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How They Made the Emergency Docking Scene in ‘Interstellar’ (Exclusive Clip)

How They Made the Emergency Docking Scene in 'Interstellar' (Exclusive Clip)

There is no greater showcase of  “Interstellar’s” VFX and sonic excellence than in the “emergency docking” scene. The Oscar-nominated VFX involves both full CG and practical, as well as a combination of the two, while the Oscar-contending sound editing and mixing immerse us in the action in a most visceral way. (Watch the scene below.)

Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) blows up the Ranger and that starts the wheel of the Endurance spinning uncontrollably as it’s beginning to drop out of orbit. And then Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) has to fire up the rockets on the Lander, chase after the Endurance and then get underneath it to synchronize his rotation with the spin of the Endurance so he can dock with the emergency airlock.

As VFX supervisor Paul Franklin explained, “The opening shots of Dr. Mann reversing into the airlock on the side of the Endurance were accomplished with the miniatures with the full size Ranger [from New Deal Studios], which we used for the foreground elements and then the 1/15 scale miniature of the Endurance for the moment when we see the Ranger entering the docking port. That involves very precise motion control work by New Deal. They had to reconcile the movement of the motion control camera with the live-action camera that Chris had shot on the full-size model.”
The shot of the spacecraft being torn apart was done with a VistaVision camera at 48 frames-per-second. But they also planned a second pass where they nose-mounted a camera onto the Ranger so that when it smashes apart you’re seeing it from the Ranger’s POV. But New Deal feared they would destroy the camera, so they built a pelican case with a hole cut into it called it the Pelicam. The camera was yanked away on a bungee at the last moment to protect it.

“For those final moments when Cooper maneuvers under the spacecraft and looks up, this is a classic instance of Chris getting as much in-camera as possible,” Franklin continued. “So first off, we had our projection screens running everything outside of the cockpit windows, and when you see the horizon of the planet whipping past, that’s an in-camera projection with a digitally-animated planetary horizon flying past. So there is no additional compositing to create the planet there. And when you’re looking through the window and you can see the great, big pipe of the airlock floating above the windows, that’s a full-size motorized airlock piece that special effects built. And it’s on a motorized crane being lowered down onto the set so that when you’re looking through the windows you can see this thing spinning above us. We match-moved that and added the rest of the Endurance as a CG background.”

For supervising sound editor Richard King, the scene is like being in one of those spinning Gravitron carnival rides, with the centrifugal force pinning you up against the wall. “By far the strongest forces in the movie are the forces of nature — from dust storms on earth to the gravitational pull of a black hole — to the intense centrifugal force of a spinning spacecraft,” King suggested. “Much experimentation and research in recording, as well as with my colleagues on the mixing console (Gary Rizzo and Gregg Landaker) was devoted to creating a dense sonic soup for the scenes involving enormous gravitational forces.It’s obviously important to increase the jeopardy by including the sounds of the Lander straining with the G forces and getting slammed by debris from the damaged Endurance.”

Added supervising mixer Gregg Landaker: “The dance between music and sound effects needed to be intriguing so that you do not lose sight of the danger, but the music was our strong point to the spinning docking sequence, and the levels were crucial to the scene to make it become reality.”

Supervising mixer Gary Rizzo said Oscar-nominated composer Hans Zimmer provided a music cue with thick dense layers of church organ, piano, synth and the orchestra, and a big challenge was getting the sonic detail and mass of the rotation of the literal action. “We wanted the audience to experience this as though they too were inside that Lander and to do so required the honesty that Chris adheres to.  Richard recorded some fantastic heavy oscillations, deep metal creaks, groans and a wide selection of metal vibrations to play the fragility of the ship interiors, all of which were strategically selected and placed (and sometimes replaced) to sell building momentum, scale and the fear that the Lander was at its absolute limit.”

The involvement of TARS, the robot, controlled by Bill Irwin live on set, was also crucial. “Bill spoke into a DPA headset mic that I added to the mix track, as well as recorded on an ISO-channel, as it was also fed to a speaker that was mounted in TARS and picked up by the overhead boom mics,” explained supervising mixer Mark Weingarten.

“With dialogue, it’s a bit of a balancing act,” added Rizzo. “The audience is given the information they need for story, but in the big picture, Chris is adamant that dialogue is simply another key tool to assist in portraying the emotional dynamic of the moment. That said, the dialogue in this scene gives you all the intensity and anxiety the audience needs and it’s all entirely production recordings.”

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