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Inside the Making of the Spectacular Tesseract in ‘Interstellar’

Inside the Making of the Spectacular Tesseract in 'Interstellar'

This is where Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper encounters the Tesseract: an artificial construct that allows him to perceive time as a physical dimension.

The design and execution was a total collaboration between Nolan, theoretical physicist and exec producer Kip Thorne, the art department led by production designer Nathan Crowley, and VFX studio Double Negative led by co-owner/supervisor Paul Franklin. “We looked at works from Gerhard Richter, who has this technique of scraping the paint across the canvas and leaving these trails, so there’s this sense of a historical record,” Franklin explains. “The other thing I looked at was slit scan photography, and of, course, the Stargate in ‘2001,’ but it goes back a lot further than that.

“Slit scan is this process that records one specific location across a whole range of moments. You have a slit and an aperture and you move the negative behind it so the neg is recording everything in a continuous stride as it slides past. For me, what was interesting is that you’re turning time into a horizontal axis of the photograph as a record of the time of the exposure,” Franklin says.

“So I thought that might give us some sort of lead in to how we would represent the concept of these world lines. A world line is something that comes out of Einstein’s theory of relativity: It’s the idea that every object, every person, and every piece of matter in the universe is leaving a trail in space-time behind it because we live in a four-dimensional universe. We have three physical dimensions and one dimension of time, which is always moving forward. And we had this idea that the Tesseract was a concept that shows time as a physical dimension, so Cooper could interact with it and move back and forth across the timeline and find specific moments in the history of his daughter’s bedroom.”

And the world lines were the obvious way to create this timeline: each object and all the people in the room extrude these timelines in all three axes, and the tricky thing was representing it in such a way that it wasn’t too complicated and hard to follow or that it didn’t obscure what was in the rooms.

“So we spent time thinking about how we might arrange this. Chris came up with the idea of an alternating lattice where each of the rooms has two sets of world lines coming in and the third axis alternates along the routes. If you look carefully at the Tesseract, you have these world lines that stretch through the lattice and the rooms are embedded as a series of moments in time along the world lines. It’s either a moment in the future or a moment in the past, depending on which way you go,” Franklin says.
They explored several concepts. One version was an infinite matrix but they decided to make it much more intimate in this father-daughter story about the transcendence of love. “It’s about this room and the infinity of possibilities within this child’s bedroom. The whole idea is that the Bolt Beings that created this thing know this place is important but because they are detached from space-time — they’re outside of our four-dimensional universe — have no direct emotional connection to any specific moment. They need Cooper, who has the emotional connection to his daughter and also the faith that his daughter is going to respond to this and come back for the watch.”
Cooper’s past and future are already predetermined but they won’t happen without his active participation. Early on, Franklin showed Nolan a test demonstrating world lines. They had a little figure walking around and leaving a trail extruding behind it. “And we worked out how to sample the material properties of the 3D model with the little walking figure and then attached that to the world sheets, the tube coming off was made of the same material as the little figure. It wasn’t just a motion trail in space.”

“And Chris thought that was fascinating,” Franklin adds. “We gave the geometry to the art department to physically build the Tesseract — cut them out and then extrude them in physical space. And then we rendered what the surface of these tubes should look like and we turned those into very high-res laser prints and they pasted the computer-generated imagery physically onto the set to create all the textured colors on the world lines.

“And the result was we had this set that was a collaboration between the art department and Double Negative. They built a physical set with axis cameras placed inside it and steel supported the set. They built a Tesseract volume with four rooms around it with different walls facing into a central void, and then digitally we extended it off in all directions. But we also added all the overlays, all the streaming information traveling along the timelines.

“We used projectors on set and projected animated images and at one time had 18 projectors working. We then enhanced that with animation streaming along the timelines. And then all the objects in the rooms are connected to the world lines by these very, very thin, diaphanous threads, which are essentially solid extrusions that we’ve culled out along the geometry. We had to body track all the actors in the room as well and and then generate threads off them, and also sample the photography so it picks up the correct curve.”

Franklin admits the Tesseract is a challenging concept, which you can read more about in Thorne’s book, “The Science of Interstellar” (W.W. Norton & Co.). “Hopefully, it will stimulate all sorts of debates, which have already begun on the internet,” he concludes.

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Why is this labelled a tesseract when it is not a hyper cube?


TUMADRE is a piece of utter shit troll.


Excellent movie, executed masterfully . No one else could’ve done it like Nolan. It left me thinking for days. The whole concept of time is mind
boggling , can’t wait to see his next film. I know he’s a purist, but I do wonder how his movies will look in 48 fps digital.


Typical ignorant and void comment by "TUMADRE", as always. Like it or not, this movie is a huge achievement in filmmaking, which is very rare nowadays. The thriving passion and ambition really paid off. Nolan, Thorne, the cast and the entire team behind did a masterpiece. It’s up there with masterworks like 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Thanks for sharing this article!


excellent article

Omid Mansour

This article is missing something. A tesseract would be a 4 dimensional cube in a 3 dimensional plane (ours). It was not only a tesseract (Hyper cube), it was a hyper hyper cube (5 dimensional cube) because Cooper was physically able to alter gravity of any time he was at, spacetime must have been a physical dimension to him.

Michael Neel

You put the spoiler in the title of your article and say that there are spoilers ahead? Don’t you think you should have put that before the spoiler at least?!


Kip Thorne describes this beautifully, in the final chapters of his book "The Science of Interstellar," which I suggest every fan of this film MUST read! It’s simply observing time OF the 4th dimension, in the 5th, which Cooper has fallen into through the black hole Gargantua (with the help of the data sent by TARS). It will bend your brain a bit, but take the time to think about it and you’ll eventually say, "ok, I can get my head around this." Every fan of "Interstellar" should have this book. It explains A LOT of stuff!

JC Rodriguez

It turned into my favorite movie of all time from one day to the next! Nolan+Zimmer+awesome cast=greatness!!


The visuals in this movie were amazing. The music was powerful (I like Hans Zimmer’s use of the pipe organ). The acting, top notch. I love movies that make you think of what’s possible. Definitely one of my favorite films.


piece of utter shit movie.


Es increible esta escena e inevitablemente me recuerda a "2001 Odisea en el espacio", otra escena más de tantas impresionatentes que tiene la pelicula.


The tesseract scene is, with the docking scene, the best in the movie. You didn’t explain how McConaughey worked the scene though – presumably hanging from wires. He was incredible in that scene.

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