Designing wormholes, black-holes and other space-time-bending phenomena was a first for production designer Nathan Crowley, who approached Christopher Nolan’s "Interstellar" like a kid in a candy store.
"As a director and designer, we realized that we had to be quite brave here. Something new," says Crowley, who has twice been Oscar-nominated for Nolan films "The Prestige" (2006) and "The Dark Knight" (2008). This year, there’s no question that he is the frontrunner. The architecture devotee suffuses Nolan’s ultra-imaginative space odyssey with innovative spacecraft, planets, robots and the cosmos.
Here are four challenges Crowley had to face while making "Interstellar," in which the filmmakers sought to achieve the most realistic vision of the cosmos ever put to the screen.
Jumping through Space-Time
Along with plunging into wormholes, another first for Crowley was working so closely up front with VFX (supervised by "Inception" Oscar winner Paul Franklin). And thanks to legendary Caltech physicist and exec producer Kip Thorne, it was a lot easier to visualize the film’s mind-blowing tunnel and sphere effects when given precise mathematical calculations about gravity and time-space theory.
"For me, it was about understanding the navigation," Crowley suggests. The real breakthrough came when Franklin came up with the notion of the black hole as "a vertical waterfall of light." But the real fun, as always, was sitting and sketching with Nolan in his home, coming up unique designs that are both modern and retro.
Finding Far Away Planets
"To me, the story’s about nothing’s as good as the Earth," says Crowley about the "Oz"-like inspiration. That’s why Matthew McConaughey’s farmhouse (constructed in Alberta, Canada, or "Days of Heaven" country) had to be warm and cozy, despite the blight that’s ravaged Mother Earth.
By contrast, if "there is no place like home," then the far off ice and water planets had to be anything but beautiful and familiar. Both were shot in Iceland. A trip to Mackem Bay in the north of England inspired the otherworldly look of marble ice sheets. And the water planet is comprised of 4,000-foot tidal waves, the likes of which we’ve never witnessed before.
Conjuring Next-Gen Space Ships
When it came to conjuring the film’s trio of next-gen NASA spacecraft with Nolan, "The Ranger had to be the sleek sports car and the Lander was the workhorse (Canadian or Russian heavy-lift choppers). The Endurance was designed as a 12-pod circular station with a central docking system that spun around in space because of gravity."
Building TARS the Robot
An even bigger challenge was the primary ‘bot, TARS, puppeteered and voiced by Bill Irwin. Partially inspired by the iconic monolith from "2001," and with a more snarky personality than supercomputer HAL 9000’s, TARS started out simply as a block of metal. Why not start all over from the beginning?
"[Nolan] thought about the scissor effect. In between that, I was a fan of minimalism and [the late architect] Mies van der Rohe. We started with a monolith and divided it into four. Then we came up with mathematical divisions of four for something more sophisticated with the block breaking down into three pins and four legs. It was continuously matching divisions of itself."
After repeated viewings, the same can be said of "Interstellar." But the bravest and most challenging design was going inside the black hole: an artificial construct that allows us to perceive time as a physical dimension. But I will save that for next week, to remain spoiler free, when we explore the Oscar-contending VFX.