The Celluloid Dimension: An Analysis of the Flight Scenes from Interstellar

book shelf

When you’re doing a film, you don’t photograph the reality – you photograph the photograph of reality.

—Stanley Kubrick, 1979

Continuing the journey of its predecessor 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Interstellar (2014) takes a quantum leap forward into the frontier of realistic science fiction. Unlike most sci-fi movies, Christopher Nolan’s film celebrates the idea of discovery. In classics like The Planet of the Apes (1968), Blade Runner (1982), and The Terminator (1984), technology is portrayed as a threat to the human race—but here, technology is the only thing that can save mankind from extinction.    

During flight scenes, the vehicles become the heart of the shot. For over half the exterior angles, an IMAX camera is hard-mounted to the side of the ship. Hollywood’s conventional approach to flight footage showcases the vehicles with wide-shots and navigates the environment with fluid camerawork. Nolan subverts these conventions by immobilizing the camera, filling the frame with a close-up of the spacecraft. Our restricted perspective makes it feel like the film had actually been shot in space, where resources are limited.  

To invoke a unique sense of authenticity and immediacy, the filmmakers pulled from non-fictional forms. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema explains:

We put a lot of effort into trying to get that same kind of feeling that you would have when you mount a GoPro [an action camera used to film extreme sports like surfing or base jumping]. So you have, all the time, this very close feeling that your camera’s there, witnessing something, rather than there’s a camera floating somewhere in space like an all-seeing eye, seeing the situation. So you’re really there. You’re really there in ways that you maybe recognize from real life when you look at footage from the ISS or in the shuttle. (“Ranger and the Lander”)

The flight scenes feel less like action scenes from a sci-fi blockbuster and more like footage recorded by an exploratory vessel. 

Ranger set

Figure 1.0: a set photo of Nolan controlling the Ranger (built by New Deal Studios) with a steering wheel from the DVD featurette “The Ranger and the Lander”

While other modern films (such as Gravity, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens) render spaceships with CGI, Interstellar relies on practical effects. The backgrounds are CG, but the vehicles that fill the foreground were captured on 65mm film. A full-size model of the Ranger was mounted on a motion-controlled movement base, which the director controlled in real-time, tilting its nose or baying its wings to simulate the maneuvers performed by the astronauts. “That gave us a real sense of physical reality to the spacecraft in the foreground,” explains VFX supervisor Paul Franklin (“Miniatures”). When the Ranger drifts through space, the spectator’s feeling of suspension is genuine; we really are suspended above the ground, strapped to a platform that tilts on an axis like a flight simulator. hard mount 1 Figure 1.1

The left-hand frame of figure 1.1 is from Cooper’s dream of the crash, moments before his Ranger sinks into the clouds. The right-hand frame is from the finale, when Cooper’s ship falls beneath the event horizon.

Each exterior mount is reused throughout one or more scenes. For instance, the left-hand angle from figure 1.1 is used for three shots in the opening crash scene. This poetic repetition conveys the recursive nature of the scientific method while grounding every flight scene on a familiar, physical stage.

hard mount 2

Figure 1.2

In the left-hand frame of figure 1.2, the astronauts are descending onto the water planet. In the right-hand frame, Dr. Mann is taking off from the ice planet. 


hard mount 3 Figure 1.3

In the left-hand frame of figure 1.3, the Ranger is nosing down to align its hatch with the Endurance (during the first docking scene). The right-hand frame shows the same maneuver (during the second docking scene), only now we’re over Mann’s Planet instead of Earth, and there’s a hole in the sun. 

“Should I disable the feedback?” Case asks Cooper during their descent on Miller’s planet. Struggling to keep the stick study, the pilot replies, “No. I need to feel the air.” When the camera straps us to the wing of the Ranger (left-hand frame of figure 1.2), the audience can feel the air as well. During the docking scenes (figure 1.3), we can feel the tiny spurts of gas that bay the spacecraft during precise maneuvers. And in the atmosphere, the camera’s mount quivers with the same intensity of the wing flap. Every gust that strikes the Ranger shakes the frame, allowing us to experience the feedback Cooper feels in the control stick.  

Nolan’s combination of practical and digital effects results in a visceral experience unlike any other. The rest of my analysis will focus on the metaphysical imagery, observing how the film maintains a sense of physical reality by merging the real with the abstract.

Science of the unknown

2001; touching monolith

2001: A Space Odyssey

Interstellar has become famous for its groundbreaking, photorealistic portrayal of a black hole. According to Kyp Thorne, the CalTech astrophysicist hired to help the filmmakers apply Einstein’s relativistic laws, every shot of Gargantua shows us exactly what we would see when orbiting an actual black hole (with Gargantua’s properties). Some other scenes, however, didn’t follow the rules so closely. “You said science was admitting what we don’t know,” Murph reminds her father. The interior of a worm hole and the space beyond the event horizon (“the bulk”) is “a place where space is infinitely warped—a place where we don’t know what happens,” explains Thorne. “It’s a place where the laws of physics as we know them fail” (“Celestial Landmarks”). In order to explore some of the most outlandish ideas in the field of theoretical physics, the filmmakers had to make something abstract. Still, the visualization of these fictional regions applied the same photographic principles used to visualize the black hole. Like Gargantua, the worm hole and the tesseract are composed of light rays that constantly stream along their boundaries and bring us multiple images of the same objects. wormhole; double images

Figure 1.4

Inside the worm hole (1.4), why do we see two spheres on the other end of the tunnel? In his book The Science of Interstellar (chapter 15), Thorne elaborates on this optical illusion. As light rays travel through the tunnel (toward the observer), the worm hole’s gravitational field bends the rays and causes them to travel along separate paths. Thus, celestial objects from the foreign galaxy appear twice. In figure 1.4, I’ve drawn green, red, and yellow enclosures around three notable pairs—mirror images of nebulae visible in the night sky of the Gargantua system. The outer sphere is a magnified reflection of the inner sphere, rotated 90 degrees. A similar, kaleidoscopic effect occurs around the black hole.

diagram; lensing

Figure 1.5: a diagram of the star field around the black hole from Science of Interstellar (Ch. 8).

The visualizations of the worm hole and black hole portray the effect of “gravitational lensing”—an optical phenomenon that occurs when light rays from a distant source are warped by the gravitational field of an extremely dense object (like a black hole) as they travel toward the observer.

Figure 1.5 illustrates how Gargantua lenses the surrounding star field. The dotted red lines chart the paths taken by two light rays as they travel from a star behind the black hole toward the camera. Thorne explains:

One bent ray travels to the camera around the hole’s left side; the other, around its right side. Each ray brings the camera its own image of the star. The two images, as seen by the camera, are shown in the inset of [figure 1.5]… Each of the other stars appears twice in the picture, on opposite sides of the hole’s shadow. (Science of Interstellar, Ch. 8)

worm hole; double images exterior

Figure 1.6

Thorne explains that the worm hole warps the star field the same way (see Ch. 15 of Science). For every star spinning around the upper half of the sphere, we can find a star spinning around the opposite side in the opposite direction at an identical speed. In figure 1.6, I’ve drawn green and red circles around mirror images of two fast-spinning stars. When viewed in motion, numerous other pairs become pronounced.

black hole; double image

Figure 1.7

The same balletic synchronization occurs when we’re approaching Gargantua. It’s hard to find them in a still image, but in motion, dozens of pairs can be discerned.

This uncanny effect makes the black hole appear artificial. The stars cycle along the ring like spokes on a wheel, or cogs in a wristwatch. I find this natural order fascinating. It’s strange to think of a naturally occurring object as a machine, but that’s how the bulk beings understand it. The secrets of the singularity have enabled them to build a worm hole (which, according to Thorne’s model, is essentially two black holes connected by a tunnel) and convert a black hole into an interstellar vehicle (which carries Cooper back to Saturn).

diagram; accretion disc Figure 1.8: VFX studio Double Negative’s model of Gargantua’s accretion disc before and after gravitational lensing (Science of Interstellar, Ch. 9).

An accretion disk (the illuminated disk of gas and dust that orbits around a black hole) is flat (as shown in the inset of figure 1.8)—it only occupies the spherical hole’s equatorial plane—but in Interstellar, the disk appears to curve above and below the hole’s shadow. This is the result of gravitational lensing. In figure 1.8, note how the colors along the top vertical face (that resembles a rainbow) correspond to the colors along the lower face. We’re looking at two images of the same region—the part of the disk behind the hole. We can even see infinitesimally thin, third and fourth images of this region along the edge of the shadow (in figure 1.7 and 1.8).

These concentric rings recall the sphere-within-the-sphere inside the worm hole (1.4). A similar effect occurs inside the tesseract, which was modeled after an infinity cube—an object with mirrors that face each other and reflect the same image over and over as far as the eye can see. These confusing optical illusions allow us to experience the astronauts’ struggle to collect data in an exotic region where time runs differently. After Doyle is killed by the tidal wave, Case informs Cooper and Amelia that they had been fooled: “The message Doyle received was just the initial status, echoing endlessly,” not unlike the planet’s endless tidal waves or the eternal columns of the tesseract (see figure 2.1) that Cooper must learn to navigate.

The worm hole and the tesseract immerse us in labyrinths akin to the dreamscapes from Inception (2010), another film famous for its innovative practical effects. On his prior sci-fi effort, Nolan recalls, “it will sound strange, but to me Inception had a lot of science in it: A rigid set of rules, mathematical and geometrical in their nature, define that script” (Rogers). The director approached the tesseract with the same disciplined methodology—a desire to bridge math and art:          

The complexity of [the tesseract] is something that I don’t think the audience will be able to grasp when they’re watching the film… But my feeling was very strongly that, if we knew what the rule set was and how it would work mathematically, and if we were true to that in building the set and then in conceiving how the visual effects will expand the set, then the audience would feel a logic behind it. (“Across All Dimensions and Time”) 

Like the visualization of Gargantua and the worm hole, the construction of the tesseract followed a complex system of calculations that involved “suppressing a spatial dimension” (Nolan, qtd. in “Across”). Throughout Interstellar, Nolan plays with photographic perspective (for instance, by making 3D space appear less dimensional) to render incredibly tactile images of warped spacetime. tesseract set Figure 1.9: a set photo of the tesseract set from DVD featurette “Across All Dimensions and Time”

“The mandate from the beginning,” recalls the director’s co-writer (and brother) Jonah Nolan, “was to get the science right. To take a big idea and ground it as much as possible so you can feel it” (“Plotting an Interstellar Journey”). The tesseract doesn’t exist in the known universe, but it does portray real scientific theories (like Einstein’s idea of a nonlinear time dimension existing outside our spacetime). To make this surreal landscape feel authentic, the filmmakers relied on in-camera effects. Projectors were used as the primary (and sometimes only) light source for the tesseract sequence (up to 16 at once), lighting up the walls of the massive set with the animated “world lines” (the monochrome extrusions that extend from every object in the room and cycle along an x-y-z axis).

By representing time as a manipulable, physical dimension, this sequence runs analogous to the act of directing or exhibiting a film. “A photograph represents three dimensions in two,” explains Nolan, “and then a strip of film adds time. That’s how you take time and you represent it physically: a reel of film running through a projector” (Rogers). Cooper is essentially watching (and rewatching) a film-within-the-film—a recording of the past endlessly replayed. tesseract 1 Figure 2.0

tesseract waves

Figure 2.1

Echoing Nolan’s description of film, Franklin elaborates on the tesseract’s architecture:      

It’s the embodiment of the theory that every piece of matter in the universe leaves a trail of matter behind it in time… The tesseract is a visualization of all the world lines, all the objects in Murph’s bedroom in an infinite lattice. Where they intersect there is a 3D image… We also wanted to show information along the world lines that connect different moments, to show stuff moving along these things like filmstrips in and out of the room. (Robertson) 

Given his love for the form, it makes sense that Nolan would choose a filmstrip analogy to explore cosmological and philosophical ideas like time travel, memory, and the transcendence of love. Parts of the tessesract resemble and behave like film stock. Frames on a reel produce 3D images when they cross over a projector’s aperture, just as the world lines create 3D images when they slide over the face of a cube. Like images on a screen, the space inside each cube is made of nothing but light. Everything in Murph’s room is a projection—a distorted version of earlier events akin to images on a granulated filmstrip—but like the environment of a realistic film, the bedroom feels like a physical space Cooper can almost enter.

Crossing the threshold

2001; expansion

2001: A Space Odyssey

The refraction of light around the worm hole creates a similar tactile effect. Before the Endurance enters the tunnel, the worm hole, like the tesseract, suspends the astronauts over images of a distant galaxy. Thorne explains that if we were to look through a worm hole, we would get a warped view of the region on the other side of the tunnel (see Ch. 14 of Science). Those star clusters and nebulae are millions of light years from our solar system, but thanks to the gravitational lensing caused by an incalculably dense object, each magnified vista feels as real and proximate as the planet we had just orbited (Saturn).

crystal ball

Figure 2.2

From a distance, the worm hole resembles a crystal ball (as in figures 2.2, 2.5)—up close, the surface of a wave (2.3-2.4). Due to the way light bends around its boundary, it feels like we’re looking through the glass of a giant periscope. While orbiting the mouth (entrance) of the hole, the astronauts’ experience is innately similar to the experience of watching a film on a multi-story, convex IMAX screen. Outside the cockpit windows, stars appear to circle around the ship; inside a theater, objects appear to move around a screen. So both the worm hole and an IMAX projector create the illusion of motion by projecting light onto a colossal, curved surface. Film, like a four-dimensional object, can transport people to distant worlds.  worm hole 2 Figure 2.3 “We wanted to show abstract scientific principles as physical things,” explains Franklin (3DVF). While the tesseract represents time as a physical dimension, the worm hole represents gravitational waves as physical material. We can’t see the stuff it’s made out of—its quantum matter exists in a higher dimension—however, we can detect the object’s tidal gravity wherever space is warped into a mysterious, rippling substance. This disturbance in spacetime demarcates a shifting boundary that feels as tangible as a dust storm or a tidal wave. worm hole 3 Figure 2.4

By figure 2.4, the entire star field is spinning around us at an accelerated rate like the wall of a centrifuge. The stars flow in from the right side of the frame, parallel with the camera’s orbit, then they arc 90° and nearly collide with the camera as they fly past us on the left side.        

The boundary is hardly noticeable when viewed as a still image, as you can’t see the thousands of dim, glittering stars streaming in parallel lines along the curvature of the worm hole. In motion, this rippling effect is much more pronounced. It’s exhilarating yet claustrophobic, as we’re unable to see anything beyond this liquidous, opaque boundary. The beings of five dimensions (also referred to as “bulk beings” and a nameless “They”) who created the worm hole have the ability to fold space. The filmmakers exercised the same power when bending the fabric of the universe around the camera. worm hole 4Figure 2.5 Hubble telescope Figure 2.6: An image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in which the gravity of a luminous red galaxy has lensed the light from a much more distant blue galaxy (see Wikipedia article on “gravitational lensing”)

A worm hole is a theoretical phenomenon that scientists have never observed (and probably never will), so the filmmakers were given artistic license to make something surreal. Still, the sequence is grounded in real physics. When devising the parameters of the visualization, Double Negative mapped the paths the light rays would take around the hole’s boundary with equations (written by Thorne) deduced from Einstein’s relativistic laws. Consequently, their simulations generated images that share qualities with photographs rendered by other imaging devices, like the Hubble Telescope.

In figure 2.5, note how the space warp of the spherical hole resembles the gravitational lensing of the blue galaxy in figure 2.6. In both cases, the lensing of the images imitates the effect of a magnifying glass.

Even though the worm hole doesn’t exist in the known universe, the photorealism of its visualization and its optical association with actual data lends the sequence a layer of authenticity. “IMAX has sent cameras to space and captured incredible imagery,” explains Hoytema. “We were very much inspired by that footage, and we used that to find color for our own film” (Giardina). worm hole 5 Figure 2.7

IMAX cameras are known for their short depth of field. Many filmmakers consider this feature a drawback (as it’s difficult to keep distant objects in focus), but Nolan and Hoytema use it to their advantage by keeping the backdrop near the foreground. When Cooper hovers inches from a worm hole, tidal wave, accretion disk, or a rapidly spinning wheel in the sky, the camera attaches us to his ship and brings everything into sharp focus. The depth of field doesn’t stretch far—still, we can feel an extraordinary sense of three-dimensional space within that confined area. There’s no better way to capture the nearness and texture of an elemental force than to approach it with an IMAX camera—not even with stereoscopic 3D (which brings the image closer to us but also muddles color, lowers resolution, and blurs fast-moving objects).

To reinforce the physicality of the intimidating backdrops, Hans Zimmer recorded his score on a pipe organ in a cathedral. An organ “can only make a sound with air, and it needs to breath,” explains the composer. “So you have a primeval and really dangerous quality to it” (“Cosmic Sounds”)—a ferocious sensibility that gives voice to the rocket boosters (which are silent in space) and the light beams flying at our face. There’s no instrument that produces a more corporeal sound, and there’s no theater better equipped to make you feel that sound than an IMAX theater, where a monstrous subwoofer sits behind the screen. “Everybody ready to say goodbye to our solar system?” asks Cooper, while Zimmer vibrates our solar plexus with the bass pedals of his organ. “To our galaxy. . . here we go.” Then as he pushes forward on the throttle, Zimmer opens all the stops, blasting us with a rush of symphonic air while all around us, the walls of our universe start expanding (2.7). Other than 2001, I’ve never experienced a film that so viscerally immerses the audience in another universe.

The volcanic centrifuge

stargate 1

2001: A Space Odyssey

On his first time seeing 2001, Nolan recalls:       

I remember very clearly, that sense of scale, that sense of otherworldliness. You felt lost, you felt like you’d gone across the universe to some very peculiar corner of it. Interstellar is absolutely my attempt to try and give audiences today some of that magical sense of being immersed in a different universe. (Yahoo! Movies

The finale of Interstellar represents the most accurate portrayal of a black hole that graphics artists have ever produced (in or outside Hollywood)—yet it doesn’t feel any more realistic than the worm hole sequence. The visualization of Gargantua is an extraordinary achievement for both science and art. Not only does it offer physicists actual data (used to publish an article by Thorne and Gargantua’s co-creators) on the effects of gravitational lensing; it demonstrates how authentic sci-fi can feel stranger than fantasy. 

sling shot

Figure 2.8

While Cooper explains his plan to power-slingshot around Gargantua (by letting Gargantua’s tidal gravity pull them near the horizon, then igniting rocket boosters to escape the critical orbit) we get a new perspective of the vista (2.8). We’re close enough to perceive its depth and texture yet still unable to discern its spin. The accretion disk and the surrounding star field are completely static. The apparent motionlessness is uncanny. The “shell of fire” (Thorne’s nickname for the disk) looks like a volcanic eruption frozen in time—a photographic representation of relativity.        

Our second exterior shot of Gargantua brings us slightly closer (see figure 1.7). Now the star field has begun orbiting its boundary, and we can barely perceive the languid spin of the disk.

fade in 1

Figure 2.9

Figure 2.9 and 3.0 are from the same shot. 

In the next exterior shot, different parts of the disk’s vertical face flicker on and off, slowly fading in from the void (2.9). The disk appears mostly flat. Only the vertical rings are visible—then suddenly, the horizontal face flies into the foreground (3.0).     

I find it interesting how the disc’s flickering light is synchronized with the ship’s power, which keeps turning on and off (during interior shots). Unfortunately, I have no idea why this occurs. I find it interesting, though, how it suggests a metaphysical connection between Gargantua and the Endurance. Rather than try to decipher the physics, the rest of my analysis will focus on the geometric patterns and interpret the themes conveyed by the ethereal imagery.

fade in 2

Figure 3.0

For the first few seconds of this shot, the disk appears to occupy only two dimensions. So when the textured equatorial plane appears, the sudden explosion of depth is quite jarring.


Figure 3.1

Figure 3.1 and 3.2 are from the same shot.

On the visualization, Thorne explains:      

The artistic team at Double Negative then gave the disk the texture and surface relief that we expect a real, anemic accretion disk to have, puffing it up a bit in a manner that varied from place to place. They made the disk hotter (brighter) near Gargantua and cooler (dimmer) at larger distances. They made it thicker at larger distances because it is Gargantua’s tidal gravity that squeezes the disk into the equatorial plane, and tidal gravity is much weaker farther from the black hole. (Science, Ch. 9) 

With each new perspective, the accretion disk appears to be made of different material. In figure 2.8, the horizontal face looks like lava. Then suddenly (in figure 3.0), it resembles a dust storm. In the next shot (3.1), the vertical face of the disc (that, in previous shots, had appeared monochrome and two-dimensional) becomes multicolored and textured. These changes invoke the instability of space and perpetuate the spectator’s displacement. It’s as if each cut has transported us to a different galaxy.


Figure 3.2

Due to our peculiar perspective, it’s difficult to get a clear sense of the ship’s trajectory. Here, the Endurance appears to be barely moving at all. Its spin has slowed to a speed around 2 or 3 RPM (not unlike the languid spin of the disk when viewed from a distance), and during this 10 second shot, it remains parallel with the (virtual) camera (which is orbiting the hole at the same circumferential speed as the ship), sliding laterally rather than flying forward. The serene tone belies the fact that the astronauts (and the audience) are being launched forward at a speed far faster than man has ever traveled. According to Thorne, the Endurance is approximating the speed of light (a fact the film implies rather than explains), yet it doesn’t appear to move much faster than it had when leaving Earth’s orbit.    

 The movement of the disc is even more confusing. In the “waterfall of light” (Double Negative’s name for the vertical face), the light rays (which stream downward, then rightward) slow down and expand once they’ve reached the equatorial plane, as if they’ve reached a region of space where time flows more slowly. Even stranger: the shape of the disc is changing. The event horizon appears to retreat as the Endurance approaches it.      

Gargantua isn’t actually changing. This illusion is merely the spacetime distortion caused by gravitational lensing, which is accentuated by the camera’s movement. Nonetheless, it feels like the Endurance is reshaping and altering the composition of the disc. Note how the region of vertical, textured rows expands throughout the shot. As the ship crosses over the bright, monochrome region, the golden light morphs into parallel streaks of earthly colors. Throughout the expedition, Nolan wanted to “convey the idea that we never get far from the farm” (Beyond Time and Space), and this image certainly invokes the idea of farming.      

When choosing a location for Cooper’s farm, the filmmakers wanted a region where corn is never grown. They decided to grow it in the mountains of Alberta—a difficult task given the region’s high winds and lack of fertile soil (Nolan explains in the production book, Interstellar: Beyond Time and Space). In the film’s opening scene, we learn that Cooper has tamed the mountainous wilderness. Then when the Endurance appears to alter Gargantua’s physical properties, the image suggests that mankind has gained dominion over the most hostile region in the universe.

chasing rainbow

Figure 3.3

Coordinates are an essential part of the plot and the visual language. The camera’s orbit is as important as the ship’s. The shot set-up doesn’t simply decide what part of the environment the audience will see—it determines how the lensing will warp the background. Changing the camera’s movement or position can create a significantly different effect. In figure 2.9 (and in every prior shot of Gargantua), the shadow looks like a black circle. Figure 3.3 reveals that the shadow is in fact a sphere.      

When discussing the film’s portrayal of theoretical physics, Nolan explains, “The idea of filmmaking itself, its this weird combination of two-dimensional images representing three dimensions. Really, it’s about shapes and patterns of things… I got more and more interested in addressing that in the narrative itself” (Star Talk). Geometric ideas are addressed throughout the script, as when Cooper sees the worm hole and realizes “It’s a sphere.” Here, the close-up of Gargantua’s three-dimensional shadow articulates the same discovery. It might produce a particularly striking revelation for sci-fi fans, as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing flat black holes (as in Event Horizon or JJ Abrams’ Star Trek).


Figure 3.4

Interstellar hearkens back to the direct experience films of 2001,” explains the director, “where you’re not just experiencing it through the characters. You are lost in it” (Khatchatourian). Nolan certainly shares Kubrick’s economy of statement. The characters don’t tell us that we’ve reached the critical orbit (the edge of the shadow where gravity is strongest); Nolan lets the image do the talking. In figure 3.4, the camera tilts down to frame the docking module lining up the with the event horizon. It’s quite an exhilarating feeling, straddling the edge of the abyss.

Also, no one tells us how fast we’re going; Zimmer conveys this information with his organ. When Case ignites the rocket boosters (right before figure 3.4), the fortissimo blast of air (that, in an IMAX theater, hits us from behind the screen) lets us feel the sensation of going the speed of light.  

Here’s the mesmerizing track “Detach,” which plays during the orbital sling-shot.

rocket booster 1

Figure 3.5

In the background of figure 3.5, what exactly are we looking at? In prior shots (2.9-3.3), the Endurance appears to be approaching the eastern edge of the shadow, where the vertical face intersects the equatorial plane. In figure 3.5, we appear to have reached the point of intersection.

Contrasting the deep space of the prior long-shot (3.3), figure 3.5 removes depth from the background. In figure 3.3, the vertical face rises above the equatorial plane in a parabola on an x-y-z axis. In figure 3.5, the waterfall (extending downward and rightward from the top of the frame) doesn’t have any discernible slope. The horizontal face and vertical face are confined to an x-y axis. Romley mocks Cooper for assuming that a worm hole “would just be a hole,” but oddly enough, that’s basically what we see here: the edge of a flat circle. A similar effect occurs in figure 3.1, where the region of solid, white light and the shadow appear to occupy only two dimensions. Here, the suppression of a spatial dimension is even more pronounced.

In Interstellar, time and space flow in strange ways that few other films depict. Around (and inside) the black hole and worm hole, gravity pulls objects in different directions. The starfield is pulled along shifting orbits, and in the disc, light rays fly downward and leftward like world-lines. The background in figure 3.5 resembles the flat sides of the tesseract—specifically, the corner of the cube where the world-lines intersect. The latter region is fantastical. This region is real. Nonetheless, the tesseract and the accretion disk feel equally strange.

leaving orbit 1

Figure 3.6

Figure 3.6 and figure 4.1 are from the beginning and end of the same shot. 

In the waterfall, light rays are streaming downward, which creates the feeling that the wheel is flying (laterally) up the vertical face. If you look closely, you can now perceive the slope of the waterfall (especially on an IMAX screen). The idea of climbing a steep wave is expressed throughout the film. 

tidal wave

Figure 3.7

The 2 mile-high tidal wave is so steep that it almost resembles a vertical wall, not unlike the waterfall of light in figure 3.6

Worm hole wave

Figure 3.8


Figure 3.9

“Did you notice anything unusual about the launch chamber?” Professor Brandt asks Cooper. The pilot tilts his head 90 degrees, then realizes, “This entire facility’s a centrifuge—some kind of vehicle.” When viewed from this angle (3.9), the platform resembles a narrow slide, foreshadowing Cooper’s flight up the waterfall of light.      

Distant shots of Gargantua convey a similar image. Refer back to figures 1.7-1.8. Note the inner, golden halo that circles the edge of the horizon. “Immediately outside the shadow’s edge is a very thin ring of starlight called the ‘ring of fire,’” explains Thorne (Ch. 8). This is something we see from a distance. It’s an illusion—a smaller, mirror image of the vertical face that curves over and below the hole. In figures 3.5-3.6 and 4.1, the Endurance appears to have reached the ring of fire.

volcano diagram

Figure 4.0: an illustration of the Endurance’s trajectory during the sling-shot. Gargantua has been visualized as a moat around a volcano. (Science, Ch. 27)

The red path starts with the ship’s direct movement down the moat, toward the shadow. Then the ship curves up the volcano. It’s quite difficult to grasp this upward movement or the hole’s funnel shape. However, it’s clear when we’ve reached the rim of the volcano: the moment the wheel lines up with horizon (3.4).

Romley refers to Miller’s planet’s orbit (near the horizon) as a “basketball around a hoop.” Thorne uses a similar analogy to describe the Endurance’s critical orbit: the ship is like a marble that “rolls around and around on the rim [of a volcano], delicately and unstably balanced between falling inward, into the volcano, and falling back outward” (Ch. 27).  This delicate balance is conveyed by the ship’s alignment with the waterfall (3.4-3.6), which has been squeezed so thin by Gargantua’s tidal gravity that it appears barely thicker than the ship. The Endurance could also be compared to a unicyclist looping around a tightrope. Directly beneath us is a golden halo. To our left is a fathomless pit. To our right—the void of space.

“Maximum velocity achieved,” announces Case, informing us that we’ve reached the highest speed allowed by the law of relativity: the speed of light. That means the ship must be traversing great distances, spinning around the shadow’s colossal diameter multiple times (a fact that Thorne confirms in Ch. 27). This enables the Endurance to gain enough centrifugal energy to combat Gargantua’s tidal gravity and break from the critical orbit.

leaving orbit 2

Figure 4.1

Note the slightly different position of the ship in figures 3.6 and 4.1. The Endurance is flying away from both the horizontal and vertical face. 

As far as spectacle goes, the background of this shot isn’t anything special (especially compared to the backdrops of the long-shots). But I find the idea it conveys truly awesome. Cooper is using the black hole as a vehicle (akin to the launch chamber in figure 3.9). Its tidal gravity propels him to a speed that rocket boosters can’t come close to achieving on their own. Like the worm hole, Gargantua launches the Endurance a great distance (to Edmond’s Planet on the outer edge of the system) in a (relatively) short amount of time. Just as Murphy learns to fold spacetime, Cooper learns to harness gravity.

Sky cathedral


2001: A Space Odyssey

Though the pairing is common in sci-fi literature (in the work of authors like Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke), 2001 and Interstellar are two of the only studio films that blend (a substantial amount of) real science with fantasy. Even during the most thoroughly researched, authentic scenes of exploration, the supernatural is invoked by Interstellar’s mysterious tone.      

In the early stages of the score’s composition (which coincided with the early stages of the script), Nolan explains:

I really wanted to use the church organ, and I also made the case very strongly for some feeling of religiosity to it, even though the film isn’t religious. But that organ, the architecture, cathedrals– they represent mankind’s attempt to portray the mystical or the metaphysical, what’s beyond us, beyond the realm of the everyday. (“Cosmic Sounds”).

Though Cooper “hesitates to term it supernatural,” the anomaly he and Murph witness during the dust storm strongly suggests the existence of ghosts (offering them coordinates to a facility no one knows about). Throughout the mission, the scientists rely on an almost religious faith in these higher-dimensional entities. “A worm hole isn’t a naturally-occurring phenomenon,” Cooper points out. “Someone placed it there,” explains Amelia, “and whoever they are, they appear to be looking out for us.” Even during Cooper’s first encounter with the bulk beings (which nearly kills him), it’s clear that the ghosts are trying to help him.

crash 1

Figure 4.2

crash 2

Figure 4.3

Recalling his flight over the Straits, Cooper explains, “Something tripped my fly-by-wire.” A fly-by-wire is a system that replaces conventional manual flight controls with an electronic interface, enabling ground control personnel to remotely pilot the aircraft.

“The computer says you’re too tight,” an operator tells Cooper over the intercom. “Nah, I got this,” he insists, but to no avail. “Shutting it down, Cooper.” Then in the next exterior shot (4.2), we see the Ranger nose down and descend into the clouds. “No! I need power up!” screams the pilot, and the bulk beings seem to hear him. Disabling the fly-by-wire, they take control of the ship. Suddenly, the center stick flies from Cooper’s hands, yanked downward and rightward by an invisible force.      

In the final exterior shot (4.3), we see the Ranger bank right, its nose now angled (roughly) 45 degrees with the horizon (whereas, in previous shots, it had been parallel)—then the clouds start whipping around us. The bulk beings don’t just cause Cooper to crash; first, they bay his aircraft in a rapid, spiraling motion. At the end of the scene, Cooper leans forward and tries to regain control of the stick, but he can’t handle the G-force, which throws him back and smashes his helmet against the seat.     

Due to the unusual brevity of the final exterior shot (which lasts only a second) and our limited view of the background, it’s quite difficult to discern Cooper’s flight path (though not so hard with close reading). Nonetheless, the spinning maneuver itself is an essential part of the story.

Much of the film involves going in circles—literally and metaphorically. Cooper’s journey ends where it had begun. Professor Brandt and Murphy are going in circles trying to solve gravity (on chalkboards in a circular room). Thorne explains that, in order to lift the space stations off the planet’s surface, Murphy would need to generate enough centrifugal force to overpower the planet’s gravitational pull (see Ch. 31 of Science of Interstellar). In other words, she would need to make the vehicles spin really fast.


Figure 4.4  

During Cooper’s reckless descent onto Miller’s Planet, Case echoes the cautious computer from the first scene, insisting, “We should ease!” But the pilot doesn’t trust the advice of an AI. “The only time I went down was when a machine was easing at the wrong time,” he tells Case.      

After the clouds part, we see Cooper thrust the control stick the same way the bulk beings had. This angles the Ranger 45° with the horizon (as it had in figure 4.3), spiraling the shuttle down on top of the beacon (4.4).


Figure 4.5

We see the pilot teach his daughter a similar maneuver (but upward instead of downward) after he takes control of the drone. Before landing the aircraft, they take turns circling the canyon, lifting the drone above the cliffs.      

An upward spiral also occurs during the finale. Refer back to figure 4.0. Note how the Endurance curves 180° up the surface of the volcano before cycling along the rim. 

overhead 3

Figure 4.6

After the explosion destabilizes its orbit, the off-kilter Endurance falls into the stratosphere like a spinning top sliding down a hill. The long-shots convey its steady descent by framing its rightward and downward movement across the frame. In figure 4.6, the ships falls beneath the horizon. In order to dock with the Endurance, Cooper has to perform a stunt that recalls the first scene (4.2-4.3). As before, he needs to dive toward the surface then spin at a break-neck speed in order to escape the planet’s atmosphere.      

So when Case tells him “It’s not possible,” and he replies, “No– it’s necessary,” Cooper’s irrational confidence actually makes sense in light of his past. “This is the mission that you were trained for,” Professor Brandt tells him. “Without even knowing it?” he asks. The anomaly in Earth’s upper atmosphere had been a test, and now the pilot finally understands its purpose: the bulk beings have been preparing him to accomplish a seemingly impossible maneuver.

“This crew represents the best of humanity,” Amelia tells Cooper, expressing an idea that defines every technical aspect of the film. Double Negative rendered light tracing patterns with impeccable accuracy. New Deal Studios built spacecraft models with total functionality. And in the soundtrack, Zimmer used the most technologically advanced instrument ever invented.

Recorded in London’s Temple Church, the score compliments the mind-boggling complexity of the state-of-the-art spacecraft. Zimmer explains that “by the 17th century, the pipe organ was the most complex machine people had created” (Fortner)—by the 21st century, the most complex machine was the spaceship. Continues Zimmer:     

The organ really is a huge, complicated synthesizer. If you think about it, you have a pipe and air blows through it, and that makes the sound of one pitch. And then if you want to shift color, you add another pipe to it, and you add more and more pipes. And so it becomes these really very, very complex harmonic structures. (“Cosmic Sounds”)

An astronaut is not unlike an organist, who relies on rhythm, multitasking, and knowledge of intricate machinery. Cooper has to perfectly time the ignition of rocket boosters (as when deploying the air brake at the last possible moment to save time), keep the stick study (as when manually controlling the Endurance during the black hole sling-shot), and quickly respond to the myriad variables displayed on the complicated array of screens (just as an organist has to time the opening of certain pipes with the knobs, pistons, and pedals on the complicated console).

Here’s the majestic track “No Time for Caution,” which starts playing after the explosion in figure 4.8.

moment 1

Figure 4.7

“This is not about my life, or Cooper’s life. It is about all mankind! There is a moment—”

moment 2

Figure 4.8

During the sudden, brief explosion, the Ranger’s aluminum panels peel away like cardboard flaps on an advent calendar. This silent image gives us a shocking impression of the Endurance’s fragility. Millimeters of aluminum protect the astronauts from the vacuum of space—a hostile environment where the tiniest error can result in catastrophe.

overhead 1

Figure 4.9

docking module

Figure 5.0

In the center of the wheel, at the edge of the vertical cylinder is the airlock that Cooper and Tars need to line up with the Lander’s docking mechanism. The center of a spinning object is the place where centrifugal force is strongest. Imagine being strapped to a chair mounted to the center of a carousel spinning at 68 RPM—meaning, you would rotate more than 360° every second. Now imagine the carousel is plummeting toward the surface of a planet.

Cooper tells Case, “if I pass out you take the stick.” This is how the first flight scene had ended, but now he’s prepared to contend with the near-fatal G-force (70 Gs, according to Thorne; see Ch. 20 of Science). And finally, he’s trusting a machine to take control. 

Tars POV 0

Figure 5.1

It’s almost comical how pathetic Dr. Mann is. “He doesn’t know the docking procedure,” Case informs us. Mann realizes he’s going to blow the airlock. This is why he doesn’t bother taking off his gloves (like Doyle does) when operating the joystick. He knows that he’ll fail, and he knows the cabin could depressurize at any moment.

Tars, however, isn’t encumbered by a suit. The vacuum of space can’t hurt him, so he opens up the hatch to get a better view (5.1).

Tars POV 1

Figure 5.2

Throughout the film, the robots (or “articulated machines,” as Nolan calls them) are trying to fit in with the crew by acting human. For instance, they move their bodies when talking to express themselves, and they greet each other verbally (when Tars boots up Case) instead of communicating with radio signals. Figure 5.2 presents Tars at his finest, most human moment. It’s the first time we see his fingers (as he had no prior cause to extend these outer appendages), which he wraps around the joystick. The autopilot is of no use now, so the machine has to learn how to operate a manual analog designed for human hands.     

In the first act, Cooper advises Amelia that “you’re taking a risk using ex-military security. They’re old and their control units are– unpredictable.” Mann echoes his distrust, claiming that “a machine doesn’t improvise well because you can’t program a fear of death.” But ironically, it’s his inability to fear death that enables Tars to improvise well. In spite of the 70 Gs, he’s able to move the joystick (a mechanism that, we can assume, he has not been programmed to operate) with the microscopic accuracy needed to achieve perfect alignment. In most sci-fi films about AI, the computer ends up betraying its creator. Here, the computer’s ability to learn saves the human race.

overhead 0

Figure 5.3

“We use to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars,” reflects Cooper. “Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” The climax conveys this metaphor by aiming the exterior shots at the desolate planet’s surface (as during figure 5.3, an angle used four times in the first half of this scene), then turning the camera skyward. Before the alignment, we can’t see the stars. We can see the sky in figures 4.6 and 5.0, but the only objects we can find in the blackness (besides the sun) are sparkling flakes of debris.      

initiating spin

Figure 5.4

After guiding Cooper through a minute of precise maneuvers, Tars announces, “Cooper, we are. . . lined up!” Then as the pilot initiates the spin, we finally get a clear glance at the stars (5.4).

docking 1

Figure 5.5

“C’mon Tars!”

docking 2

Figure 5.6

“C’mon Tars!”

docking 3

Figure 5.7

When the resounding chords of Zimmer’s majestic melody start playing (at 2:35), the exterior shots surround us with a brilliant field of stars. For the rest of the scene, the exterior camera keeps us mounted to the Lander or the Endurance (or floating nearby). Consequently, we’re unable to discern the spin of the spacecraft. Instead, the stars appear to be spinning around us, just as the star field appears to spin around the worm hole and black hole (see figures 1.6-1.7). This effect conveys a tremendous sense of control over space.

docking 4

Figure 5.8

The earlier launch (in the crash scene) had failed due to a conflict between Cooper and an AI. The pilot didn’t trust the computer’s advice, nor did the computer trust the pilot’s intuition. In the climax, man achieves perfect harmony with machine. “Cooper, this is no time for caution!” urges Case, proving that the computer has learned from the pilot, who had urged Case against caution during their descent on Miller’s planet. The theme of consummate balance is reinforced by the symmetry of the exterior angles (5.6-5.8)—which move us along the diameter of the wheel—by the balletic motion of the Lander and the Endurance—which are synchronized like figure skaters—and by the rhythm of the organ, which starts off with a chaotic flurry of notes moving at different tempos (for the first two and a half minutes of the track), then transitions to a study melody.     

Figure 5.8 is the moment the Lander locks onto the Endurance. Note how the lens flare separates Gargantua into two spheres of light. This optical effect imitates the gravitational lensing of the star field around a black hole. Refer back to figure 1.5, which illustrates how the lensing brings us two images of each star located behind Gargantua. Here, it’s as if the Endurance has generated the force of a black hole, separating the sun into two images that wrap around the central pillar before reaching the camera.  


Figure 5.9

 The Lander is angled roughly 30° with the planet’s surface. In the interior shots, the background continuously changes, switching between a view of the planet’s surface and a view of the sky (and the red heat shield in the floor windows)

day-night 3

Figure 6.0

day-night 4

Figure 6.1

Figures 6.0 and 6.1 are from the same shot (as are 6.2-6.3 and 6.4-6.5).

Once the Lander starts spinning, the background creates a striking contrast, continually alternating between night and day.

day-night 5

Figure 6.2

When the sun passes behind the camera, its light carves intricate shadows of the ship’s honeycomb structure. All across the surface, black shapes take form, morph, and diminish (like the crescents inside the three thrusters). In figure 6.2, the emaciated shadow of the damaged ring cuts across the central pillar.

day-night 6

Figure 6.3

When the sun passes behind the ship, daylight turns to dusk. In figure 6.3, part of Gargantua’s vertical face and the right edge of its horizontal face are visible. Note how we can discern the disk’s different colors and texture. It feels like we’re watching a lapse-photography video of the night sky near one of the poles. The sun continues to set—then for a moment, it disappears behind the pillar—then morning returns. This phenomenon conveys the idea of relativity. When you’re orbiting a black hole, days can fly by in seconds.

day-night 7

Figure 6.4

day-night 8

Figure 6.5

In figure 6.4, the central pillar is completely hidden in darkness. Then as Gargantua passes around the damaged module, it suddenly fills a third of the frame (6.5). It’s abrupt appearance is quite shocking, not unlike the sudden appearance of the accretion disc in figures 2.9-3.0.

star tunnel vault

Figure 6.6

The effect is difficult to discern in a still image, but in motion, the revolving star field (during figures 5.4-5.9) demarcates a boundary that feels like the physical wall of a centrifuge (or the immaterial wall of a worm hole). In figure 6.6, the stars stream along parallel lines and create a vault in the sky. This effect gives us the impression of a tangible surface made of stars shaped like the ceiling of a cathedral—or a launch chamber.

star tunnel; space station 0

Figure 6.7

Note how, in figures 6.6 and 6.7, the Ranger is pointing to the stars. 

star tunnel; space station 1

Figure 6.8

star tunnel; space station 2

Figure 6.9

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