Interstellar: Creating the Various Aircrafts

Nolan and Crowley began the process of designing the film’s trio of aircraft—the Ranger, the Lander, and the Endurance—by embarking on a research expedition through the past, present and future of aerospace, which took them through hours of IMAX documentaries on the International Space Station (ISS), a tour through entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX facility and Dragon spacecraft, and a walk in the shadow of the Space Shuttle Endeavor, now retired to the California Science Center. “We both grew up with NASA and know the excitement of a rocket launch, so we were after something that would feel new and somewhat advanced, but familiar and relatable,” says Crowley.

The Ranger—the fast-moving shuttle of the Endurance—was the first shape to emerge. To refine the model generated by the 3D printer, Crowley brought in a team of sculptors to carve out further detail in its undercarriage, landing gear, engine, airlocks and other necessities without compromising its sleek, curved silhouette.

Next came the Lander, a large, angular behemoth built for strength not speed. “If the Ranger is a German racecar that can zip down to a planet and back, the Lander is a heavy Russian airlift cargo chopper,” Crowley describes.  “It’s a workhorse designed to carry cargo out of the Endurance and deposit it on a planet’s surface, which it does upside down.  So the seats had to rotate 360 degrees for the astronauts, and the cockpit is cramped and front-heavy to make room for the cargo.”

The Ranger and Lander were both designed to fit snugly into the Endurance’s ring module mothership: a multi-faceted design challenge Crowley and Nolan cracked using low-tech methods. “I brought in some acrylic blocks, which we combined in different ways until ultimately laying out a geometric shape that formed a ring out of 12 pods,” Crowley says.

The Endurance ring module emerged as a great segmented wheel, with a central hub, that would spin at a rate of five times per minute to generate 1G gravity through centripetal force. Connected through a system of airlocks and a curved continuous floor, each of the ship’s 12 capsules serves a purpose in the overall mission—four engine pods, four permanent pods containing the living quarters, cockpit, cryogenics and medical lab, and four landing pods to be decamped on a planet’s surface.

Once the designs had been tested in 3D visualizations and their interlocking details were carefully engineered, the next step was fabrication. Crowley gathered a team of highly skilled artists to hand-sculpt from steel and polystyrene a 46-foot-long Ranger and a 50-foot-long Lander.  Scott Fisher and his special effects crew then engineered hydraulic landing gear and airlock doors into the hulls of both ships.  They were then waterproofed with an extra hard coat of fiberglass—a necessity given what Nolan had in mind for them.  Fisher also rigged cryobeds in which the astronauts undergo long trips in stasis, as well as hydraulic seats that rotated 360 degrees.

When the ships eventually made their way to the soundstages at Sony Studios, Fisher mounted each to the Waldo—a six-axis gimbal attached to a motion control system that allows the operator to manipulate its movement with an unprecedented degree of stability and precision. “Whenever we had the gimbal out, Chris was the one flying it most of the time,” Fisher remembers.  “I think he really enjoyed doing that.”

Inspired by the IMAX footage of real space travel, Nolan and van Hoytema wanted to hard mount the IMAX camera to the ships themselves, a freedom the Waldo’s steadiness and actual ship sizes afforded. Notes the cinematographer, “You end up creating the strangest rigs in order to create the effect of the camera witnessing something in ways that feel familiar from real life, rather than hovering all-seeing in these situations.  We even took the hard mount language further by putting cameras on helmets and on bodies.”

The hard mounts and Waldo itself were essential in Nolan’s quest to avoid green screens on “Interstellar.” Rather, Nolan wanted to move the large-scale ships across background plates of space to capture the true patterns, flares and artifacts that actually would be cast in that lighting environment.  Nolan recounts.  “It’s a lot of effort to go to, but since we already built the ships for other reasons, it seemed the best thing would be to maximize their use.  So, what was going to be a very static plate shoot turned into one of the more important things that informed the visual language of the film.”

The filmmakers also used the hard mount technique to capture the intricate docking operation for each time the astronauts flew the Ranger or Lander back to the Endurance, with the Waldo synchronizing the couplings in perfect harmony. “There’s the type of science fiction film where docking is something you immediately leap over to go on to far more extraordinary things,” Nolan explains, “and then you have the kind of film—which ‘Interstellar’ needed to be—that sets its credentials early to show space travel as a very comprehensible and human scale endeavor. Docking would be difficult for this crew, and all kinds of things can go wrong.  So, we took our time to shoot the entire routine the first time they dock the Ranger to the Endurance, even though it was just a little indication in the script.  And, in the edits, it became quite an important pacing decision.”

While miniatures have given way to visual effects animation over the years, Nolan felt they offered the best way to give the ships a tangible presence in space. In this case, however, the miniatures created for “Interstellar” at L.A.’s New Deal Studios were built on such a large scale that they earned the nickname “maxatures.” Among them was a 1/15th scale miniature of the full Endurance ring module that spanned 25 feet, as well as a pyrotechnic model of a portion of the craft built at 1/5th scale, and various-scaled miniatures of the Ranger and Lander—all built in excruciating detail to retain their texture when shot mid-ground against the backdrop of Paul Franklin’s spacescapes.

The filmmakers enhanced this effect even further by using a smaller motion control rig and employing exposure ratios on large-format VistaVision cameras, which allowed the lens to capture all the spontaneous artifacts as the ships moved against the light source. “These are things you could try to calculate into CG if you had to, but the wonderful thing about miniature shooting is that it shows you things you never knew were there or couldn’t plan for,” Nolan says.  “I refer to it as serendipity—this random quality that gives the image a feeling of life.”

The Endurance itself—specifically a 200-foot segment of its ring module structure—was built within Sony Studios’ cavernous stage 30. This immense arc was lowered by crane onto a 150-foot gimbal fitted at three pivot points with colossal hydraulics that would tilt the set up to 180 degrees for spaceflight sequences.

The rigorous utilitarian aesthetic that informed the exteriors of the ships was also funneled into the design of their interiors. “We wanted to incorporate as many existing aerospace parts as we could get, and keep everything grounded,” Nolan reveals.  “When you’re dealing with space ships and outer space, the danger is that the human element gets lost, and Nathan and his guys showed a lot of restraint in putting together environments that felt practical and utilitarian.”

For Hathaway, walking onto the ship evoked an emotional response. “The story begins on an Earth that has limited resources, and you imagine that the best of what they had is on this ship,” she says.  “There’s something wonderfully hopeful about that.”

The NASA influence is particularly felt in the storage systems, with an emphasis on compact size, interchangeability and efficiency. “The Endurance really reflects what we learned from the ISS and the Endeavor in that in space, there is no up or down, no floor or ceiling, everything is slotted and interchangeable, and every surface is used,” Crowley describes. “Chris wanted everything the actors touched to work, so the monitors and switches were all designed to serve a purpose within the ship.”

As with the farmhouse design, Crowley also had to incorporate the technical demands of the key crew. He and van Hoytema coordinated closely to integrate a base level of lighting into the fabric of the set itself, such that the cinematographer could adjust various diffusion plates on the fly to achieve whatever lighting environment he needed for a given scene.  The cinematographer relates, “Nate’s designs are so meticulous that no matter where you step, you already believe in the reality of it, so it was important that the lighting felt like it belonged there.”

The lighting effects themselves took similar unexpected turns as the production progressed. Visual effects and projection technology have enhanced movies for nearly the whole of their existence.  But the parallel evolution of these technologies suggested provocative new ways to use them to, in essence, integrate the staggering interstellar footage created by Paul Franklin and Double Negative into the shooting experience.  Nolan states, “If you look at the techniques of the past, and try and use them to achieve a new trick, you are able to stand on the shoulders of giants and achieve something that nobody’s ever done before.”

With a floor-to-ceiling screen draped outside the windows of the set, Franklin devised a system of precisely aligning two projectors to create a single image that would have a high enough degree of brightness and clarity to hold up within the IMAX frame. The system ultimately evolved to incorporate more projectors, with forklifts positioning the 1,200-pound devices in an array that would project an image bright enough to penetrate the ship’s windows and illuminate the actors’ faces.  “In an objective sense, having that imagery there was key in establishing the situation these astronauts are in and truly capture the claustrophobia of that environment,” the director adds.  “We were able to move through the set with the handheld camera over long takes and capture sequences from multiple angles.  It was extraordinary.”

Franklin and his visual effects team also had a program that allowed them to combine and manipulate the images spontaneously on the projectors’ computers, so that Nolan could orchestrate changes in the spacescapes in real time on set. Franklin describes the effect of seeing the black hole emerge for the first time as “mesmerizing, and a bit unnerving.  It almost took a three-dimensional aspect, as if it was coming off the screen.”

The projections not only gave the actors a real look at the black hole, it also simulated the light of our own sun, which helped van Hoytema design shots that approximated the raw spectacle of unfettered sunlight in real space footage. The cinematographer recalls, “The content in the front projections pointed us towards where the sun would be when they’re flying past it or spinning to achieve zero G. Most of the time we were trying to replicate the sun or the light emitted from the black hole as truthfully and correctly as we could.  I’ve never shot a film with as much hard light as this one, and it was fun to play with the patterns and contrasts of that singular light.”

These breakthrough techniques engaged the cast and crew and allowed them to fully invest in the reality of the journey. “There was a great feeling on board those ships of being sealed in a real moving vehicle,” Nolan describes.  “It was as if the sequence was playing out for real, with the imagery outside the windows changing the way it should as the characters fly towards it.”

Without the Earth’s gravity to hold them, the characters in “Interstellar” also experience weightlessness in flight. Nolan had previously tackled the illusion of zero G on “Inception,” and worked with stunt coordinator George Cottle to advance the techniques they had learned even further.  For “Interstellar,” Cottle developed a combination of rigs that would provide the director and cast with as much flexibility and comfort as possible for the film’s many scenes of weightlessness.

To get a better understanding of motion in zero G, Cottle viewed extensive footage of astronauts in weightless conditions in order to engineer rigs that would emulate the buoyancy and action/reaction patterns. From there, he and his stunt crew embarked on a months-long R&D period to push the boundaries of what was possible on the sets.  “We tested various riggings with stunt guys and landed on a combination of different rigs, starting with vertical rigs that would lower the actors when everything on the set is upside down, and moving to smaller rigs where we could manipulate them on wires. But Chris also wanted to capture close-ups in tight, confined spaces,” he says.

For that, Cottle and special effects supervisor Scott Fisher utilized a complex rig called the parallelogram—a harness attached to hip picks or a belly pan that could be positioned on the actors to move them through small spaces in the set through a controller-operated crane. The most common operator at the wheel of the parallelogram was Nolan himself.  “I think Chris’s theory is that if he wants something to look a certain way and he can do it himself, then it’s best for him just to do it,” Thomas smiles.  “So, yes, the actors were on a crazy rig that makes them float through space, and Chris was the one pushing them.”

The monumental logistical effort to infuse these mammoth practical sets with detail, functionality and physical cohesion paid off for the director as Nolan had ambitious plans for at least two of them. “What we were looking for were locations that made you feel like you were on another planet,” he says. “And if you’re going to go half-way across the world to shoot a landscape, you’ve got to build the stuff to put on it.”

Nolan last visited Iceland a decade ago to shoot sequences for “Batman Begins,” and had a sense even before scouting its landscapes that he would find a rich terrain for the characters to explore in “Interstellar.”  “We wanted the otherworldly environments to feel as real and tactile as this one,” he says.  “So, to bring the audience along with the astronauts as they take their first steps onto other worlds, we knew we’d have to actually shoot on location, and the landscapes of Iceland are uniquely extreme.”

Nolan and Crowley hopped on a plane to Iceland to see if the glacier they remembered would work cinematically for the ice planet the characters explore. They found that the Vatnajökull glacier itself had fallen in the path of recent volcanic eruptions, which scored a surreal gray marbleized effect upon the ice. “It actually helped us discover the feel for the film as we envisioned a grittier, dirtier, more hostile environment,” Crowley describes.  “It shouldn’t be magical; it should be grim.  The characters are considering giving up Earth for a new home, but the feel on that glacier is quite harsh.  And that fed back into this idea of going on this epic journey to hell and back to achieve this impossible task.”

As it turned out, the diverse Icelandic terrain provided the ideal location for two of the story’s planetary destinations, with the shallow yet seemingly endless Brunasandur lagoon a short distance away serving as the drop zone of the film’s water planet. While the setting was perfect—with no visible shoreline in many directions—production had to build a 15km road to set up base camp and source specially designed passenger vans with high enough clearance to transport cast, crew and equipment out onto the lagoon.

While the main unit was shooting in Canada, the Iceland locations were being prepped for a massive effort to coordinate two remote locations for not only cast and crew, but two of the space ships as well. “Both the Ranger and the Lander were built full size, so to be able to photograph them sitting in the water or on top of the ice was a huge benefit to the film,” Nolan states.

Fresh off the assembly line, the ships—weighing more than 10,000 pounds each—were disassembled, packed up in shipping containers and shipped in the bay of a 747 cargo jet to the airport in Reykjavik, then loaded onto trucks, driven to the locations, and reassembled in giant tents.

In the midst of filming on the glacier, the production had to batten down in their hotel when a powerful storm blew through the region, with wind so intense it ripped the asphalt from the streets.  Anxious to check on their sets, Nolan and Crowley braved the roads to head up to the glacier. “But when we got out of the car, we literally couldn’t walk because the wind was still so strong,” Crowley remembers.

Even so, the filmmaker—who is known for always coming in on or before schedule—was loathe to lose the day. Thomas recalls, “Chris prides himself on shooting in all weathers, and this was the first time we actually had to stop because the wind was so dangerous. But Chris being Chris, he didn’t want us to be sitting around twiddling our thumbs back at the hotel, so he whisked us all out into the parking lot where we shot some inserts.”

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