The VFX of Interstellar: A True Marriage of Art and Science

VFX studio Double Negative (Dneg) is no stranger to pushing the boundaries of what's possible aesthetically and technologically. Having produced Academy Award winning visual effects for films like Inception, Dneg's reputation within the VFX community is stellar. However, with its newest film, Interstellar, the studio's weighty contribution to the art and science of film making can now be said to extend into the science of theoretical physics. Directed by Chris Nolan, the profoundly-toned sci-fi epic is only one of the many collaborations between the director and Dneg's VFX Supervisor, Paul Franklin (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception). Also, the film marks yet another collaboration between Nolan and brother, Jonathan Nolan, who wrote the script for Memento and who was also co-writer on Interstellar.
Many of C. Nolan's films like Inception have to do with time, both real and perceived. Interstellar is a film that also dwells upon the chronological implications of black holes, a theoretical object that have been, until now, expressed only through intricate mathematical equations on gravitational lensing. The reason for this lack of physical representation is pretty simple: black holes are invisible because their gravitational pull is so strong that even light can't escape them. How their representation eventually became fully-rendered scenes within Interstellar is just as interesting as the film promises to be. During pre-production, C. Nolan and Franklin collaborated with theoretical physicist and gravitation expert, Kip Thorne, to understand exactly how black holes functioned and affected space-time. Thorne produced the equations needed for the studio to work out the needed calculations. Since black holes actually bend light into arcs, standard ray tracing formulas, which assume light follows a straight path, wouldn't work. To overcome this problem Dneg would end up developing a new type of renderer. According to a WIRED interview, CG supervisor Eugénie von Tunzelmann admitted that some individual frames took up to 100 hours to compute given the light distorting properties of black holes. In total, Interstellar clocked in at a whopping 800 terabytes of data.  “I thought we might cross the petabyte threshold on this one,” von Tunzelmann stated.

Double Negative’s CG mapping of a black hole’s accretion disk


After Dneg presented its initial images to Thorne, the physicist was astounded at actually seeing something he had previously only had an “intellectual” conception of.  To give the invisible black holes form, Franklin provided their image with a collection of orbiting light and matter called an accretion disc. For Thorne, the results were both unexpected and amazing.

Thorne plans to publish two scientific papers over the project’s results. One paper will be directed towards the scientific community while the other he plans for the VFX industry as an explanation of the representative power behind the marriage of art and science.

Regardless of the ultimate financial and artistic success of Interstellar, its encouraging to know that VFX/CG skills and knowledge can impact the world of science in such a profound way. Giving form to the formless is about the most ambitious undertaking any artist could strive for.“This is our observational data,” says Thorne, suggesting that C. Nolan and Dneg seem to have provided as much contribution to the science of theoretical physics as it will make to the art of film making.