Nathan Crowley Constructs a Beautifully Grim Future in Space for Interstellar

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DnA spoke with Nathan Crowley, the Oscar-nominated production designer about how he created the look of Interstellar.

Interstellardirected by Christopher Nolan, is the apocalyptic tale in which a former NASA pilot named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and a team of astronauts are tasked with finding a new planet to sustain humanity after crop failures have made living on Earth untenable. Their mission includes traversing a wormhole, presumably created by aliens, that would lead to other potentially habitable planets. From there the plot gets no less complex.

Production designer Nathan Crowley, who has worked on many films with Nolan in the past (including all three films in the Dark Knight Trilogy), brought his characteristic intensity to creating the planets, wormholes, black holes, tesseract (a construct inside a black hole), spaceships and other wonders featured in the film. He has been nominated for an Academy Award in Production Design for his work on the film.

Caltech physicist Kip Thorne, the film’s executive producer, was instrumental in outlining the precise mathematics behind gravity and space-time to help Crowley and his team bring scientific heft to the film’s depiction of various phenomena in space.

DnA spoke with Crowley about how he went about designing and building a black hole, how Mies van der Rohe helped inspire the design of TARS (one of the robots), and why he loves to shoot minimalist landscapes. WARNING: The Q and A includes spoilers.

DnA: What was the biggest challenge in creating the visuals in Interstellar?

Nathan Crowley, production designer of Interstellar. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

NC: There were many challenges. It was the most exciting and most challenging film I’ve ever done with Chris [Christopher Nolan]. It took the experience of all the other films I have made with Chris to be able to attempt this. Our methodology is simple­: if you can do it in camera (as opposed to post­ production), then you do it in camera; if you can shoot your exteriors on location you do it. We resort to visual effects only when necessary, and we try and get as much in camera as possible so it visually influences any post production work.

Foreground, mid-ground, background you only want one of these to be created in post production. I’d say the Tesseract was probably the trickiest but there were many design challenges, from TARS (our Robot) The Ranger, The Endurance, the Lander (our ships). The water planet, the ice planet, even to the farmhouse landscapes. These are design challenges that you want to hold together with visual themes. They need to belong to the world you are setting the story in.

DnA: Was there something about this genre that was particularly difficult?

NC: Taking on Interstellar travel with our methodology was challenging. Day one Chris said, let’s design the interior of the black hole (the Tesseract­ Murph’s room)! Which was probably the most challenging and the most collaborative. We spent an enormous amount of time trying to figure out what it should look like. From Infinity rooms to an objects’ time line moving in three directions. So that was day one, and then we ran down to the Plexiglass acrylic shore and we stood in line and bought a bunch of two way mirrors to build infinity rooms. It’s getting harder to go anywhere with Chris because he’s so well known. It’s not like the old days when we could go to The Home Depot when no one knew who he was.

We wanted to stack nine infinity rooms to form a 3×3 cube and see if we could get the room reaching out in every direction. It was a start but not the answer. We handed it over to Paul Franklin (VFX) to see what he could do with the idea whilst we went off scouting.

TARS (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: I want to talk about TARS, one of the robots featured in the film, and I read in an interview you did that its design was inspired by Mies van der Rohe.  

NC: TARS and CASE (the robots featured in the film) were very tricky design objects. Much has been done with robotic design from Humanoid looking designs to Detroit industrial design. it’s hard to find an original direction. Chris had been sketching an object that moved as a series of sticks and we had got our illustrator Romek to play with some more industrial ideas. Nothing was really working. One afternoon Chris, who knows I love Mies van der Rohe, said to me “Well, okay, let me put it in your terms; What if Mies van der Rohe designed a robot what would it look like?” And I thought it would be a block of bronzed anodized steel, and so that became our starting point. We took Chris’s three leg idea changed it to four legs, Added a vertical three pin idea for flexibility to allow movement in various ways depending on how you toggle the pins. We added an equal subdivision of the shape to allow the pin idea to work at at any scale allowing Tars to in effect have fingers. Tars became a beautifully simple, mathematical object. We did worry that maybe cinematically it was too simple. A full size model changed our feeling on this subject.


DnA: How did you make a black hole from scratch without using any CGI? And how did you make the wormhole without any CGI?

NC: The wormhole is completely CGI but the Tesseract ( interior Black hole construct) was a mix of Large scale set construction and CG extension. The Tesseract is Murphy’s bedroom (Cooper’s daughter) moving across time in multiple directions. The challenge was figuring out how to visualize and build this practically so that we could film an actor floating within a real space, allowing VFX to extend the space with the reference of real architecture.

the tesseract (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

It was to all be based on Murph’s original bedroom. This room would have its furniture move in time on the x,y,and z axis in effect the furniture would stretch from one room to the next every 60 feet and re­form as another room at another point in time. We ended up building a quite considerable set; it was a 90 feet long 60 feet wide and 45 feet high, based on a nine room cube with VFX extensions beyond. This meant building floating rooms with books and furniture stretching off to other rooms on three axis.These furniture and architectural extrusions of the room were sculpted and painted and then hung from cables on the sound stage. Paul Franklin (VFX) would scan an element of the room and then stretch the furniture in the timeline in three directions and give me the color palette for each stretch.

And then we’d sculpt it, and in some cases we’d paint it, in some cases we’d print that stretch and wallpaper that extrusion onto the sculpt. Using up to 18 2K projectors we would project a texture onto each sculpted extrusion to give it a flowing movement on camera.Where the furniture intersected the rooms these extrusions needed to be transparent, using colored string to represent the stretch colors of the furniture we made looms of lines to represent those objects. Paul Franklin then reproduced that idea around the space digitally. It became one of my favorite sets, walking onto stage 27 at Sony was like going into a giant art installation. I doubt whether I will be building anything like that ever again.


DnA:  I thought that the role of baseball stadiums in the film was really interesting. There was a post-apocalyptic Yankees game at the beginning of the film, and then at the end you’re on a different planet and there’s a baseball game going on and it looks completely bizarre. Is that supposed to be some sort of commentary on Americana?

NC: Well, I guess it’s Americana, but it’s also supposed to represent the loss of the ability to travel great distances. The New York Yankees are just a local team. They are clinging onto the past. The baseball game at the end of the picture is in the space station. It’s a circular spinning station allowing false gravity. Viewed from the interior there’s no up or down. He awakes and hears the familiar sound of baseball– a familiar memory. He’s home but a man out of time.


DnA: One thing I thought was really visually striking were the landscapes. No matter where they were, they were very vast and minimalist. Was that intentional?

NC: I’m a minimalist, and I like scale simplicity, and I feel like an audience deserves cinematic scale breathtaking vistas. I want to be transported into the cinema screen not sit outside of it. I grew up watching David Lean films and the vast scale of his landscapes were breathtaking.

The water planet should be water as far as you can see, these are real places.We shot this in Iceland where the Glacial runoff meets the North Atlantic Ocean vast areas of water as far as you can see­ stunning huge cloud formations rolling in. We took the full size Ranger spacecraft out into the water it looked beautiful. You couldn’t imagine the reality of it. The ice planet was filmed 20 miles up from the water planet on a glacier Mann’s pod was cut into the ice of a real glacier, the Ranger was transported from the water to the Glacier; it’s no easy job working on Glaciers. Once the sets are there and the mist rolls in, it’s totally beautiful yet eerie. And that’s why we go to these places, you can’t capture that feeling unless you’re there you get the unimaginable. It was similar in Canada with the House, once we found the right landscape we built the farmhouse into the rolling vast plains of Alberta and grew all that corn. Sitting on the deck as we built the house watching the sun go down was spectacular.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

All images courtesy of Paramount Pictures/Warner Brothers.