The American Society of Cinematographers

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Hoyte van Hoytema, FSF, NSC, combines Imax, VistaVision and 35mm anamorphic for Interstellar.

Unit photography by Melinda Sue Gordon, SMPSP, courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros.

Shot by Hoyte van Hoytema, FSF, NSC, Interstellar is the kind of movie that also qualifies as an event, a big-screen experience that asks viewers to leave the comfort of their homes and enter another world. The film’s narrative follows a similar arc. Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper, an ex-NASA test pilot tasked with leading a colonial expedition through a wormhole to the far reaches of space.

Director Christopher Nolan has become known for crafting thinking-man’s blockbusters after his successes with the Batman trilogy, Inception and other ambitious productions. The director says he turned to van Hoytema — a Dutch-Swedish cinematographer whose work distinguishes such painterly films as Let the Right One In, The Fighter (AC Jan. ’11) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (AC Dec. ’11) — because “I really responded to the naturalism in Hoyte’s work. And because of my experience with larger-scale films, I wasn’t particularly looking for someone with large-film experience because I could bring that to bear myself.”

Van Hoytema spent the months prior to principal photography developing a shared visual language with Nolan while attending rehearsals, gathering references, and watching such films as Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff and Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. “We didn’t want to be unnecessarily lyrical or poetic,” says van Hoytema. “The viewer needs to believe that the science behind the story is legit, so we wanted our approach to be matter of fact.”

Approximately 60 to 70 minutes of the film’s 170-minute run time was filmed in 15-perf 65mm Imax, with the remaining material a combination of 35mm anamorphic and 8-perf VistaVision. 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.”

The production was furnished with several sets of large-format Hasselblad lenses from Imax, and ASC associate Dan Sasaki, Panavision’s chief optical engineer, provided two custom lenses: a 50mm T2 with a 2' close focus, and an 80mm T2 Mamiya he’d previously made for The Dark Knight Rises (AC Aug. ’12). According to A-camera 1st AC Gregory Irwin, most of the Imax footage was photographed with the custom 50mm and 80mm lenses.

Despite Interstellar’s scope, the filmmakers envisioned an intimate story and strove to capture the actors in tight, handheld close-ups. Given the wider Imax frame, +1 to +3 diopters helped van Hoytema get as close to his subjects as possible. A Panavision-style dovetail accommodated handgrips and a shoulder pad, and Sasaki shortened an MSM 9802 viewfinder, brightening its reflex mirror path and pushing its mount forward on the camera body, which allowed van Hoytema, who was also operating, to more easily heft the 75-pound camera and 1,000' magazine.

The production’s set of custom anamorphic lenses ranged from 28mm to 100mm, allowing a 2 1/2' minimum focus at a T2 across the board. Each lens was based on an existing design: a USG 28mm, a C Series 35 and 50mm, a D Series 40mm, and an E Series 75 and 100mm. A hero 65mm T2.0 with a 9" close focus was built from scratch. “It was like a macro lens,” van Hoytema says, “but there are trade-offs: If you tweak your lenses to favor extreme close-ups, your wide shots will probably be slightly softer.”

Sasaki also tuned van Hoytema’s anamorphic lenses to create a specific type of flare, “something warmer and fluffier than the typical hard anamorphic streaks,” says the cinematographer.

Though Nolan prefers to film with one camera at a time, key 2nd AC Tulio Duenas, along with B-camera 1st AC Philip Shanahan and B-camera 2nd AC Dan Schroer, kept two Panaflex Millennium XLs and two Imax bodies on standby in the event of a jam or change in format. “We made it simple,” says Irwin. “A Preston [wireless focus control was mounted] on every camera with its own channel, and the lenses were mapped out on my handset. The matte box is already on, and the Panaflex mag is rear-loaded even on a head, because the next take might be on Hoyte’s shoulders or [camera operator Scott Sakamoto’s] Steadicam.”

Principal photography commenced in the summer of 2013 with Alberta, Canada, standing in for an unspecified American heartland. Corn is the last crop to resist a blight threatening the world’s food supply, and Cooper tends a struggling farm with the help of his father-in-law (played by John Lithgow) and two children (played by Mackenzie Foy and Timothée Chalamet). For van Hoytema, the Cooper farm is a strong metaphor for humanity’s collective home. “It is a place where you feel the elements of nature: the dirt, the crops, the natural light and the constantly changing weather,” he muses. So specific was the filmmakers’ vision for the farm that production designer Nathan Crowley designed and constructed a working farmhouse surrounded by acres of cornfield.

Using scale-model light studies conducted during prep, Crowley built the house “so the sun would come straight in the front all day long, and then set behind it,” says van Hoytema. Cooper’s daughter’s bedroom window provided varying qualities of sunlight. “Whatever nature gave us, we greedily took,” says van Hoytema.

Gaffer Harold Skinner and Alberta gaffer Martin Keough ran 800' of double 4/0 cable connected to three in-line 1,500-amp generators from the cornfield to the house, where all of the outlets and switches were connected to a dimmer cave in the basement. When a day interior called for film lighting, van Hoytema lit primarily from the windows. “Outside of [the daughter’s] room, we had one of our six 18K HMIs on a Condor pushing through the window behind a 6-by-6 or 12-by-12 Light Grid frame,” says Skinner. Overcast skies were augmented by bouncing into a Light Grid or Full Grid eyebrow over the window exterior. Skinner adds, “Inside, we’d use one of my custom 4-foot 2K soft lights [with four 500-watt ECT globes and Half CTB] or a BBS Lighting Area 48 [LED] to wrap the light around in wider shots.”

Natural daylight was accentuated with 1⁄2 or 1⁄8 CTO on 4'x4' frames in front of lights, and HMIs with 1⁄4 Plus Green “to emulate the bounce that natural light gets from all the plants or trees,” says van Hoytema. Adding that he eschewed precise contrast ratios, he notes, “I would rather get something that’s less perfect but more real. Inside the kitchen, the big windows burn out and the soft light sort of streams into the room but doesn’t reach very far.”


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