Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The light of distant stars

with 2 comments

Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar

By now, Interstellar has inspired plenty of conversation on subjects ranging from the accuracy of its science to the consistency of its intricate timelines, but I wanted to highlight one aspect of the film that hasn’t received as much attention: its use of physical miniatures. If you’re a visual effects nerd like me, Interstellar represents a welcome return to a style of filmmaking that other directors seem to have all but abandoned, with huge, detailed models—the one for the spacecraft Endurance was a full twenty-five feet across—shot against star fields in the studio, a tradition that stretches back through Star Wars to 2001. And the result speaks for itself. The effects are so good that they practically fade into the background; for long stretches of the film, we’re barely aware of them as effects at all, but as elements in a story that persuasively takes place on the largest imaginable scale. (There’s even a sense in which the film’s scientific rigor and its reliance on modelwork go hand in hand. Dealing with big, unwieldy miniatures and hydraulics can only make a filmmaker more aware of the physics involved.)

Last week, I suggested that Christopher Nolan, the most meticulous creator of blockbusters we have, is drawn to IMAX and the logistical problems it presents as a way of getting out of his own head, or of grounding his elaborate conceits in recognizably vivid environments, and much the same is true of his approach to effects. If Inception had unfolded in a flurry of digital imagery, as it might easily have done in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the story itself would have been far less interesting. Dreams, as Cobb reminds Ariadne, feel real while you’re inside them, and it’s revealing that the most controlling of directors understands the value of techniques that force him to give up control, while paradoxically allowing for greater realism. As Nolan says:

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. I refer to it as serendipity—this random quality that gives the image a feeling of life.

And the randomness is key. Critics often speak of the uncanny valley when describing how virtual actors are never as convincing as the real thing, and a similar principle seems to be at work with other visual effects. Computers have made enormous advances in depicting anything a filmmaker likes, but there are still crucial details—artifacts of lighting, the behavior of surfaces seen against real backdrops—that digital artistry struggles to replicate, precisely because they’re so unpredictable.

George Clooney on the set of Gravity

Light, it seems, is a problem as intractable, in its own way, as the subtleties of human expression, and while we may feel less of a visceral reaction when the technology falls short, it still prevents us from immersing ourselves completely in the experience. Even in films like The Return of the King or Avatar, which look undeniably spectacular, we’re often conscious of how expertly the imagery has been constructed, with the uniform, unreal light of a world that exists only on a hard drive at Weta. It holds us at arm’s distance even as it draws us in. That said, technology marches on, and it’s telling that Interstellar arrives in theaters almost exactly one year after Gravity, a movie that takes a diametrically opposite approach to many of the same problems: few practical sets or models were built, and for much of the film, everything in sight, from the spacesuits to the interiors to the panorama of the earth in the background, is a digital creation. The result, to put it mildly, looks fantastic, even in IMAX, and it’s the first movie I’ve seen in a long time in which computer effects are truly indistinguishable from reality.

At first glance, then, it might seem like Interstellar arrives at the scene a few months too late, at a point where digital effects have met and exceeded what might be possible using painstaking practical techniques. Really, though, the two films have a great deal in common. If the effects in Gravity work so well, it’s in large part due to the obsessiveness that went into lighting and wirework during principal photography: Emmanuel Lubezki’s famous light box amounts to a complicated way of addressing the basic—and excruciatingly specific—challenge of keeping the actors’ faces properly lit, a detail destined to pass unnoticed until it goes wrong. Interstellar takes much the same approach, with enormous projections used on the sound stage, rather than green screens, in order to immerse the actors in the effects in real time. In other words, both films end up converging on similar solutions from opposite directions, ultimately meeting in the same place: on the set itself. They understand that visible magic only works when grounded in invisible craft, and if the tools they use are very different, they’re united in a common goal. And the cinematic universe, thankfully, is big enough for them both.

Written by nevalalee

November 11, 2014 at 10:05 am

2 Responses

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  1. EXACTLY! Digital machinery and constructions in movies are so often uncredible. Too flimsy to hold against gravity, too many bits which clearly serve no purpose other than to look ‘cool’. Digital encourages designs which are purely there to be looked at but could never function. In 2001 the spaceships and stations looked exotic but also were largely designed to at least look like they might function. Think about how not making the assumption (a gross one, when you think about it) of the existence of artificial gravity ‘grounds’ (forgive a mild pun) the look of otherwise futuristic machinery. I’d love to see a movie that really tries to give us the future in space where living space is at a premium, everything smells like socks, there’s no gravity, and so on. Set-based shows often have a more ‘human’, scrappy look. Red Dwarf and Dark Star are low budget, but mange to look much more like lived in futures than a lot of high-budget exercises. Blade Runner, for that matter, is similar. I think so much of that movie could have been ruined by CGI.

    I think this is a great example of how constraints are a good thing, as you have so often pointed out.

    Watching stop motion animation (say Aardman’s output, or Tim Burton’s) against CGI (or cell, for that matter) animation is also interesting in this way. The shadows are real, the light is real and it overcomes some of the limitations of the medium.

    It is interesting, though not closely related to your post (sorry for this meandering comment), to look at what CGI animation has done for representation of women — unless comically large they seem uniformly impossibly slim (eg Mrs Incredible). Cell animation certainly headed that way at times, but I think it has got worse.


    November 11, 2014 at 4:48 pm

  2. It’s funny you should mention functionality, since it sounds like the ships in Interstellar were specifically designed with similar constraints in mind—every button had to have a purpose, and they drew heavily on NASA concepts and designs. Just the fact that they built real, practical sets for the spaceship interiors clearly affected their approach: you tend to take these things more seriously when every bolt has to be put in place by a human being, and when real actors are occupying those spaces on set.


    November 14, 2014 at 9:56 pm

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