Naturalism in Space: Inside the Cinematography of 'Interstellar'

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Christopher Nolan tapped Hoyte van Hoytema to shoot his space odyssey, Interstellar, something he tells American Cinematographer was because he “really responded to the naturalism in Hoyte’s work.”

To that end, van Hoytema took advantage of the real-life weather conditions of their shooting location in Alberta, Canada. “Whatever nature gave us, we greedily took,” he explains. “The rule of thumb was to accept the beautiful and the extreme. It was not always dramatic. It could be very gray and dull, and we wanted to capture those moments, too.”

Over a third of the film was shot in 65mm IMAX. “Your principles of framing are simpler,” the cinematographer says of the format. “The IMAX image is 1.43:1, so it’s more of a square. Because of the size, the experience is more visceral than observational, so you end up composing much more in the center of the frame. You can stay wider while getting the same effect as a close-up. I thought, ‘What if we used this extremely beautiful medium, with so much depth and clarity and size, to do more intimate things with close focus and a short depth of field?’ It’s beautiful how the IMAX lenses render faces. They’re like big-format still portraits.”

And the film’s other big locale, the spaceship, was a big consideration too. “We wanted to get away from typical ‘movie spaceship’ aesthetics,” van Hoytema explains. “A big part of our language in the ship was inspired by IMAX NASA footage. We were thinking of something more like an Amtrak train or the inside of a tank. We tried to emulate the claustrophobia by tightening our sets and making them 100-percent real — no walls could be removed. This is another reason why we customized our lenses; we never would have been able to shoot in these cramped spaces with normal anamorphic lenses.”

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