Ian Hunter is in the world of special effects for more than 25 years. He is one of the co-founder of New Deal Studios. He has worked on many films such as BATMAN RETURNS, PITCH BLACK, WAR OF THE WORLDS or THE DARK KNIGHT. He just won the Oscar and BAFTA for Best Visual Effects for INTERSTELLAR.

What is your background?
I grew up in Los Angeles a son of artists. I had always been interested in working on films and literally answered a want ad in the Los Angeles Times looking for model makers, which was a skill I had having worked at an aerospace mode company. The ad was to work on the models for the movie THE ABYSS. I then moved over to Boss Films and worked there before being asked to work for Supervisor Mark Stetson.

Can you tell us more about New Deal Studios?
New Deal Studios started out as Hunter Gratzner Industries and was founded by Matthew Gratzner, Shannon Blake Gans and me. We started as a design and effects fabrication studio, but within a few years we expanded to photography and production, so therefore decided to change our name to New Deal Studios. We are a full service media production company specializing in practical effects. Also we cover digital effects, live action production. My partner recently completed 2 western features shot in Arizona, and we are currently working on several Virtual Reality shorts.

How did you got involved on this show?
We were brought on to INTERSTELLAR because of our involvement on previous Christopher Nolan films such as THE DARK KNIGHT, INCEPTION and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.

Can you tell us more about this new collaboration with director Christopher Nolan?
In our previous involvement on Christopher Nolan’s films, we would provide effects for particular scenes, such as the batmobile crashing into a garbage truck in THE DARK KNIGHT, or the opening airplane heist in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. For INTERSTELLAR, our involvement was much greater, because we were tasked with building and shooting the spaceships used throughout the film when they appear in deep space. This aspect of the film was largely realized using miniatures shot with motion control cameras on Vista Vision film cameras.

What was his approach about the models?
I believe Christopher Nolan wanted to use models for the spaceships because he feels strongly about photographing real scenes or objects as much as possible. By using models we were able to light and photograph the models and give the digital effects company Double Negative elements of the spaceships that they could then composite into CG star field backgrounds. it was a perfect blend of VFX techniques to achieve a hight quality result.

What was you role on this show?
I was the VFX supervisor for New Deal Studios and oversaw the construction and photography of the spaceship miniatures for both the motion controlled (low speed) and effects (high speed) shots.

How did you approach this project?
Doing a VFX miniature shoot is about striking a balance between building models large enough to hold up to closeup photography, but practical in size to facilitate photography. Basically I took the size of my stage and ceiling height and figured out the larges model we could build but still move it around our stage and photograph. for other shots of the ranger spaceship exploding, a larger scale model ranger and section of the large spaceship the Endurance were build and shot outdoors at night. These were shot with high speed cameras to capture the action of the explosions.

Can you describe one of your typical day?
For shoot, we would look at the previs – which is a digital animated preliminary version of an particular shot – and then program a camera move with our motion controllable camera. once we were happy that the camera move felt “real” and helped tell the story the shot was meant to tell, we would light the model and shoot it.

How did you work with the art department to design the various ships?
Nathan Crowley the production designer had to build full size versions of the Ranger and Lander spaceships, so those were designed by the art department first to get constructed. However, the Endurance spaceship exterior would only be seen as a VFX – either asa miniature or a digital version, so its design was postponed to later in the production. When we started on the show the art department asked us to develop the details that went on the endurance, since we were to build the miniature version.

What were the main references and indications for the ships?
Chris and Nathan felt very strongly that the spaceships should feel realistic, like something NASA had as common “hardware”, the way the space shuttle or International Space Station feel familiar because we’ve seen them enough times. So even though the ships were futuristic, they had a lot of design and detail cues taken from the Space Shuttle, the Saturn/Apollo rockers, and the International Space Station.

Can you explain in details about their creation?
We started with 3D digital models of all the ships. We then subdivide those models into detail parts and basic overall shapes. The detail for the ship patterns were laser cut or rapid prototyped, while the overall shapes were CNC cut in rigid foam. All of these parts were assembled and molded to make lightweight duplicates for shooting in epoxy fiberglass.

How did you handle the textures aspect?
We used texture references from the space shuttles, heat tiles, skin quilt patterns, and insulating blankets from the International Space Station. these we recreated as laser cut, CNC cut or rapid prototyped patterns and applied to the spaceship masters before thy were molded.

What was the most complicated spaceship to create?
The Endurance spaceship was the most complicated to create because of its unusual shape. Chris wanted it to feel definitely space bound and not capable of atmospheric re-entry or planet landing, so it was actually quite spindly. We ended up making a steel interior frame and cladding it in sentra and cast resin shells for the spaceship. the steel frame could be attached to a rotating model mover so we could get moving shadows across the surface of the spaceship miniature as we photographed it.

How did you manage the various scales for the ships?
The motion control spaceships were 1:15 scale, which was dictated by the largest conventional scale we could build the model and still have them fit and be photographed on our stage. the high speed pyro models were enlarged to 1:5 scale so that the breakup of the pieces and scale of the pyro would hold up.

Can you tell us more about the lighting challenges?
Lighting for deep space means putting a single big key light as far away as possible to get strong directional shadows on the miniature. One great enhancer and time saver we did on the show was to shoot the key, fill, and practical lights for the spaceships all together in one pass, which baked in the lighting for the element we deliver to digital effects.

How did you collaborates with VFX Supervisor Paul Franklin?
This is our 5th or so time we worked with Paul Franklin on a show. After we started shooting the previs we were provided, Christopher Nolan asked us to only use the previs as a guide for shooting but to take advantage of having the real miniature on hand, and pick better angles if they were more dynamic and told the “story” of the shot in a better way. Working with Paul, our DP Tim Angulo and camera operator Josh Cushner were able to find spectacular angles on the ships and speed up the shooting process.

Can you tell us more about the explosions and pyrotechnics?
For the ill fated botched docking of a ranger spaceship to the endurance, we built a larger 1:5 scale version of the ranger and 1/4 of the endurance also in 1:5 scale. these were hung upside down outside and loaded with pyro and air cannons. Our pyrotrechnician Ritchie Helmer tested way to destroy the spaceship but have the pyro flame go our quickly, since without an oxygen atmosphere there would not be a large gaseous flame. S owe use quick burning butane, plus primer cord to break apart the model, and then air cannons to spread out the debris without adding in more flame.

Does the IMAX format affects your work?
We have shot miniatures before for Christopher Nolan’s movies, which involve dropping our shots into IMAX portions of the film. We shoot our models with vista vision cameras, which are larger format 35 mm camera – 8 perfs sideway vs. 4 perf vertically – which creates a much larger negative for compositing our elements into the IMAX footage.

What do you keep from this experience?
This was by far the most extensive work we had done on any of Christopher Nolan’s movies, and was extremely rewarding. Evidently others thought our work was good, as we were nominated with the other members of the VFX team (Paul Franklin, Andy Lockley, Scott Fisher) for both the BAFTA and Academy Award for visual effects. (NDA: They won both awards!)

How long have you worked on this show?
We started on INTERSTELLAR I believe in June of 2013 and finished February 2014.

What was the size of your team?
With build and shooting going at once we were probably looking at a crew of 50-60.

What is your next project?
We are currently finishing up a virtual reality project called KAIJU FURY!, which involves giant monsters attacking a city at night.

What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
It is hard to narrow down to four the movies that gave me my influence for cinema. Certainly watching Ray Harryhausen movies influenced me, but so did the work of Albert Whitlock, whose VFX work goes by mostly unnoticed and invisible. Certainly STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND showed me the potential of visual effects to contribute so much to the story telling of a film. and 2001 and BLADE RUNNER showed me how VFX could be executed to be almost stand alone works of art. And I still get a kick out of George Pal’s WAR OF THE WORLDS.

A big thanks for your time.


New Deal Studios: Dedicated page about INTERSTELLAR on New Deal Studios website.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2015


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