Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is expected to blow away minds and box office records when it hits theaters this weekend, but some viewers might not know just how hard the science is behind the sci-fi adventure. Turns out Nolan and crew went to great lengths to get the physics right — and the results are stunning.
If the “Interstellar Spoilers” bit of the headline didn’t clue you in, this post contains mild spoilers for Interstellar. If you don’t want to know anything about Interstellar going in, you’ll want to stop reading right about — here.
Okay, now that the Puritans are gone, let’s get down to it. Interstellar hinges on the notion of – duh! – interstellar travel. Humanity’s unending lust for McDonalds and iPhones has finally exhausted Earth’s resources and it’s up to Redskins fan Matthew McConaughey and a crew of fellow explorers to save mankind and find us somewhere else to live.
Fortunately for them and us, space is a flat circle, and there’s a handy wormhole available that allows them to jump across distances that would take eons to normally traverse.
But nobody this side of Robert Anton Wilson has seen a wormhole up close, so Interstellar as a film had one particular challenge: how do you render in a visual format something that nobody has seen and that largely only exists in the byzantine equations of astrophysicists? What should Interstellar‘s wormhole look like on screen?
A tough problem, no doubt, but Interstellar‘s director, Christopher Nolan, has two things going for him. The first is that he’s got more money than several gods, thanks to the success of the most recent Batman trilogy, Inception, and just about anything else he attaches his name to.
The second is that, in approaching Interstellar, Nolan was a stickler for the science. To bring Interstellar‘s wormhole to life on screen, Nolan approached astrophysicist Kip Thorne to help him nail down the strange physics that would make interstellar travel possible. What they produced is, frankly, mind-bending.
“Chris called me and said he wanted to send a guy over to my house to talk to me about the visual effects,” Thorne told Wired. “I said, ‘Sure, send him over.'”
Thorne had previously been toying with the math that would govern how a wormhole like the one seen in Interstellar would appear on screen. He and film producer Lynda Obst had wanted for a while to get a film going that centered around the oddness of black holes and wormholes, and Steven Spielberg had once been attached to the project that eventually became Interstellar.
When Nolan signed on to the film, Thorne was already prepared with equations and theories, but there was still the matter of getting those things out of Thorne’s head and onto film. The team behind Interstellar turned to hard core number crunching in order to turn the theories into something that would appear on screen. Of course, considering that time and space don’t behave normally around a wormhole, even supercomputers had trouble realizing Interstellar‘s core concepts.
“[R]ay-tracing software makes the generally reasonable assumption that light is traveling along straight paths,” Eugénie von Tunzelmann, a CG supervisor that worked on Interstellar, told Wired. “We had to write a completely new renderer.”
The amount of data crunched to make Interstellar‘s wormhole is probably about as stunning as the visual effects that data went into producing. Some individual frames of the wormhole took up to 100 hours to render due to the mathematical weirdness of gravitational lensing.
Put plainly, the Interstellar team had to render not only the light and gravity of the wormhole, but also the way that space bent in close proximity to the wormhole. The bending of space itself would cause light to travel in strange paths, so Interstellar‘s wormhole will look decidedly different from anything casual space fans have seen depicted before.
How hard is the science that went into Interstellar? Thorne thinks that he might be able to get at least two published articles out of the process that went into making Interstellar‘s wormhole a visual reality.
“This is our observational data,” Thorne said of Interstellar‘s visuals. “That’s the way nature behaves. Period.”