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How the ‘Interstellar’ Crafts Team Experiments with Sight and Sound

How the 'Interstellar' Crafts Team Experiments with Sight and Sound

While Matthew McConaughey bends space-time in the black hole to get back home in “Interstellar,” Christopher Nolan bends the sci-fi genre to create his own visceral film about love and science. The experimental director encouraged his crew to push boundaries and take risks, with provocative results.

Take the exceptional sound design overseen by multiple Oscar-winning sound editor Richard King (“Inception”): The dynamic range is powerful in IMAX and you can feel the extreme low-end frequency in the pit of your stomach when the interior of the Ranger rattles and bangs in space and travels through the wormhole and black hole. It almost makes you nauseous, which is what Nolan intended.

However, the sound mix has become more controversial for stepping on the dialogue, with the swell of Hans Zimmer’s organ-laden score and other sonic pressure levels. Nolan admits that it was intentional to better experience the roller coaster ride with McConaughey.

“I think we’ve created a big buzz in Hollywood, something they’re not used to with this dynamic range,” suggested multiple Oscar-winning re-recording mixer Gregg Landaker (“The Empire Strikes Back”). “Yes, this soundtrack has been manipulated down the quarter db between each other. We did some tricks and played with some new ideas, especially where Chris wanted the ship to be shaking and vibrating.

“The idea is that you stop breathing in a lot of scenes. And then you cut to space and take a deep breath just like the characters the actors and actresses are portraying. It’s an aural and visual feast and we’re trying to make it as visceral as possible.”

King, who made inspired use of sand groans deep within dunes to achieve that guttural effect, asked: “If you hear the words like the usual Hollywood movie, will it make it more of an experience or less of an experience? Chris wants to keep propelling and building and building and building. We don’t want to stop down the energy to hear [exposition].”

After nine years of developing a signature symphonic sound for “The Dark Knight” trilogy, Nolan and Zimmer needed to find something new. And so Nolan suggested the pipe organ. “And as soon as he said it, I immediately saw the shape of the pipe organ, which is not unlike some of the rocket boosters on a Saturn spacecraft,” Zimmer explained. And if the instrument evokes the iconic “Also sprach Zarathustra” from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Zimmer says it was purely unconscious.

“But my head went spinning as I thought about this amazing feat of science and engineering. By the 17th century, the pipe organ was defined as the most technically complex invention mankind had ever made, and remained so until the invention of the telephone exchange.

“It was a pretty good metaphor for where we wanted to go. Let’s find a new language for it. Plus it’s awe-inspiring. That lowest C — you feel it. It’s so organic and so human. When you stand next to it, you hear the breathing because it works just like human beings. Do you want to go on this adventure? It becomes playful. He gave me a watch with the inscription: ‘This is not a time for caution.'”

When Nolan first approached the composer, he merely gave him a type-written note about parental love and that inspired him to write a love theme to his son. “It’s a fragile, intimate piece. Now Chris had the heart of his story and said it was time to make the movie.”

Visually, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (who’s prepping “Bond 24,” which will also be shot on film) applied a similarly organic approach while re-engineering the bulky IMAX camera for hand-held shots. “I modified it to be lighter and more aerodynamic, and built grips for balance and support. But I had to develop the will to handle the camera. The mythology is so big. It’s just a box with an engine and a hole and a lens.

“The color palette is muted but at the same time we didn’t want to lose touch with naturalism being inspired by the way the light is in Alberta. We carried it into the interiors as well. Matthew is a farmer and a lot of closeups added warmth.”

For the glacier in Iceland, they imagined a clean look, but the one they found has volcanic ash, which turned out to be more appropriately dirty in contrast to the beauty of Earth. With the help of physicist Kip Thorne and VFX supervisor Paul Franklin, they figured out how lensing worked in the wormhole. But how does gravity affect light in the black hole? That was more speculative but still very much part of the naturalistic aesthetic.
“I like the scenes in Murph’s bedroom and one of my favorites is the period in between when they come home in the dust storm and time passes until morning. The way the earthiness connects with the mystic.”

Costume designer Mary Zophres (who works with the Coen brothers and is prepping “Hail, Caesar!), was hired for her hand-crafted, recycled, organic aesthetic, so, not surprisingly, she made a new kind of space suit in the spirit of the NASA design — utilitarian but still cool.. She stayed away from the puffy Apollo design, but had a replica of the Mercury helmet, which Nolan liked but made it look less like a motorcycle helmet. 

“We ended up doing the designs in a trailer on the Warner Bros. lot. We used Spacer Net fabric and quilted padding, which carried over into the interior of the spaceship. It was constant forward momentum.” 

However, “Interstellar” marked the first time that Zophres used 3D rapid prototype printing for the helmet and various prop pieces, including the rocket thrusters.”

Again, it was all about attaining a different kind of Nolan experience in IMAX with greater range and more intimacy.

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