Interstellar was a tantalisingly philosophical and exuberant mind-bender. As we follow Cooper and Murphy through their separate arcs the swelling soundtrack and incredible visuals morph into one and are struck by the potency of dramatic forces such as ageing and the Great Unknown. We watch on as Cooper struggles to the finish line stricken with self-doubt and the inhospitably harsh space. Not only this but we marvel at the ties which link reality are stretched yet strengthened. Nolan and Hoyte Van Hoytema have articulated a unique visual language based in scientific knowledge and the stark contrast between the live in, populated feel of Earth and the spacecraft alongside the starkness of undiscovered space and land. This essay will focus on the why of each technical approach as in how it was decided what visual techniques were to be used. Hoytema is well known for working on projects such as Her, The Fighter and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Therefore one might draw the conclusion that he is an immersive DP who communicates heavily with the Production Designer and Director to evolve a visual style appropriate to the film at hand. Although not extravagant Hoytema has shown great range in his approach to cinematography adapting a lighter more gentle and Instagram like approach to shooting her set against a more grainy and dull yet dramatic approach to Tinker.
Firstly, the film was mainly captured using the IMAX 65mm so as to create a gigantic image with enough space to fully capture scale. When filming in Iceland a very European a centre pedastool Panther dolly was used to complement this approach. For the interior scenes, especially during the Spacecraft scenes, Hoyte adopted a very handheld approach with the IMAX which requires incredible manoeuvrability and intuition which lends itself to this very interesting aesthetic he adopted. To work alongside this the set production team used inspiration from actual NASA equipment in terms of design and suits for added realism and a background technicality for added immersion. To improve the realism of the lighting in Interstellar the research team were flown to the edge of space to film the lighting conditions so that they could be mimicked on set to make it more historical. Switching gears, when filming the young Murph scenes they used the sun coming from behind framing with mobile sticks to adapt to the terrain with a steady-cam. For the interior scenes of this sequence an anamorphic 35mm camera was used so that the focus pulling and handheld work could really speak. The Syconic light metre was helpful in shooting film with a Joker Samara with DOP choice grids on it to light the scene so as to capture the lighting in a way similar to reality in it’s final product in terms of natural light.
One of the opening frames uses a visual metaphor in typical Nolan style for the entire film in the space shuttle miniature. The shelved toy represents the massive defunding in NASA’s space exploration in a barren future. This is shown by it’s dustiness and it being physically shelved. The framing by Hoyte makes it seem gentle and untouched through it’s use of space and focus. This visual poetry tells a lot in each frame. One of the first shots of the human planet Earth is framed with the horizon at the top of the frame so that there is no sky. This reflects the isolationist approach focused on Earth and it’s agriculture. This is emphasised by the greenness of the crops which have been colour corrected to look healthy and beautiful. The Richter fan blowing these crops adds life to the frame in coordination with Hoyte on a Rhyning crane with the camera tilted down. This proves that every shot has purpose and appears photographic.
The shift from IMAX to anamorphic was unnoticeable. This meant that when shooting with the BOCA in the background in the following shot the 2:1 squeeze is visible alongside the flaring son from the window to give the shot an emotional feel to it. The painterly, dream-like surrealism of the shot seems unstable gives an uncomfortable feeling. This is built on in the following shot using the shallow depth of field to give it an almost ethereal feel. The purple light and semi-desaturated blue sets up Cooper’s dream-like or other worldly state. In the following shot a very wide lens is used to give it a very beautiful halo and hume around the grandfather alongside the desaturation and haze of the rising dust alongside the atmospheric perspective. The dust is seen taking away this life in a very meaningful composition of elements in this image contrasting against the green crops used before representing the taking away of life.
The production design for the house is very Americana and romantic but also rustic as complemented by the chromatic aberration and flaring and the extreme shallow depth of field and the bowing of the lenses to setup a handheld uneasy feeling. This feeling is an undertone visually stimulated by the cinematography. The flaring is similar to Punch, Drunk Love in that it’s flaring really feels as though it hits you harshly and in such a way as that you want to block it. The shallow depth of field adopted by Hoyte reflects the vision of a person with dust in their eyes to create an aggressive image which is visually grating set aside the previous less gritty shots. The theme of home is reestablished with a steady horizon shot of the home with a strip of green agriculture surrounding it. The starkness of the scene once the family ventures out is visually indicated by Hoyte with a steady hilled horizon but no features to reference against in the space behind. Earth feels weird and trapped by the single path and corn on either side reflecting Cooper’s physical entrapment reflecting his responsibility as a farmer instead of a NASA pilot.
When the colour palettes are lifted in the drone chasing sequence we feel the space and air being let out through the vibrancy of the blue and green. This sense of freedom reflects the father’s spontaneity and how much he is teaching his kids as they chase the drone. This helps to assign value to the theme of home through it’s uplifting visual joyfulness. The home is then seen in a wide-shot with the house appearing small set aside the ominously large machines. This scale as framed by Hoyte reveals the reliance of the family on their power. As the stakes build Hoyte uses barrelled visual distortion to contrast against master-primes and master-anamorphics which do not distort as a choice to infer the gravity distortion. This is reflected in the seemingly unnatural lighting and flares. The spherical view of the bookshelves puts Cooper at it’s centre as a visual ethereal metaphor for a black hole reflecting his importance and self-destructive path.
Moving into Act Two we see the consequences of the sandstorms as people are made sick and damage infrastructure making people hide. When Murph forgets to close her window the comforting glow of the practical used by Hoyte illuminates the gravitation anomaly foreshadowing the resolution. Contrasting against the sandstorm sequence we see a separate visual metaphor in the form of the crops. The framing of this shot is sobering yet filled with dusty colours while the crops look as though they overshadow the house and are ready to take it from the family demonstrating mankind’s relationship with nature in this harsh new reality. Returning to the house we see a closeup of the gravitational anomaly pattern which at first sight appears like a very bland shot until in typical Nolan style we notice the coin off-centre in the frame placed and lit with a potent reality much like other objects used in his films. The binary rows of dirt contrast as a visual metaphor against the circular coin.
When visiting the mysterious coordinates, Murph is seen isolated in darkness, almost hidden in space and then a very bright light illuminates her face as a visual jump to mirror the sound of her scream. This adds atmosphere and pacing to this closure of the short sequence. The anamorphic lenses with dirt on the windshield shrouds her in mystery with the unknown. Hoyte gets the balance of light just right so that it is not blinding but highly illuminating.
Later when it is revealed that the corn will not survive there is an eery, sickening yellow glow engineered by Hoyte reflecting against Cooper’s sweaty skin for a tactile sense of discomfort. Then it is revealed that he must go to space to save Earth and his body language reveals that he does not want to leave however a mid-shot is used to focus on Cooper looking up to the sky to reveal in a gesture his yearning for exploration. Once it is explained that a formula must be found the office lighting begins to contrast in its harshness to create a sense of foreboding and to subtly show Caine’s characters’ dishonesty set against Cooper’s more neutral colour scheme and gentle lighting with his hero eyelights.
This description covers Act One and Two but there is so much more to explore in this film’s approach to cinematography. Hoyte has demonstrated his ability to use framing, lighting and certain camera angles to create subconscious references to themes, emotions, prepositions and to determine the film’s core themes. Moreover, Hoyte has specialised in relating the atmospherics of the film as a whole as a blanket across the first two acts by using an innovative colour scheme sequence as well as his framing and camera choice techniques as described earlier. Hoyte is an extremely versatile visual artist with a deep understanding of subconscious imagery and lighting.
WRITING WITH IMAGES: THE CINEMATOGRAPHY OF ‘INTERSTELLAR’