Q&A with Paul Franklin,'Interstellar' visual effects expert
Having won two Oscars for his work in the visual effects field, Paul Franklin served as the visual effects supervisor on Interstellar (2014). Franklin studied at St John's College, Oxford University and is one of the founders of Double Negative Visual Effects.
Collaborating with Kip Thorne, Franklin helped developed new software to visualize the realistic black hole and wormhole featured in the film. Franklin has collaborated with Interstellar’s director, Christopher Nolan, on numerous films including the Batman trilogy and Inception (2010).
Franklin led the visual effects in the collaborative effort with Thorne in The Warped Side of the Universe, a multimedia performance delving into the astronomical phenomena in Interstellar, set to the compositions of Hans Zimmer.
Central Florida Future: Having collaborated with Christopher Nolan on several projects beforehand, what did you and Chris draw inspiration from for the look and feel for the visuals in Interstellar?
Franklin: Two main things, first off the key thing with Chris is that he always wants to put reality in front of the camera, even if we’re telling an extraordinary story like Interstellar or Inception. We’ll go to real places and real buildings and build sets and have amazing physical effects and then later add in the digital effects, which is what I do in post-production.
Chris wanted to tell this extraordinary story in an exploration of the universe but he wanted to ground it in this observed reality that is recognizable to the audience. So, all of the Earth based scenes are set in a recognizable version of the American heartland. But in terms of the space imagery, especially concerning the black hole and the wormhole, we were very keen to ground all the space flight material in the language of the NASA archives, so we spent a lot of time looking at the IMAX films shot over the last 20 or 30 years.
They took an IMAX camera up to the international space station, which they had to bring it back since it’s quite expensive. We were very keen to make it photographically realistic. There’s a tendency in science fiction films to sort of dress things up and makes things spectacular and amazing. But for me, any shot taken in space is spectacular and wonderful just because of the place that it was taken in. […]
We also wanted the spacecraft to feel real, quite old and used. So, instead of using computer graphics we built physical models much like what they did with the original Star Wars and Star Trek films back in the 70’s, with very substantial miniatures of the models. […]We didn’t want to just go into fantasy ideas of what these things looked like, but the visualization of these things usually tend to based off of the misconception or misinterpretation of scientific imagery. Kip was very keen that we should represent these things in an accurate way, and he was able to give us the mathematics behind the black hole and fabric of space-time. Kip and our chief scientist, Oliver James, were able to develop a new software to calculate the warping of light beams in the mass of the black hole; and that pretty much dictates what it looks like in the film.
What you’re looking at is Einstein’s equations of general relativity. When I first saw the initial images, I thought this was kind of cool, we saw the gravitational lens warping the belt of gas that orbits the black hole, the accretion disk. […] The great thing about when we get inside the black hole is that we really don’t know what it looks like. It’s very unstable and it hasn’t been adequately explored, so we were able to do whatever we wanted, so long as we didn’t put the devil and his pitchfork down there; and we had some great fun imagining our journey into the black hole. So, the visualization of that is much more interpretive, but it’s still grounded in physics. It was an absolute dream to be given that kind of visual challenge. A year of visual development is what you see on film.
Future: Working with such a big team, how did you coordinate with Kip Thorne to bring the black hole and the wormhole to life?
Franklin: Kip was incredibly generous with his time. Typically the role of the scientific advisor on the film is to do some research, turn in their notes, and then when the filmmaker runs into narrative problems, that’s when usually the notes and research go in the bin and everyone forgets about it. As it can be seen with other films that there’s barely any science left. The difference here, with Kip, who was also an executive producer on the film, he worked with us all the way through production. Especially when we developed the proper software, he was constantly in communication with Oliver James and the R&D team, several times a day for almost a year. They had very high-level discussions of how the gravity affects the space around it and the mathematics behind it. It was brilliant to see this developing between Kip and the guys, and we all bounced ideas back and forth. Then he would test these things to prove that they would work. He continued to work on a series of scientific papers about what we discovered with the black hole, which was published in the Institute of Physics Journal of Classical Quantum Gravity.
Future: What are your thoughts on the future of realistic science being portrayed in science fiction films?
Franklin: Well what I think is really interesting is that in recent years, we’ve seen several films that were much more grounded in the science behind it, with these films of course taking liberties with what it’s actually like in space. I think this shows a new kind of genre of being established, which is the realistic space movie, and of course, there are limitations. Certainly in Hollywood, you can now see it becoming its own genre, and that audiences want these well-told stories set in these worlds, and it think that bodes well where we’re actually paying more attention to the reality of the physics and the science behind it. For me, that’s where the most exiting stories actually are. The reality of the universe is so extraordinary and outrageous, as shown to us by science, that you don’t need to dress it up. That’s what we did with Interstellar. We try to show you the real nature of something like a black hole and it is absolutely astonishing, and it doesn’t need to be dressed up because it's extraordinary in its own right, and hopefully we see more films like that.
Daniel Ceruti is contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.