The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents December 2014 Return to Table of Contents
Presidents Desk
Interstellar
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ASC Close-Up

Inconsistency is a defining trait of Alberta weather. “From one moment to the next, the sky would storm with black clouds or give us a beautiful low sun,” van Hoytema recalls. “The rule of thumb was to accept the beautiful and the extreme. It was not always dramatic. It could be very gray and dull, and we wanted to capture those moments, too.” NDs and polarizers helped maintain a shallow T2.8/T4 at ISO 50, though some action scenes pushed the stop as high as T5.6.

“We typically used a 12-by-12 Ultrabounce and sometimes a little overhead action,” says Skinner. “The wind really kicks up in Calgary, so our key grip, Herb Ault, also used perforated bounces. When we did light, it was the standard two 18Ks through a 12-by-12 frame of Full Grid. Most of the time, we would just wait for the sun to come back.”

For a sequence that takes place in an underground facility, the filmmakers combined exterior locations in Canmore, Alberta, with a number of interiors, including a parking garage in Torrance, Calif.; the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles; and sets built on Stage 26 at the Sony lot in Culver City, Calif. The filmmakers adopted a utilitarian approach to combine these disparate locations into a single environment. “Everything from the light sources to the furniture to the technology was meant to seem familiar and was constructed according to its function,” van Hoytema remarks.

Onstage at Sony, the facility’s large boardroom was connected to the roomy office where Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and Murph (Jessica Chastain) work out some of the film’s deep science. Practical T8 fluorescent tubes in the ceiling were warmed with 1⁄8 CTO to create an ambient light level. The actors were augmented with a 2x2 Kino Flo and wrapped with a handheld panel of VHO 120 LiteRibbon strips diffused with Lee 129 Heavy Frost. “The LED housings were designed for practical use on the spaceship sets, but we ended up using them on every set because they were battery-powered and I could run around with Hoyte and hold one next to the camera as an eyelight,” says Skinner.

Cooper’s experience as a test pilot lands him a potentially one-way ticket on the expedition spacecraft Endurance, where he joins Brand’s daughter (played by Anne Hathaway) and scientists Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi). Sony’s Stage 30 housed the main Endurance set and two vertically oriented sections for “zero-gravity” work. Full-sized versions of the Endurance’s ranger and lander spacecrafts, which were mounted to a hydraulic gimbal by special-effects coordinator Scott Fisher and his crew, were built on Stages 26 and 27.

Van Hoytema lit the Endurance interior to a T2.8/T4 using practical LiteRibbon and fluorescent fixtures based on a Kino Flo egg-crate louver. “The honeycomb [design] looked functional and also gave us control over the light,” he says. “We wanted to get away from typical ‘movie spaceship’ aesthetics. A big part of our language in the ship was inspired by Imax NASA footage. We were thinking of something more like an Amtrak train or the inside of a tank. We tried to emulate the claustrophobia by tightening our sets and making them 100-percent real — no walls could be removed. This is another reason why we customized our lenses; we never would have been able to shoot in these cramped spaces with normal anamorphic lenses.”

The filmmakers did take a number of cues from 2001: A Space Odyssey, such as the way the Endurance generates artificial gravity through centrifugal force. To create the impression that the Endurance was rotating in the light of a bright star, electricians moved six boxed-in Mole 20K Fresnels across the set’s windows; Los Angeles board operator Josh Thatcher doused the lamps with DMX-controlled shutters until they were panned back and reset. “Sometimes [the light] was 4 or 5 stops over,” Skinner recalls. “We looked at reference footage from the International Space Station, and it’s very dark in there, so the light of the sun coming in would be very bright.” (For one sequence, the illusion of an out-of-control spiral was created with 4' spinning bowtie shutters in front of the 20Ks.)

The filmmakers tested a multitude of lighting gags and special effects to create a sense of actual space outside the Endurance. “We tested cutouts, models and TransLites, if for no other reason than it would be difficult to composite something behind the dirty spaceship windows,” says van Hoytema. After visual-effects embellishment, some of these experiments even made it into the film.

In one scene, the Endurance does a flyby of a massive black hole, which, according to van Hoytema’s research with executive producer and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, should resemble a bright ring of light. “We built a black-hole practical for our actors to react to,” says the cinematographer, describing the black metal disc that was mounted in front of one of the 20Ks. “We wanted to capture the physicality of the light and the way it refracted through the spaceship windows.”

Light from the practical gags tended to reveal imperfections along the surface of the spacecraft windows, making it extremely difficult for the filmmakers to obtain clean background composites through the glass. However, while making Inception (AC July ’10), Nolan raised the possibility of front projection as an alternative to digital compositing, and by the time Interstellar started filming, visual-effects supervisor Paul Franklin felt that the technology had advanced to the point where projection on a large scale was possible.

To cover all of the windows on the Endurance’s main set, the filmmakers needed an 80'x300' cyclorama of white-painted muslin. Los Angeles company Background Images operated two Barco 2K xenon projectors, which were mounted to a pan-and-tilt head on a large forklift 30'-50' away from the screen. A software suite called Watchout controlled both projectors, simultaneously feeding dual or separate image streams from a timeline of multiple sequences. Franklin and co-supervisor Andrew Lockley delivered content from a workstation tucked beneath the set. Within minutes of that content’s arrival from London facility Double Negative, new digital elements were up on the screen for Nolan’s approval.

“We wanted it to look like the video footage from the International Space Station, with the Earth in full, unfiltered sunlight,” says Franklin. “We didn’t want that beautiful but very contrived look where you can see single details in the clouds and the planet surface.”

The two 40,000-lumen projectors were positioned according to the camera’s field of view. A Wi-Fi connection and Watchout’s keystoning feature allowed Nolan and van Hoytema to rough in the background perspective on a laptop from their positions behind the camera. Identical images from the two projectors were converged into one on the cyclorama in order to achieve an acceptable exposure level through the windows of the spacecraft.

Unlike a TransLite, front-projection content can be animated to correlate with the position of the sun, set rotation and camera angle. “We have sequences where the spacecraft dips toward a planet, and we could move the content dynamically outside the windows while rotating the light coming through the windows,” says van Hoytema. Projection elements were improved and fine-tuned over the course of production, and though most of these elements were still enhanced with visual effects in post, van Hoytema notes that “there was always the ambition to make it as good as we could in front of the camera.”

 

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