versions of the ships, ranging in scale from 1/15th to 1/5th. Franklin said the 1/5th models were for destruction, since Nolan wanted a textile reality to the explosions and off-world mishaps. There was a 45-foot version of the crew’s shuttlecraft, which itself shuttled from a location in Iceland (standing in for an ice world) back to a soundstage at Sony. From there, Nolan piloted the spacecraft using controls, giving it both pitch and yaw as real light went rippling over its exterior surface. And even if it wasn’t quite starlight, “it looks real,” Franklin said, “because it is real.”
That same sense of the real was applied to the film’s robots, TARS and CASE, which Franklin said were designed to be “completely non-anthropomorphic. Chris didn’t want a mechanical man.” Instead, there was a flat slab with resonance of 2001, though each slab had numerous pivot points that allowed movement and nearly endless configurations with each of those pivots switching on and off. The robots were operated by actor and clown Bill Irwin, animating the 200-pound mock-ups as a rod puppet. Irwin was, of course, taken out of the finished film, but other visual elements were already in place.
“All our mattes were hand rotoscopes,” Franklin said, and not greenscreens. This same verisimilitude applied to real backgrounds of rendered stars, shown out the windows of the ships the actors sat in during filming. Franklin had to have a visual effects pipeline up and running in prep, to have those finished backgrounds ready for the space-faring cast, along with the basic look of the black hole and the wormhole that had been established in production.
While establishing that black hole, Franklin and the D-Neg group also discovered something never seen before. “There was a filigree pattern outside the black hole as it spun,” he said. “This turned out not to be an artifact of rendering, but rather, fractals on the edge of the singularity’s event horizon. Because of this we’ve co-authored a couple of papers with Kip Thorne.” These will be published in 2015; one for the science community and the other slanted toward production folks who may want to do some relativity rendering of their own.
Black holes, it turns out, have hair after all. It’s just that you can only see them on an IMAX screen.