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The Sounds and Visuals of Interstellar

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Both the sound design and visual effects of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar are masterpieces that few films, if any, have ever matched. Though the science fiction epic directed by Christopher Nolan is mostly focused on Matthew McConaughey’s journey through a solar system on the other side of a wormhole, the sounds and looks of the journey are just as important as the journey itself. However, what ultimately separates the sound design of Interstellar apart from other films is the unique methods in which the sounds for the film were created and implemented. While the visual effects of the film were created with the intent of being very pleasing to the human eye, while also maintaining a high degree of scientific accuracy. Finally, both of these aspects are greatly enhanced in the presence of each other, creating an experience unlike any other. 

Beginning with the film’s score, the soundtrack for Interstellar was created by Hans Zimmer, who also created the score for Christopher Nolan’s ​Batman ​trilogy and ​Inception​. When Nolan tasked Zimmer with creating the film’s score, Nolan did not give the composer a script of the film or even provide him with any details of its plot. Instead, Zimmer was given a single piece of paper, with a page-long story about a father leaving his child for work. After being given a day to create the score, Zimmer had created what would ultimately become the film’s soundtrack, and Nolan was very happy with the result, stating that he believed “​that Hans’ score for ‘Interstellar’ has the tightest bond between music and image that we’ve yet achieved.”​ ​

To create the soundtrack, Zimmer decided that a 1926 four-manual Harrison & Harrison Organ would be the best instrument to create the soundtrack, due to “its significance to science” (Kilkenny 2014). Ultimately, Nolan and Zimmer conducted forty-five scoring session to create Interstellar’s soundtrack, three times the number of sessions conducted to create the soundtrack for ​Inception​. During these sessions, “old habits were abandoned” and “new sounds were sought” in the effort to create the soundtrack for the film. When they had finished, Nolan gave Zimmer a watch, upon the back of which the words “This is not the time for caution”, a phrase would make it both into the film and its soundtrack. This adventurous and highly-ambitious spirit would be perfectly captured in the soundtrack along with its effective utilization within the film. 

Within the film itself, the soundtrack would be utilized to perfectly convey the tone, hidden meanings, and bring a phenomenal experience to the audience, while also being enhanced itself through the use of the film’s amazing visuals. Throughout the film, the volume of the soundtrack heavily varied from being very subtle, to deafeningly loud to the point that it would smother all other sound. There were moments in the film in which the soundtrack becomes so emphasized over all other audio, that the dialogue of characters would sometimes become very difficult to hear over the music. Naturally, during the movie’s screening in theaters, some audiences believed that these occurrences were due to faulty equipment on the part of the theaters, but, as Interstellar sound designer, Richard King stated, this was intentional because “the movie is more concerned with conveying a broader emotional tone” and “we mixed this in a Kennedy 3 way that people aren’t used to” (Kastrenakes 2014). One theater, the Cinemark Tinseltown USA and Imax in Rochester, New York, even put up signs that read “Please note that all of our sound equipment is functioning properly. Christopher Nolan mixed the soundtrack with an emphasis on the music. This is how it is intended to sound.” so that members of the audience would stop complaining about faulty audio equipment that was functioning properly. 

The diegetic sound in Interstellar, unfortunately, does not branch out into new and unexplored territories like the soundtrack, with one notable exception. Unlike most other science fiction films that take place within outer space, any shots that take place within space are deathly-silent and completely devoid of sound, as the experience of venturing into outer space would be in real life. Individually, these shots only last for a couple of seconds each and only take up about seven minutes of the film’s two hour and forty-nine-minute runtime, but their impact is very significant. Their inclusion may seem counterintuitive to the purpose of enhancing the film’s sound design at first, as the lack of sound in these scenes would seemingly force the viewer to focus on the visual aspects of the film. However, it does the exact opposite, as the attention to detail on the audio of a couple of seemingly insignificant shots demonstrates just how much the film cares about the authenticity and quality of its sound design. 

Regardless of the quality of the film’s sound design, it is only half of the masterpiece that is Interstellar. The other half is the film’s visual effects, which, just like the soundtrack, explores new and exciting territories to create an amazing experience unlike any other. The film’s visual effects consisted mostly of five major examples: the ​Endurance​, the wormhole, the two planets that are visited in the film, the black hole, and the tesseract. 

The first major example of the great visuals of the film is the spacecraft that the characters of the film used to travel through space, known as ​Endurance​. Many simply assumed that the circular spacecraft and its several shuttles and landers were simply detailed, three-dimensional models, due to the ubiquity of CGI in just about every aspect of modern movies. However, this was not the case, as the spacecraft was a 1/15 scale “miniature” model, a technique that was very common in science fiction classics throughout the 1990s. However, the model was not small, as it was at least twenty-five feet in diameter, compared to the miniature of Star Trek​’s ​Enterprise​, which was only eight feet long. Models were chosen over digital effects because, as the film’s visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin stated ‘We went with miniatures because we were keen to get a sense of tactile reality,’ he said. ‘Also, by using cameras, you get the proper relationships between exposure, shadows [and] the way light moves across an object when shadows cross it… this results in an inherent reality, which we thought was very important.’ This goal was perfectly executed, as ​Endurance​ has a degree of realism and intricacy that has rarely, if ever, been seen in another film, especially in regards to its lighting. 

Another example of practical effects within Interstellar were the two robots within the film, CASE and TARS. Despite them being a far cry from what modern audiences have come to expect from intelligent machines, both of these robots were physical props, which were controlled by puppeteers. The only exception to this was the scene where CASE saved Anne Hathaway’s character from a skyscraper-sized wave, in which CGI was used to render CASE within the several shots of the sequence. The splashing effects that CASE created when spinning through the water were created through the use of a “digitally modified quad bike”. 

The second real example of the film’s stunning visual effects was the wormhole that transported ​Endurance​ to the other solar system, where the majority of the film’s significant events take place. However, the act of creating a wormhole was a challenge, as they were only theoretical, and had never been observed by humans. Christopher Nolan wanted the film to be as realistic as possible, and so he brought in theoretical physicist Kip Thorne to create the wormhole. Kip Thorne, who was “intrigued by the idea of studying wormholes visually”, worked with a special effects team at Double Negative in London, and gave the team equations for how light would behave with a wormhole, which Double Negative then used to create a computer model to simulate these equations. The team experimented with wormholes of different shapes and sizes, such as “ones with long thin throats or much shorter ones and so on.” however, the team eventually decided to use the model of a “longer wormhole”, as Nolan wanted the wormhole to be visually interesting, and make the audience feel as though they were traveling through a tunnel through the universe. 

Then, there were the planets that the crew of ​Endurance ​travel to throughout the film. The first of these planets, which was referred to as Miller’s planet, was a water world with terrifying, skyscraper-dwarfing tidal waves. The scenes that took place on the planet were shot in Iceland, while the waves were digitally created through weeks of animation by people that normally animated digital creatures (Hawkes 2014). Then there was Mann’s planet, a beautiful yet inhospitable ice planet, which was again shot in Iceland, on a glacier that was only a few miles away from where the scenes of Miller’s planet had been shot. However, as there were volcanic mountains in the background of the footage, the effects team “erased the mountains, and extended the background digitally, using paintings and 3D models based on the glacier itself”, which resulted in a never-ending icescape that is seen during the planet’s exploration. 

After the journey to Miller’s and Mann’s planets, the film continued its visual tour to the black hole that is referred to as Gargantua, which was also created through the combined efforts of Kip Thorne and Double Negative. Unlike wormholes, black holes are objects that humans have observed before, though the act of simulating one with visual effects was not an easy task. Kip Thorne and the effects team first attempted to create the black hole by utilizing similar methods that they used to create the wormhole but found that its fundamental properties required completely different physics equations. After several demos with equations provided by Thorne, CG supervisor Von Tunzelman had created a dark sphere in which the boundaries were defined by a glowing accretion disk. When the effects team began rendering their result, what they had created was so complex that some individual frames of the black hole required up to one hundred hours to render, and over eight hundred terabytes of data were used to create what is now known as the most accurate depiction of a black hole ever created (Rogers 2015). 

Finally, there was the tesseract within Gargantua, which was by far the most difficult task the effects team had to fulfill. To create the tesseract, Double Negative used a technique known as slit-scan photography, in which “Those photos record one point in space across many moments in time, where a typical photo is a moment in time across many points in space” (Sandwell 2015). To create the tesseract, Double Negative “had to model every object in the room and their timeline extrusions, which were sent to the art department. The production designer then built a physical set onto which the 3D models of the timelines were pasted. Later, digitally in post, the timelines were extended into infinity”. The resulting set contained a full recreation of the bedroom and used front projection to allow Matthew McConaughey to see what his character would see. Finally, McConaughey was separated from the background of some scenes, with the background being replaced digitally and allowing for what Paul Franklin described as “a photo-realistic representation of what is the most abstract concept I’ve ever had to deal with”.

In conclusion, Interstellar is a masterpiece that is created through the phenomenal blending of a beautiful soundtrack and unrivaled visual effects. While both of these aspects are masterpieces on their own, they are both complemented perfectly by each other in a way that no other film has ever achieved. This complementation allows the movie to evolve into an experience that is unlike that of any other modern film. Finally, the two components demonstrate Christopher Nolan’s unparalleled passion for film making and Hans Zimmer’s unrivaled skill in the creation of music. 

Works Cited

  • Hawkes, Rebecca. “Interstellar: behind the VFX.” ​The Telegraph​, Telegraph Media Group, 5 Dec. 2014, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/film-news/11274246/Interstellar-behind-the-VFX.html.
  • Jensen, Jeff. “Inside ‘Interstellar,’ Christopher Nolan’s Emotional Space Odyssey.” EW.com​, 16 Oct. 2014, https://ew.com/article/2014/10/16/interstellar-christopher-nolan-anne-hathaway/.
  • Kastrenakes, Jacob. “’Interstellar’ Doesn’t Have Sound Problems – Christopher Nolan Wanted It That Way.” ​The Verge​, The Verge, 17 Nov. 2014, https://www.theverge.com/2014/11/17/7234689/interstellar-sound-problems-addressed-by-christ opher-nolan-sound-designer. 
  • Kilkenny, Katie. “Why Interstellar’s Organ Needs to Be So Loud.” ​The Atlantic​, Atlantic Media Company, 11 Nov. 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/11/why-interstellars-organ-needs-to-be- so-loud/382619/. 
  • Lubin, Gus. “The Story Of How Hans Zimmer Wrote The ‘Interstellar’ Theme Will Give You Chills.” ​Business Insider​, Business Insider, 5 Nov. 2014, https://www.businessinsider.com/how-hans-zimmer-wrote-the-interstellar-theme-2014-11.
  • McClintock, Pamela. “Movie Theater on ‘Interstellar’ Sound Complaints: Take It Up With Christopher Nolan.” ​The Hollywood Reporter​, 14 Nov. 2014, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/movie-theater-blames-christopher-nolan-748866.
  • Pyle, Rod. “’Interstellar’ Visions: Space Epic’s Amazing Special Effects Explained.” Space.com​, Space, 23 Dec. 2014, https://www.space.com/28090-interstellar-movie-special-effects-paul-franklin.html.
  • Rogers, Adam. “WRINKLES IN SPACETIME: The Warped Astrophysics of Interstellar.” ​Wired​, Conde Nast, 7 Jan. 2015, https://www.wired.com/2014/10/astrophysics-interstellar-black-hole/.
  • Sandwell, Ian. “The VFX of Interstellar.” ​Screen Daily​, 23 Jan. 2015, https://www.screendaily.com/awards/the-vfx-of-interstellar/5082127.
  • The Physics arXiv Blog. “Why Hollywood Had To Fudge The Relativity-Based Wormhole Scenes in Interstellar.” ​Medium​, The Physics ArXiv Blog, 20 Feb. 2015, https://medium.com/the-physics-arxiv-blog/how-hollywood-used-general-relativity-to-create-the -wormhole-scenes-in-interstellar-be92be79501f. 

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