"Interstellar has opened up doors to a new life": Interview with a 2D sequence supervisor at Double Negative


Interstellar was released back in 2014, but the film’s breathtaking world set in space, created by Double Negative (the studio won an Oscar for its visual effects in the movie), continues to capture hearts. RENDERU.COM interviewed Raphael Hamm, a 2D sequence supervisor at Double Negative, who worked on the film. We wanted to hear about his experience of collaborating with renowned director Christopher Nolan, and to discover how Double Negative successfully visualised space phenomena when nobody really knows what they look like in reality. In order to find out, RENDERU.COM met Raphael in Double Negative’s London office.

RENDERU.COM: Tell us about yourself. Why did you choose a career in VFX?

Raphael Hamm: In 1985 I saw a movie, The Never Ending Story, which I found totally mind-blowing. A lot of my friends are in this industry because of Star Wars; my movie was The Never Ending Story. The film was shot in Germany, so there was a lot of TV coverage about the story, and about behind the scenes. I found it very interesting seeing how they had made this turtle the size of a mountain, the fast running snail, and the flying dragon. From that point on, I was really interested. I couldn’t put a name to it, but I knew that it was something that I wanted to do. When I was in school I really liked the school theatre club, and I was involved in stage designing. After school I realised that I wanted to do this, and somehow I found a way into the industry.

At Double Negative I worked on Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Terminator: Genisys, and currently I’m working on the next film by Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), which is a movie about the Second World War.

RENDERU.COM: How many people were involved in the production of Interstellar, and what was the atmosphere in the studio like?

R.H.: Around 450 people. We delivered over 700 shots. I personally worked on the project for about 9 months. Everyone was very excited, and it was also exciting for me, as it was the first time that I’d worked as a sequence supervisor. I always felt: “Oh God, it’s such an important movie for the company, and with such a major Hollywood director. This is your first show. Don’t mess it up!” There was a lot of tension on my part to make it right. Christopher Nolan has a very strong vision and great ideas, so everyone in the company wanted to work with him. It was an honour to be selected to work on the movie – and there were high hopes! It was always Nolan’s vision that he wanted to create a new 2001: A Space Odyssey, so that film was more or less the guideline. Also, working with Nolan is always very secretive; you don’t really get a feeling for the movie. Usually you can get quite a good idea about what are you working on, whereas with Nolan it’s always a puzzle. You are receiving a cut but it’s not always necessarily the cut: there are parts missing. You are looking at it and you are wondering: “Is this really the movie I’m working on?” Because of that, sometimes it was hard to guide a crew.

Another thing: nowadays every shot is digital, but Nolan still prefers film. Interstellar – 70% of the shots – was shot in 5.6K IMAX with very high resolution. Sometimes it’s really annoying and complicated to work with, as everything is slow and you can see every hair. Even when it might be easier to create a large patch to cover a problematic area, with Nolan you have to use it only if it is really needed, so this was kind of unusual.


© Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Paramount Pictures Corporation

RENDERU.COM: Christopher Nolan often uses miniatures. Could you tell us how these were employed in Interstellar?

R.H.: We had three main space vehicles: Endurance (a circular space station), Glider, and Ranger. They were all built to different miniature scales, and there were a few shots when all miniatures had to interact with each other, so it was all quite complicated.

In Interstellar I looked after the escape sequence, when Dr. Mann is escaping from the ice planet, it turns into a disaster, and his spaceship explodes. It was the first time that I’d had to work with miniatures. It was very unusual. These days, filmmakers prefer to work with CG and not to invest time and money into miniatures, but I think it’s still worth it.

At Double Negative we created previs animation with CG versions, and then once they were approved, we started working with motion control and miniatures. We were doing a lot of lens conversions, as some frames were shot in Vista Vision and others were shot in IMAX. Our Maya camera was then translated into motion control cameras that were matching the set, so that they could fit our camera data into our camera system, and shoot exactly the miniature that we needed. It (more or less) worked perfectly. Obviously with motion control there are always slight differences, but that’s nothing unusual – you expect this. There was nothing really surprising, and everything was really well organised… This is also something quite unusual nowadays. With Nolan, everything was well planned from the beginning. He really knew what he wanted, and could really push hard to get it

RENDERU.COM: When speaking of the computer graphics in Interstellar, people are mostly referring to black holes, wormholes, and other space phenomena. Could you tell us more about how you created these?

R.H.: The main idea behind Interstellar comes from a screenplay by Kip Thorne, who is a physicist, and he wanted to create a Sci-Fi movie that is based on science. He has very specific ideas of what a wormhole for time travelling should look like. Based on this, we first created a special render that we could fit into our scene, and then used this for all the wide shots. The part where we are flying through the wormhole (and it looks a little bit like a space warp in Star Trek) was largely done in Nuke, and it was distorted in a special way, so that you have nice volume when you are flying through. Compared to other shows, the work was relatively straightforward and fast – which was cool.

Mr. Nolan spent a week with us – really working with the artists. Everyone was scared in the beginning: “Oh, Mr. Nolan is in the house!” but towards the end he was really cool. He would sit in the production office drinking his Earl Grey tea, and then he would say, “Oh, I think I need to check what Steven is doing” – he would go and look over the shoulder of an artist. He has a good understanding of what is possible in visual effects. Over the five days he learned a lot, and in the end he really understood how we worked: how techniques were used – and he came up with ideas. It was really funny to have him around.

RENDERU.COM: Did he look over your shoulder?

R.H.: Briefly. We showed our work daily. While he was around we had 3-4 sessions per day. My sequences were quite straightforward; there wasn’t crazy look development needed, so I didn’t have that much to do with him while he was here.

RENDERU.COM: Can you tell us how you created Miller (the planet covered with oceans and huge waves)?

R.H.: This was a tricky task: to create a wave which is that high, but still looks like a wave, with all the water details. If you do it 100% photoreal, then it looks too solid, but if you’re adding too much detail, then suddenly it looks miniature and artificial. Mr. Nolan is not a fan of computer graphics, so selling him computer-generated water was tricky. In the end he was happy – it was computer-generated water but nicely simulated. Then in compositing we also mapped extra detail with UV pass. Every time that we had the feeling that it looked a little bit too dead, we could bring in or out more water detail in compositing. We used Squirt Ocean: a fluid simulation tool developed by Double Negative. It’s 10 years old – or older. We developed it when there weren’t many water simulation tools on the market. I am sure that today Squirt would be the first choice for us.

RENDERU.COM: Do you often use the tools developed within the studio?

R.H.: We are mainly using the standard software: Houdini, Maya, and Nuke. However, if you are coming new to DNeg, sometimes it’s hard to recognize that this is Maya (for example). There are so many in-house software systems built in. We have quite a complex pipeline with a lot of in-house customisation tools that help us to do the everyday work. We modified Nuke quite a lot to make it easier for everyone to use. We automatised as many simple tasks as we could. It’s much easier for a crew of 200-500 people to run a show, so everyone knows where to find files. In a company like Double Negative, everything needs to be quite streamlined. It saves time, and you can also train people easier, because you don’t have to start from scratch and tell them everything.


© Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Paramount Pictures Corporation

RENDERU.COM: Which references did you use for Interstellar?

R.H.: It’s always good to start with concept arts, especially for complex and abstract stuff like wormholes or tesseracts (when even trying to paint them is not easy). There is an old painting, The Great Day of His Wrath by John Martin, which inspired us. As we had to build planets, we had a lot of NASA photos of Jupiter moons, and Saturn. With the Internet, you have unlimited access to photos, but there is always a problem as to whether they are real or not. We had access to NASA photography, so we were quite sure this was untouched footage. The idea was that the movie should look like a NASA documentary, so we looked at actual footage from NASA cameras.

A year before Interstellar was released, the film Gravity came out, which acted as our reference, but it was clear that Interstellar would look completely different. Gravity is a very beautiful and stylised movie, but the camera there interacts with the scene, while our camera was always a witness camera. Moreover, in Gravity the exposition is more or less perfect, so the spaceship ISS is perfectly lit, and there are lots of details in the background. Although, in fact if you were to film in space, and you exposed a spaceship, the rest would blow out so you wouldn’t actually see so much detail; you wouldn’t see nice little lights, like in Gravity. Nolan wanted to make it photoreal, even if it meant that it wouldn’t look so pretty, because often reality isn’t pretty. Lots of movies are stylised, but Nolan sometimes really enjoyed the grubbiness of reality.

For the rocket launch, we looked at actual footage: how the flame comes out, how the turbines look, how a camera behaves, what kind of shake it has etc.


The Great Day of His Wrath by John Martin


© Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Paramount Pictures Corporation

RENDERU.COM: Nolan wanted everything to be physically correct. Did you have any shots where you had to break the rules in order to ensure that the effects worked?

R.H.: I can't really think of a shot where we had to cheat massively. Maybe in some shots when the planet goes through the space station, we would move a dissecting line a little bit to the left or to the right, but there was nothing really where I would say that we broke the rules of physics completely. It was just little cosmetic adjustments.

RENDERU.COM: Do you look into the night’s sky with different eyes now?

R.H.: Not really, but I started using an app, which shows you the names of constellations. I can’t say that it changed my enthusiasm about space completely, but what I really like about my job is that with every project you get a chance to discover a new world. Now it’s the world of the Second World War in Dunkirk, before it was San Francisco in Terminator: Genisys – and of course, you then see San Francisco with totally different eyes. For Interstellar we had to think about a lot of things; there are different types of rockets, and they work differently, they have different types of flames etc.


© Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Paramount Pictures Corporation

RENDERU.COM: How has the project changed you personally?

R.H.: It was my first job as a supervisor. Towards the end of the project, I had the confidence that I could run a show like this. In the beginning I wasn’t sure that I would be confident enough to handle a crew of 25 artists. You are learning a lot while working with such a high level of detail, it is such a good training for your eye to spot a problem on a technical level.

And also Interstellar opened up for me the opportunity to give talks and interviews. I was nominated for the Visual Effects Society Award, and Paramount invited a few of us (including me) to Los Angeles for a few days to take part in the ceremony. It felt like we had worked on something really big. A few years ago it was too scary for me to give speeches, but now I kind of enjoy joining these events and sharing my knowledge. I go to film schools to help students, and I really like it. Twenty years ago when I was in a film school myself, there were people from the film industry coming and helping me, so in a way, I am now happy to be in a position where I can pay that back. It all happened because of Interstellar, it opened the door to changes for me.