Christopher Nolan’s achievements in filmmaking rest on his ability to compliment a story with bleeding-edge visual effects. From his grounded approach to the critically-acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy to his vision of a dystopian NASA that embarks on a desperate interstellar voyage to find a new home for humanity, Nolan’s precision visual effects work creates a layer of realism that captivates audiences.
To accomplish this feat, Nolan relies on his Oscar-winning visual muse, veteran visual effects supervisor, Paul Franklin. Franklin is the founder of London-based VFX house Double Negative and has collaborated with Christopher Nolan on some of the biggest blockbusters of the last decade. He earned an Academy Award nomination for his work on The Dark Knight and brought home trophies for both Inception and Interstellar.
The Observer sat down with Paul Franklin before his multimedia concert Warped Side of the Universe, to discuss working with Christopher Nolan and his collaboration with legendary theoretical physicist Kip Thorne on Interstellar.
What was the process like when you first started collaborating with Christopher Nolan?
The first movie that I worked with Chris on was Batman Begins. That was back in 2003 when we started so that was about 13 years ago and it was interesting because it was a learning experience on both sides.
Chris had made three feature films before that; Following, Memento and Insomnia but he had never really done anything that featured this much visual effects. That’s what I do, I’m a visual effects designer. My job title is visual effects supervisor during the end credits but I design and create the visual effects for features films. Everything that involves manipulating the images that have been filmed, adding things to them, adding layers, and creating new things from scratch using computers. This generally happens during the post-production phase.
Chris is the definition of an auteur director in my opinion. Some people deny the auteur theory is real but having worked with Chris for twelve years, I say it is.
Would you say the bulk of your work on a film happens in post-production?
The visual effects supervisor has to be working right from the very beginning in pre-production of the film because while most of the work in visual effects goes on in post-production—where the majority of people are actually working on the film—you get the best results if you involve the visual effects crew right from the beginning so that you are planning the work to get the best results.
You’ve got somebody from visual effects actually on-set making sure things are being shot correctly. You’re getting all the relevant information from the set that you actually need but more importantly, you are part of the creative conversation of the film rather than just being an afterthought.
Chris is a very collaborative filmmaker and he likes to involve all his creative leads from all the different departments in the whole process. He’s very much in control of it—it’s his film. Chris is the definition of an auteur director in my opinion. Some people deny the auteur theory is real but having worked with Chris for twelve years, I say it is.
Would you definitively say Christopher Nolan is an auteur filmmaker?
Absolutely, but at the same time, he’s a collaborative filmmaker and he gets you involved in the creative process. You are creatively invested in the filmmaking process and that was definitely the case on Batman Begins. But as I said for him, he hadn’t really used visual effects at this level in his filmmaking. He’s an incredibly smart guy. He taught himself an awful lot about it so he knew about the process going into it.
What I learned from that process was actually the nuts and bolts of basic filmmaking which I thought I already knew because I had been working in visual effects for over fifteen years at that point. Chris was very very keen that we understand and appreciate the nature of cinematography and really understand how cameras capture images. And if we are going to recreate that in the computer, that we are as close to that truth as possible. Chris is very keen to always putting as much reality in front of the camera as possible. Physical sets, special effects, physical effects, proper locations and getting great performances out of his cast.
Our philosophy that we developed on his films has been to do as little as possible in visual effects but do it really well.
How did you and Nolan initially approach Interstellar—a film with such a grand scale?
Interstellar started out much the same way as the other films—as a discussion of the story that we wanted to tell in the film. We started Interstellar with serious discussions about the basic story of the film—which is this idea of an astronaut who journeys into space to find a new place for humanity to live but has to leave his children behind. At the end of the story, he finds himself in this extraordinary situation where he could view his past and he can see his daughter in the past as she was when he left the Earth.
We talked about what the concepts that were behind this—we weren’t talking about what the visuals would actually be. I think that was the best way to approach it. It’s really important to think about the story you are telling and then you start thinking about how to tell that story visually.
I think there’s a tendencey with modern visual effects to sometimes get a bit carried away with all the flashy techniques.You say “well I can do this really cool thing” then you find a way to shoot it in a movie and theres a place for that kind of filmmaking. Event or spectacle filmmaking.
You’re making a theme park ride or a roller coaster ride. It’s a sort of visceral experience when it works. I think when it doesn’t work it produces a detached form of filmmaking that doesn’t really generate any serious involvement.
Do you think that’s why Nolan’s films generate the kind of conversation they do? Because they are immersive?
Absolutely. You can’t skim-watch one of Chris’s films. If you’re somebody who is thinking about “where’s my popcorn?” or “I’ve got to go to the bathroom” you probably shouldn’t go see a film like Interstellar because it’s not really setup for that. You have to pay attention. Chris expects the audience to work at it as well and I think the audience appreciates that. They appreciate not being treated as if they are passive and just sitting there. You have to think about what you are looking at and try to understand it.
For Chris and for me too, the audience’s response is as much part of the filmmaking process as what you put on the screen. The audience brings their own interpretation to the images that they are shown and we don’t necessarily explain everything in Interstellar In terms of the exposition. There’s a lot of stuff that’s left unsaid. Visually, there’s a lot of things that are quite intriguing particularly when you get inside the black hole and you see the tesseract.
Do you create your visuals to be interpretive?
Yes. I think there are certain elements of that. I think it’s interesting looking at reviews and blogs online from people who are trying to work out what’s going on inside the tesseract. What the nature of the tesseract actually is—this extraordinary multi-dimensional representation of his daughter’s childhood bedroom. I had a very clear idea in my mind of what that was meant to be and how it’s actually working. It has enough visual complexity and richness to bring other interpretations to it which are equally valid.
When you create something like that, I always find it important to have your own set of internal rules but then you’re putting in enough layers of complexity that there may be other meanings. Also, you often find that you are bringing or exhibiting influences which you weren’t even necessarily conscious of while you were creating it.
When we were doing Inception a few years ago, a lot of people commented about various different things they had seen in the cityscape—particularly the limbo city at the very end that was crumbling away. They brought additional layers of interpretation to it which I thought “oh yea it does sort of resemble this thing which I had seen before” but wasn’t thinking about when I was making it or maybe I was, I don’t know.
What was the process like in developing the visuals for Gargantua—the massive black hole at the center of Interstellar’s story? Did you work closely with Kip Thorne?
Very early on when we started making the film, Chris started telling me about Kip’s involvement in the film. I knew who Kip was because he’s a very famous theoretical physicist and I was aware of his work. I wasn’t aware that he was involved in the film. Chris then explained that Kip came up with the original concept behind Interstellar and Chris had come to the film through his brother who was originally developing the screenplay with Steven Spielberg.
Chris said “it was really important that you go see this guy because you are somebody who has an understanding of these kind of things—you’ve got a background in science.” I always point out to Chris that I have a background in fine art—I was trained as a sculptor originally. But I am very interested in science.
So I went to see Kip and I was a bit nervous because he’s a truly great scientist and I honestly thought I wasn’t going to understand anything he’s talking about but he turned out to be an amazing communicator and teacher. He was able to present the key concepts behind Interstellar—particularly the black hole. Wormhole, time dilation and the way gravity can warp space. He made it very very clear and obvious to me.
Kip also disabused me of some misconceptions I had about the visual representation of these things—particularly with the black hole. He showed me the classical image of a black hole that sort of looks like this big flat sheet with a big sink hole in it and stuff spirals down it. I think people are familiar with that idea from previous science fiction films. He said that was completely wrong and a misinterpretation of what scientists are actually seeing. It’s actually a spherical hole in space and in addition to that it produces this pronounced gravitational lensing effect around it that distorts the way you see it. It refracts the light from the surrounding universe.
I asked about visual references we could use to create this thing. At this point I was thinking that maybe we would approach it from a very traditional visual effects way, which would include us building a computer model but it would essentially be an artistic representation. Kip said there aren’t any.
Scientists aren’t really that interested in representing this as it would appear to the naked eye or through a camera if you were in orbit around this thing. The scientific community is interested in exploring specific aspects of this and thus tends to ignore other things.
We began to wonder if it was possible to get the physics behind this. We’ve got a research and development group Double Negative (my visual effects company) and there’s some pretty smart guys there with PhDs in physics and engineering.
The effects that you see on the screen are all driven by Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
Do you have these experts in-house at Double Negative?
Yes and that is the very nature of modern visual effects technique. It’s a combination of art, science and technology. We can’t make the images without the support of the scientists and software developers that work with us. They are just as creative as the people who are drawing the pictures. It’s a joint effort.
Interstellar and Warped Side of the Universe was a collaboration between myself and Oliver James, our chief scientist at Double Negative. He also collaborated with Kip to take his mathematics or Einstein’s mathematics from his general theory of relativity to create a new piece of software which would then accurately calculate the paths of the light beams through the distorted space around the black hole and the transformations they undergo as they pass through the gravitational lens.
It produced an extremely high quality, accurate image of the way Gargantua’s mass warps the space around it. It was an accurate scientific simulation of what the black hole would be doing and it’s a very big black hole. It’s a hundred million times the mass of the Sun and it’s spinning very close to the speed of light. The effects that you see on the screen are all driven by Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
When I started seeing the very first images the software was producing, I realized we were seeing something that was really quite unique and visually strong. I felt that I didn’t need to dress it up with the usual layers of space magic that go into modern science fiction films.
There’s always this fear I think for filmmakers that the images might be too incomprehensible or difficult to understand sometimes. Or that the images might be too stark. We’ve all gotten used to watching superhero films or “Harry Potter in space” which is the way I describe that sort of stuff. We can do that—that’s my bread and butter, but because Chris responded very strongly to these first images of the black hole, I thought we were onto something here and we could do something that’s quite unique.
Did you use a level of restraint when creating the visuals for Interstellar?
Pretty much. To be honest, the software didn’t give us much scope to change the look of the black hole. You can dial in the spin rate of the black hole, its mass and its diameter. That’s it.
We added a little bit of sweetening like lens glow, optical effects and we were able to adjust the color. But aside from that, It’s Einstein determining what the thing looks like.
It seems that the film stayed with you and Kip Thorne especially with your collaboration on Warped Side of the Universe, would you agree?
It kicked off an ongoing conversation which continued beyond the conclusion of our work on Interstellar. First, in a series of scientific papers that we published in collaboration with Kip about the visualization of the black hole. We discovered some interesting things about the way the black hole—with its incredibly rapid spin, folds or warps the space around it to produce these very complicated refracted patterns. We also got some interesting stuff out of the look of the wormhole as well, which we also published on.
We maintained the friendship.
Read our recap of Warped Side of the Universe featuring Paul Franklin, Kip Thorne and Hans Zimmer.
Robin Seemangal focuses on NASA and advocacy for space exploration. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, where he currently resides. Find him on Instagram for more space-related content: @not_gatsby.