When cinema and science collide: Interstellar’s special effects team aids scientific research



WORDS by Neha Babu

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is one of the first films to use the collaboration of scientists and filmmakers in order to blur the lines between science fiction and scientific fact.

Nolan worked with renowned theoretical physicist Kip Thorne and visual effects team ‘Double Negative’ to produce ‘Gargantua’, which is described as the most “accurate depiction of a black hole ever”.

Gargantua was modelled to have a gravitational mass equivalent to one hundred million suns, rotating at approximately the speed of light.

The final product was mesmerising; streams of light, gas and other celestial bodies surrounded the elusive phenomenon in a captivating halo, scientifically known as the ‘accretion disk’.

Some alterations were made to the images for cinematic purposes because traditional ray tracing software caused flickering effects on the graphics and hindered image production. This occurs as standard ray tracing programs act on the assumption that light follows a linear path. However, as the gravitational pull of black holes are so great, light itself becomes distorted and is bent into arcs.

To combat this the special effects team designed the Double Negative Gravitational Renderer (DNGR) that, unlike customary renderers, followed the bent light beams travelling around the black hole and eliminated glints that obstruct clarity.

Chief scientist of Double Negative Oliver James commented that the Double Negative team “changed their code in a manner that has never been done before” and realised that they had created a “tool that could be easily adapted for scientific research”.

The “new approach to making images will be of great use to astrophysicists”, Kip Thorne added.

It is postulated that this groundbreaking technology will contribute heavily to the astrophysics department and may help chart real black holes in the future.

The unanimous praise for the DNGR technology is also being echoed by NASA scientists who are hoping that this program will shed light on complex bodies such as neutron stars.