‘Interstellar’, the movies, and the general creative state of play

Interstellar official trailer #3

I found time to watch a movie the other day. This is an unusual occurrence for me because it takes a huge chunk out of my day; but it was raining and I was on foot without an umbrella. Interstellar was showing, and happened to be something whose trailer did actually show promise. Plus I’m a huge Christopher Nolan fan; I have no doubt that history will look back on him as one of the greats – both for his visuals and his storytelling. This post is not so much a review as some observations and musings after three hours in a theatre seat from the point of view of a photographer…

I think I must be one of the few people who finds the pre-show ads and trailers interesting: both from a competitor benchmarking point of view (it’s useful to see what clients are paying for, plus what’s trending, and occasionally seeing some of your work on a very large medium) as well as an editing one. Trailers for upcoming movies must be cut in such a way that in the minute or two you’re watching, they have to get your attention immediately, hold it, and leave you on a cliffhanger of suspense wanting, desperately needing to see how it ends. But it’s Hollywood, and of course it always ends well after some degree of exaggerated conflict. I find the narrative structure of the trailer actually getting pretty formulaic: slow intro, fast cuts of key sequences in the plot, a slightly longer dramatic action scene that cuts to some text right as something exciting is going to happen, and then the end credits and the dreaded ‘COMING SOON IN TWO YEARS’. Few trailers seem to manage to do anything else, and though it’s a formula that usually works, it’s getting a bit tiring.

The only upcoming movie that caught my attention was Big Hero 6, partially for the humour, partially for the Mizayaki-inspired visuals, and because we’ve now reached a point in animation where the creators have managed to balance the fun, unreal aspect with little details that are real enough to be convincing. I’m going to make time to watch that one too, if not for the light relief, then out of curiosity to see what can be done when you pretty much have a blank slate and the technological horsepower to drive it.

What was slightly concerning was the advertisements. Out of seven in total, five of them were for cameras or cameraphones. Nikon, Canon, Oppo, Samsung and Sony all had spots; the latter three pushing smartphones with sole emphasis on the device’s photographic capabilities – and a whole load of impossible examples, with few exceptions, for both the cameras and camera phones. I wonder how many people would buy them and be disappointed – or the cameras, for that matter. It’s concerning for several reasons: firstly, impossible expectations have been set, which is either bad for your own business if you’ve got customers who can tell the difference, or bad for other people’s businesses if not – buyers now believe everything that comes out is gold. “Because the ad said so!” Secondly, there’s a growing disconnect between the camera market, the number of images being produced, the quality of those images, and the financial health of the camera makers: they’re all diverging.

Never have so many images been made with such mediocre content and quality, but at the same time never has there been so many capable devices in the hands of so many. Yet we’re not seeing growing camera makers – quite the opposite, actually. Something here is not right, and isn’t going to last.

Most worryingly, the societal obsession with recording everything and posting it to some sort of social media has meant that people don’t really experience life anymore; they watch it on their LCDs. And to be a good photographer, one really has to be a good observer – the capture part is something that should just be a reflex action that doesn’t require so much conscious thought. If you can’t see it, don’t notice it, then you’re going to miss it anyway. And that’s a shame, really, because life isn’t about making a selife out of it – there’s no future value to these images, because they’re not observations so much as narcissistic pleas for help. The last thing the world needs is more low-quality visual diarrhoea. There’s a reason I actually do very little family documentary these days, and what little I do almost entirely isn’t shared: firstly, it’s private; secondly, we have limited time with our loved ones. I’d rather live it in memory than obsess over capturing all of it, in conscious absentia.

But I digress. Interstellar was to me a modern classic. It fired on all cylinders for me – but then again I probably don’t have the same background as most of the audience; critics seem to think it’s too long and too boring and full of plot holes and scientific misses. Armchair scientists are right and wrong: there are some aspects of the film that cannot be incorrect simply because we don’t know for sure – what happens inside a black hole, for instance*. There are plot holes, but I didn’t notice them or was prepared to put them aside for the drama – and I doubt most viewers did either, until they were pointed out. And the length of it is because Nolan took the time to get the details right, and make them convincing: without these, it’s too easy to dismiss the whole movie as being unrealistic. And I think the length and cut conveys precisely the tedium of a very long (years) journey interspersed with periods of frantic action.

*Before somebody questions my credibility, I’m actually cosmologist by training.

Visually, the thing was a treat: it paid homage to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in many, many ways – the docking sequence and main mothership, for one, and the use of a slablike robot – but at the same time looked very, very realistic in the same way as NASA’s documentaries. And Nolan managed to do it without the tedium of Gravity, which was visually beautiful but both unrealistic and boring from a plot standpoint. What photographers will notice in particular is the subtle change in quality of light between the different environments – in space, it’s harsh and extremely directional; on earth, it has a warm, brown sort of quality – no doubt from the dust – and oddly reminiscent of a time in the past, perhaps the 60s and 70s; on foreign worlds it’s tinged with other hues that immediately signal ‘alien’ to our subconscious. My only regret was that I didn’t watch it in the IMAX format it was originally shot in – but then again maybe not, because it’s certainly something I’d want to watch again. Perhaps at home on a large 4k screen without an annoying talking couple off to the back-right and a bunch of teenagers with constantly beeping phones on my left.

Conceptually, it addressed a lot of very real situations that are facing humanity right now: food shortages, intellectual shortages, and a general abandonment of exploration and creativity in the pursuit of short sighted immediate wants and desires. There’s the reduction in exploration, humans taking our planet for granted, and the personal difficulty of feeling uncomfortable with the role society has determined is appropriate for you but deep down you know isn’t for you; it actually makes me wonder how much better the world would be if everybody had the courage to do either what they were good at or passionate about – rather than what society thinks they should do.

There’s so much easily accessible potential out there now. But there’s also very little real creativity; in cinema and otherwise. What Kubrick did in 2001 to make realistic special effects in the days before CGI required some seriously out of the box thinking; the floating pen scene is a great example. I doubt anybody would bother to take the time to find solutions like that these days; just CG it, or in the case of stills, photoshop and composite it. It’s truly refreshing when something different comes along. And that’s sad, and one of the reasons I insist on doing things in one shot: it’s not stubbornness or inability or unwilling to do the postproduction, it’s the simple fact that if we succumb to the laziness, we stop thinking. And if we stop thinking, we stop imagining, and that’s the end of creativity. MT


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  1. ernie marton says:

    After all the comments, it isn’t any easier to decide whether to see interstellar or not. MM – bummer, Nolan – usually powerful, intense and entertaining. Hollywood moralising and excessive helpings of bleedin’ obvious – bummer. I haven’t been able to get past more than ten minutes of any batman movie till a couple of Chris Nolan’s, and the suspension of disbelief was enough to make them entertaining. Maybe one can get past MM and the mushy stuff to make it worthwhile, especially if the space stuff is more 2001 than Star Wars. Having said that, I’m not sure I should have re watched 2001 recently.

  2. Dear Ming,

    I thoroughly enjoy your website since long. I read it regularly being on my short reading list. Thank you so much for your inspiration. I love this essay and I agree.

    I hope that I can make you curious to recognize a wonderful revolution going on, that if continuing, will transform this planet. I appreciate your struggle to contribute and hope if you can see this revolution, that you find more energy to continue and grow.

    I am talking about the maker revolution. It is a shift on a large scale for regular people to start creating, to share what they learned and to inspire others to create. This is transforming us in several important ways.

    For one all these creations directly make this planet a better place. But more importantly a person who became a creator also changed forever. He is more open. To people and to new ideas.

    We are at a moment were the number of creators are exponentially growing. Thanks to the internet and thanks to the maker and open source, open sharing revolution. There is this old adage that if everyone is doing good things in small ways the whole world is changing. I am part of the maker revolution and I see it happening. Big problems that could not be fixed before because large companies or government did not cared and those who cared had not enough resources are now successfully solved. With more solutions being on the way.

    I very much apologize the long post, I am running out of time to make it shorter. I invite you to find co creators in this maker revolution that you are already part of so you can enjoy creating in a team of motivated like minded spirits and can find a greater peace.

    Yours, Hubert

    • Thank you – and yes, I do see the artisans and creators making a resurgence (albeit only in developed countries). It’s encouraging – hopefully it’s the start of a new renaissance for the craftsman. We fundamentally crave imagination, but most don’t realise it!

      • Thank you for your reply – I love your term of renaissance for the craftsman. However, I was referring to the Maker Movement, which is a phenomenon planet wide and popular both in developed and developing countries. Crowd-funding is part part of the maker movement: https://www.indiegogo.com/ https://www.kickstarter.com/ . I thought this might be relevant to you for two reasons: a) You might find a new way of funding your art. Instead of splitting your live into commercial photography that pays the bill and art photography that inspires you, you might be able to support your life with art photography and teaching only. b) Your review of Nolan’s film showed a darkness and disappointment, quote: ” … real situations that are facing humanity right now: … intellectual shortages, and a general abandonment of exploration and creativity in the pursuit of short sighted immediate wants and desires”. I felt the exactly same thing for a long time and it was deeply frustrating me. The Maker Movement instead showed me that our whole planet is on an upswing and that I can contribute to it. This has removed my darkness for me. It might do it for you too?

  3. I am glad I see other people thinking Interstellar was not that great. In my opinion any Art that involves time works in cycles of tension and release, this is less true with painting, sculpture and photography of course but it is major in music, poetry even dance and especially movies. I am not going to drill down to much on the art of building up with style the tension and to play with it and with the release/resolution etc. you can listen to the famous Chopin’s prelude in E minor to experience a beautiful example of it.
    A lot of people expressed their frustrations on this particular movie, let me add my wife’s and mine: one of the biggest tension arc of the movie is about McConaughey struggle and pain leaving his daughter and when (SPOILER ALERT) he finally meets her at the end, he spends literally 2 min with her and run away to meet a girl?

  4. Willi Kampmann says:

    “Armchair scientists are right and wrong: there are some aspects of the film that cannot be incorrect simply because we don’t know for sure – what happens inside a black hole, for instance*.”

    If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it actually make a sound? Of course it does, physics aren’t dependent on our observation of them. If there are aspects of the film that we can’t prove yet, like what goes on in black holes, then they are speculations. Whether they are correct or not is unrelated. A claim doesn’t become “not incorrect” just because you can’t prove otherwise. I guess your point is that some Internet people claim some aspects of the movie are incorrect when really we don’t know – but saying they are not incorrect isn’t that much better in my opinion. They /can/ be incorrect.

    By the way I thought Gravity was amazing, particularly plot-wise. Also, “armchair scientists“ and that whole monologue about selfies reads extremely condescending.

    • Ask yourself two questions: how often do you see a camera phone selfie that had any photographic merit whatsoever? How often are these people just there to show off to the rest of the world they’ve been there instead of experiencing the place?

      And the result of an experiment or event IS dependent on observation: that is the core of quantum mechanics, which has been proven time and again. The electron/double slit experiment is the simplest proof of that. I actually happen to have a degree in theoretical physics, so I’m perhaps a bit less armchair than most.

      • Willi Kampmann says:

        First – there are selfies and there are selfies. Yes, a lot of people simply take pictures of themselves without any thought just to boast where they were. I find it very unfortunate, for example, that many vacation pictures nowadays are of people grinning or, worse, duckfacing into their cameras with some iconic scenery in the background. Amateur vacation pictures have always been mostly bad, but at least they had some sort of authenticity. Whether it was the badly composed shot of something they found interesting, or the frozen family portrait, you could still see a story there. With narcissistic selfies … not so much.

        But I don’t think that the selfie itself necessarily has to be this way or always is this way. I think the line between a selfie and a self portrait is gradual; and I also think that a selfie can have personal, sentimental value just like other family photos. I think it depends on how staged it is (i.e. the facial expressions etc) and how it is composed.

        But I don’t want to argue the value of selfies with you. My main gripe was this sentiment: “Most worryingly, the societal obsession with recording everything and posting it to some sort of social media has meant that people don’t really experience life anymore; they watch it on their LCDs.“ This is a) nothing more than an assumption, b) a highly generalizing one (is really all of society “obsessed” with that?), and on top of it b) it’s pretty condescending. I’m fine with critizing certain behaviour, but you’re generalizing too much to make for a serious argument in my opinion.

        Second – I don’t know how “armchair scientist” you may or may not be. But again: That’s a very condescending and absolute judgment, and I wouldn’t use it on someone that I don’t really know. That sounds like scientific name-calling to me. After all, in your post you don’t limit those “armchair scientists“ to a certain subgroup; so it’s left open who you mean by that, exactly. Do you mean everyone who criticizes Interstellar’s physics? What’s the qualification? There are movie critics, and there are “armchair scientists”?

        This might be nit-picking, I just think that the tone sometimes devalues this otherwise very interesting article.

        • I agree there’s a distinction between selfies and self-portraits which are actually carefully thought out – the latter is something I’d take very seriously; the duck faces, no. I don’t think we’re in disagreement over that.

          Have you been to Asia recently? 90% of people will photograph what they eat before they eat it. Even if it’s just McDonalds. And judging from what I see on my and my friends/families’ social media, they’re posting it, too. Why? Is that not obsessive behaviour?

          You have your opinion, I have mine. It is no problem to agree to disagree 🙂

          • Willi Kampmann says:

            Okay, in Europe I haven’t experienced this phenomenon in such an extreme way. The intensity surely affects how annoying it appears to “normal” people!

            Photographing the foods people eat at McDonalds might not be such a bad idea though; maybe after looking at those images they realize how disgustingly unhealthy the junk-food is that they ingest. “Ugh, did I EAT that!?” 😉 Unfortunately, most photos these days are only produced and never looked at again. I think that’s a good measure of obsession: if you take so many photos and care so little about them that the process of taking them is more important to you than the archiving and actual enjoying of them, then something is really off.

            • I agree – but it must be balanced off against shooting enough to experiment and then being really disciplined about the curation afterwards…

          • i have to agree that i find the constant photographing of every meal or food item a bit mystifying.
            Just one more piece of the truly massive “noise floor” that currently exists in the world of digital photography (and massive maybe even understates the situation)….there are simply too many images being produced every second of every day and i can’t help but think it helps trivializes the entire endeavor.

            • Of course it does – and the camera companies/ phone companies are not helping themselves in the long run by encouraging it. The images will be crap, the people will be unhappy and probably blame the hardware, and eventually…no sales. I still think proper education is the way to go…

              • I think the real danger is that as phones get better and better and viewers less critical it will get to the point that most professionals or even serious ateurs will be squeezed out….since “good enough” will be free or nearly so.

                • It’s binary: composition doesn’t change with equipment, and that should be an obviously easy differentiator.

                  • “Should” being the operative word….ha!
                    Another connected factor is that the cell phone + cell phone camera + cell phone editing apps have become an entryway into photography for millions of people.
                    With that kind of capability so accessible 24 hours a day to millions of people (thus giving them plenty of opportunity to practice composition)…exponentially more people than ever before are becoming pretty competent at composition as well (if not great). The iPhone screen is quite a great “viewfinder”…..so the resultant number of images is truly overwhelming. This digital pathway had also convinced exponentially more people than ever b4 that they are photographers. Then why hire a pro when you can “do it yourself” or at least attempt so.

          • I have to chuckle about the Selfie Loathing… My wife and I visited Mesa Verde in April for a day, and in that day, managed to produce 10 selfies in a 10 hr period. That occupied 10/100’s of a second of an entire day’s worth of time (assuming the iphone was shooting at 1/100). Even if you looked at that 24hr period with a jeweler’s loupe, that fraction would be hard to find.

            Conversely, I had 4 other cameras with me, wherein hours were dedicated to capturing mostly useless images as if I were setting nets in the bay, hoping to find a swordfish among the tuna.

            All in all, and inspite of being overly equiped, we still found time to visit, explore, eat, drink, post selfies, hike & climb, wonder, and laugh for 10 days straight while we did the same things throughout the Southwest.

            • Well, sounds like you didn’t really need the other cameras.

              • Need? It’s not about need :), its about “want”. Nobody “needs” even a single camera, the world managed to go along just fine for thousands of years without them. For me, photography is a form of play, maybe a sport, as well as a career, so I bring them to play with.

                The “selfie” is a way to share your adventure with your friends & family on a personal level. Me & a dolphin would mean more to them then just a dolphin. Me huggin a dolphin might be even better. The selfie documents the personal interaction of the event, even if it’s as simple as the nasty cheeseburger you’ve been served.

                My kids just got back from Maui. They shot tons of pics, but the best were the snorkling selfies.

          • Larry Cloetta says:

            Ming, you are absolutely correct about the inherently ugly nature of selfies, and the narcissistic and puerile nature of the social structure they encourage, and it’s a bit discouraging to see some in this venue failing to see that, having apparently been seduced by the Borg. And there is nothing wrong with your tone in describing it, either. Ninety years ago these same people were defending the intellectual and esthetic integrity of Dada’s toilet. What the world needs is more, not less, people sticking their head out the window and screaming “I’m mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!”
            As the wounded victim of multiple selfie assaults from family and friends, I can assure you that the selfie is not a victimless crime.

    • ernie marton says:

      Condescending is the kindest one can be about selfies. After my first overseas trip in twenty years, I found it almost impossible to take pictures without self obsessed morons all over the world getting in the way, mugging at their phones. They are either compulsive liars that need proof of where they’ve been, or have extremely poor memories and need to be constantly reminded of their likeness, but I don’t understand why one needs this.
      If I wanted any easy photographic theme for the trip, it could have been selfies around the world, except there would be little variation apart from partial glimpses of iconic views or fabulous locations in the background.

  5. Reblogged this on Eileen Lyn Wah.

  6. Jorge Balarin says:

    Well, for me it was really difficult to understand “Interstellar”; because I saw it in german, when basically I talk spanish and english. However, it was clear that the main character was forced to leave her small daughter to seek for a new world for human beings. As other persons pointed, the movie was too loud, and I didn’t like the manipulative use of the music in some extremely melodramatic scenes. Being the single father of a ten years old lovely daughter, the film got my attention from begining to end, and I suffered a lot looking the terrible situation of the astronaut and her daughter. I went into the cinema a little bit depress, and I leave it terribly sad. Anyway, for me “Interstellar” was very much better than “Gravity”, where Clooney was acting like in a Nespresso advertising.

    • I have to say I still don’t feel like a Nespresso 🙂

      • A bit more Jungian than that. But I’d also skip the Nespresso. Clooney dead is the stand-in for Bullock’s animus enabling her to complete her mission well beyond her need for survival. Watch how she lands on earth.

        • Jorge Balarin says:

          Man, the plot of “Gravity” is really cheap. A cinema critic of the newspaper “El Pais” in Spain, praised the movie very much; then he received an avalanche of mails of people that didn’t find the movie interesting at all. At that moment the “El Pais”critic wrote that he was impressed by the visuals. He said that he saw the movie in 3D, and that on those conditions he like it. By my side, I saw the movie in my home, and I found it ridiculous. Best wishes.

  7. Alan Gillis says:

    Interstellar, yawn, a cowboy movie gone wrong. I’d recommend Cowboys And Aliens, a real chow down on sci-fi and weirder than the inside of Nolan’s black hole. But when he gets hot for Angelina Jolie then you get an avalanche of Salt that won’t quit, a tour de force that makes Interstellar’s cold porridge downright embarassing.

    Like what you said about making a shot work in the viewfinder rather than cheating in post production. Read somewhere that Nolan tried real sets rather than CGI, but the London big O would have done better as his ferris wheel mothership than that hokey toy model lost in space. After $200 million you wonder how much they spent on real dust.

    Imagine 2001 filmed in 1967 still has no illustrious company, though the latest Star Trek prequel revisting Kirk and co certainly is flashy.

    Hope Nolan finds a good script next time and you’re on board as his DP!

    • It was clear from the beginning that this would be a movie very difficult to understand and appreciate for what the Greeks called the “hoi polloi”.

      • Agreed. Though amazingly, the box office sales have been quite excellent in spite of this…

        • There goes the hoi polloi theory. What’s to understand? Cowboy goes into space to save the world. Gravity was the much better movie, rather simple like Salt, but much more Greek, speaking of the trajectory from human to the divine in Sandra Bullock. Mesmerizing.

          • totally agree re the “hoi polloi”. It’s a silly, elitist, and inaccurate designation. The folly of this film is that it makes pretense at depth and scientific and artistic rigor when in fact it is about as deep as any other big budget sci fi action movie. Seriously….the entire last 3rd of the movie is the most dire kind of neo Spielbergian sentimental wish fulfillment….and it does not get much more mainstream than that.

            • Thanks for that. An exercise in trite filmmaking. Interstellar could have been worse but then it would have been funny like 50’s sci-fi. Another missed opportunity. Can you see Michael Cane playing the mad scientist? He could have pushed the wooden MM into a new movie, Dead Man Overboard. Not to say I’ve ever seen such sincerely oozing out of any actor. MM positively paralyzing.

              • to be fair i found MM hilarious in the high school classic Dazed and Confused and quite effective in HBO’s True Detective (which is also notable for a visual style influenced by the master photographer Richard Misrach, specifically his stunning project Petrochemical America). i ALSO found the early-ish scene in Interstellar where he is watching videos from back on earth that he cannot respond to quite moving and effective/believable. However what i call the “impossible cheese” of the latter 3rd of the film all but erased the earlier genuinely felt moments.
                that black hole trip to the 5th dimension (which it turns out is LOVE! hooray for love!) to a fractal zone behind the daughter’s book case 30 years ago (somehow not being vaporized by the black hole even as your space ship is neatly disassembled around you)….which allows him to type out the secrets to save the human race in morse code on her freaking wrist watch…maybe the cheesiest and most painfully convoluted plot contrivance i’ve ever seen in a film. how anyone took that nonsense at all seriously is beyond me.

  8. A decent flick, but the story kind of crashed and burned in the last half of the movie. It seemed kind of cheap to me.

    Visually stunning, though. And absolute treat for the eyes.

    • I agree, and furthermore again “the world as we know it” that has to be saved is purely american. Then too much pathos and stereotype ideals. It really looked promising though.

  9. Ming!

    You’re doing yourself an injustice not watching it on imax- it stepped the film up to a whole new level for me!


  10. Jorge Balarin says:

    I will try to see Interstellar (I’m working from 5 pm up to 9.30 pm). Like you, I didn’t like Gravity. There were not ideas in this last film, just plain entertainement.

  11. I loved it – great weaving of themes, beautifully rendered visually.

    Oh, and some great robot one liners.

  12. “What was slightly concerning was the advertisements. Out of seven in total, five of them were for cameras or cameraphones.” Here in Italy, in theatres five out of seven advertisements are about CARS. In a slowing spiralling down economy, they try to cram down your throat the concept that you HAVE to change car every two year, or you are not a cool and succesful person at all – but it is an old italian tradition to be brainwashed about how important part of your life is what car do you have…
    BTW, the movie was great. I’m a suker for hard sci-fi.

    • We only got one car ad. Our wonderful 200% import tax and relatively low income means the vast majority of us have to take 10-year mortgages just to have cars here…

  13. Ron Scubadiver says:

    I found the abandonment of exploration and creativity theme to be to be rather a surprise coming from what is usually left wing Hollywood. However, the post apocalyptic dust bowl does make the obligatory statement on climate change. I loved this film and will watch it again once it is available on blue ray. The music is awesome.

  14. Sergey Landesman says:

    Very good movie indeed! The visuals are natural and stunning,very realistic.Love cosmos and sci-fi and adore Mattew McConaughey!

  15. Actually one of my oldest friends makes trailers for Hollywood movies for a living. A hell of a lot of effort and arguing goes on into what scenes make it in and how it is cut. One of the best things he said was getting to see early versions of the films and comparing it to the final cut (as well as getting free tickets to the London premieres….)

    I personally found interstellar ok. I was really impressed by the first two hours, but the whole fifth dimension in the last hour went a bit too weird for me. I am considering re watching purely for the imax experience, but 3 hours is bloody long!

  16. Nice article – but I can’t help being amazed at the weird advice codes coming out with films these days – ‘some intense perilous action’ – que? Does this refer to the most perilous action movies goers are subjected to – eating buckets of popcorn & sitting for 3 hours?

  17. Oddly enough, I was re-reading one of your earlier articles prior to reading this. I suppose we think about gear often, but we really need to focus (pun not intended) on ideas.


    At one point I had to shoot everything off a tripod, because that represented the ultimate in quality that I could achieve. While not so tough to do on paid shoots, this was a bit of a strain when just out practicing. Regardless of camera, a tripod will slow me down enough to make me really think about each shot. I relate that to painting and drawing as the clinical and analytical approach. That didn’t always work that well, and I discovered I needed to return of a freer form of more open thought, much like I did in my looser approaches to painting. Some liked to call that left brain or right brain thinking, but I feel it is different only in how the approach changes the idea development. Anyway, tough to put that into words, so maybe that doesn’t make good sense.

    So back to that older article. I do think we obsess too much about cameras and lenses. Obviously we have some of the best gear choices ever in history. I still wonder why our images are not so memorable, though perhaps you’ve suggested that in this article; quite simply we are bombarded by mediocre images that fail to leave lasting impressions. Few modern images stick in my mind, yet images of legendary photographers of the past keep coming back to my mind. I think the difference is not gear, because that old gear was awful compared to most new gear. Instead I think it was the ideas that were so strong, and that’s why they are easy to recover from my memory.

    On the personal aspects of imaging, I do get funny questions of why I don’t have many images of friends and family. To me the important people in my life have become images easy to recover in my mind. At one time I had the same experience of Highway 1 along the coast of California; a road I have traveled many times. I never photographed Highway 1, but I can still close my eyes and remember how each curve in the road led to another curve, and another view. The best camera is my mind, and the strongest ideas are captured there. 😉

    • It could also be that there simply weren’t that many images and even fewer that were published and circulated due to effort, so what got captured and shown, stuck – and they were thoroughly curated to begin with.

      The only problem with the mind as a camera is once it starts going, or you go, there’s nothing left – and we all want to remember, and be remembered…

      • Today there are many more photographers than there are editors. 😉

        You make a good point on memory. Perhaps I shall try to make the time to re-visit some of the places I enjoyed so well, except the next time with a camera.

  18. “…life isn’t about making a selife out of it – there’s no future value to these images, because they’re not observations so much as narcissistic pleas for help.”

    LOL. Ah that cracked me up. And so true.

    A lot of existential themes touched upon in this film, for sure, if you’re paying attention. And I was very glad to see Nolan also touch upon the point that Neil de Grasse Tyson has been trying to emphasize for years, to which you also referred >>

    “…a general abandonment of exploration and creativity in the pursuit of short sighted immediate wants and desires.”

    Tyson is probably right: in the 21st century there are really two drivers that will lead us back to space exploration: 1) War or imminent death…nobody wants to die [e.g. The Great Wall of China, the Manhattan project, the Apollo program; 2) The search for economic return [e.g. Columbus, Magellan, Lewis & Clark, etc.]

    Thus, the private sector is never going to go to Mars; the ROI is far too uncertain during those nascent steps of exploration. It will take government to back early manned missions to the red planet and beyond. If peaceful heads prevail, and war is not the driver here, then it has to be either the promise of economic return, or, as Nolan has postulated: an unlivable home world. In a sense, Nolan’s film tapped directly into the fears of climate change, while also serving as a love letter of sorts to the spirit of Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” speech.

    • Very, very true. The commercialisation of near space is beginning, but even then, we’re still in infancy and it’s driven by governments subcontracting out engineering work to the private sector…

    • So true Robert and thanks for this thoughtful post Ming!

      I deeply enjoyed Interstellar, as I generally do for all of Christopher (and Jonathan) Nolan’s films. I think between the Nolan brothers in Interstellar and Inception and Rian Johnson in Looper, we’ve got some profoundly introspective and talented filmmakers/storytellers dealing with complex (and still highly misunderstood) concepts like time (as a resource/dimension) and love (as a force).

      I hope that Robert and Neil de Grasse Tyson are correct in believing we’ll soon have a renaissance in space exploration. Riffing off Ming’s funny insights into the “selfie” trend, I believe the real heart of the 21st Century will be the “Selfie” trend…where the narrow and narcissistic body/mind perception of “I am this/that” crumbles away to leave a more holistic and expansive sense of “I am.” If the human endeavor is to succeed here on Earth, it must accept its nascent role as neural network for the global brain.

      While I found the Nolan brothers’ Interstellar story compelling, I don’t believe we’ll leave Earth because it becomes unlivable. I believe, at least a portion of humanity, will leave the Earth because it wants to reproduce itself. In other words, at some point in the 21st Century, I believe a considerable and influential portion of the human population will come to realize that just as living cells cooperate to function as organs, and organs cooperate to function as organisms, so too are our bodies but mere cells within ecosystems…within the planetary body…and beyond ad infinitum. This may be what Cooper meant when he said “they” are “us” and what Kubrick meant by the star child at the end of 2001.

      My deepening photographic and videographic practice is much like the observational meditation Ming often describes. Seeing, capturing, and sharing the light is an act of loving my “Self” through the visual pointers offered in each discrete moment of time. Robert and Ming, you both may find this book and the public radio interview with its author of interest. And also, for all the science fiction fans out there, I highly recommend another modern classic, “Moon.”

      Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind

      “How, then, do we see? What’s the difference between seeing and perception? What is light? From ancient times to the present, from philosophers to quantum physicists, nothing has so perplexed, so fascinated, so captivated the mind as the elusive definition of light. In Catching the Light, Arthur Zajonc takes us on an epic journey into history, tracing how humans have endeavored to understand the phenomenon of light. Blending mythology, religion, science, literature, and painting, Zajonc reveals in poetic detail the human struggle to identify the vital connection between the outer light of nature and the inner light of the human spirit.”

      On Being with Krista Tippett: Arthur Zajonc – Holding Life Consciously

      “What happens when you bring together science and poetry on something like color or light? Arthur Zajonc is a physicist and contemplative. And he says we can all investigate life as vigorously from the inside as from the outside.”

      IMDB – Moon (2009)

      • One last passing thought, from Wendell Berry, about the proper place and perspective for true exploration (and not exploitation). Our journey is not to run from anything, but rather to explore ways to let fall the detritus clouding our minds and hiding us from our Self. The best science fiction, as well as true scientific exploration, empower our journey.

        The Wild Geese
        by Wendell Berry

        Horseback on Sunday morning,
        harvest over, we taste persimmon
        and wild grape, sharp sweet
        of summer’s end. In time’s maze
        over fall fields, we name names
        that rest on graves. We open
        a persimmon seed to find the tree
        that stands in promise,
        pale, in the seed’s marrow.
        Geese appear high over us,
        pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
        as in love or sleep, holds
        them to their way, clear
        in the ancient faith: what we need
        is here. And we pray, not
        for new earth or heaven, but to be
        quiet in heart, and in eye,
        clear. What we need is here.

        As excerpted from…

      • I for one certainly hope we don’t make Earth unliveable, because we really don’t have the technology – or the options – to go anywhere else…

      • “Riffing off Ming’s funny insights into the “selfie” trend, I believe the real heart of the 21st Century will be the “Selfie” trend…where the narrow and narcissistic body/mind perception of “I am this/that” crumbles away to leave a more holistic and expansive sense of “I am.””

        Interesting comment in light of Nikon’s recently launched campaign: http://iamgenerationimage.com/home and the article about it on NYT – http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/20/business/media/a-pitch-to-persuade-smartphone-snappers-to-step-up-to-nikons.html .


        • Nikon’s campaign is interesting, but I think it misses the mark by a wide margin, and I don’t think it will succeed as they’re hoping. There are so many problems with it (read Thom Hogan’s recent observations about it). What Nikon really needs, IMHO, is the following:

          – A massive customer service makeover from the top down. Nikon needs to become about more than cameras and camera sales, they need to BECOME photography itself, just as they largely were in the 1960s and 1970s … in all the myriad ways that encompasses: cameras, community, art, education, reopening Nikon House at major centers around the world (not dissimilar to what Leica is doing, but rather than being about luxury, Nikon should become about serious photography);

          – Consolidation of DSLRs at the lower end: too many redundant, duplicate models – pare the line;

          – Some adjustments to the professional and prosumer DSLR lineup (won’t get in to that here; comment would become too long);

          – Move DX to mirrorless … serious mirrorless. The reason mirrorless sells comparatively poorly to DSLRs is because Nikon and Canon have yet to enter the market in a serious way (yet). When they do, customers will follow. It’s time to stop Fuji and Sony’s mirrorless progress dead in its tracks.

          – Introduce a go-anywhere, do-anything modular camera that builds upon the GoPro concept but in a much better and more comprehensive way. A system that is rugged enough to strap to the back of an eagle, or take underwater without a second thought; something that owns this segment in a way that no-one else is doing. Introduce it under the storied Nikonos name;

          – Let the 1-System die already, OR significantly reduce the prices of those cameras (they’re massively overpriced)

          There are lots of other things Nikon can and should be doing, and much more detail on each of the above, but I don’t have the inclination to get into all of that here. Suffice to say that — to some partial extent — they need to return to the past in order to succeed in the future.

  19. I saw it in IMAX and the 70mm scenes just blew me away. I watched the movie to enjoy it as much as I can and while there were a few “what?” moments, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  20. Kristian Wannebo says:

    I never yet saw a really good science fiction movie, but it seems this might be it!
    Thanks for the tip!

    My favourites as yet came in book form by Fred Hoyle, the astronomer – his plots often rely on aspects of cosmology.
    I consider The Black Cloud and October the First Is Too Late to be his best – in case of another rainy day.

  21. I’m going to be brutally honest…
    i saw the film once…was quite disappointed on a number of levels and went back to see it on a bigger screen at 4k (bigger sound system as well).
    unfortunately my problems with the piece were reconfirmed on second viewing.
    plot, characters, dialog, awkwardly sentimental ending, etc….and even an unexpected element: the much obsessed over 70mm film imax camera images did NOT blow me away. In all honesty i was more impressed (on a strictly “spectacle level”) by Ridley Scott’s digitally shot Prometheus (also problematic plot/character wise but never mind that). I also went back and watched my blu ray of 2001 as something of an antidote to the overly talky Interstellar.
    On a related point i found Zimmer’s score of Interstellar to be incredibly oppressive, annoying, and distracting, actually drowning out the dialog….it made me doubly appreciate the intense quiet and slow elegant compositions of 2001 all the more. Zimmer’s pipe organ should be registered as deadly weapon imo. Another element which i found absolutely painful was all the over explaining….where 2001 left exactly the right amount to the imagination thus leaving potentially hokey elements to be interpreted by the audience Interstellar was chock full of distracting “irving the explainer moments”.
    This is not to say that there were not some stirring images and moments in interstellar because there certainly were some (i liked the look of the ice planet in particular, reminiscent of Nolan’s earlier Insomnia)….however on balance i found it too long, too loud (the audience was holding it’s ears during the loud bits), not visually flawless enough to distract from problems of plot, dialog, character, and in the final analysis too silly for it’s self serious tone. I actually found that Nolan’s obsession with analog tech might have hobbled certain moments that might have been more impressively rendered digitally.
    I even found the very premise of the film problematic….the way in which 1)the planet needed to be left in the first place was not devastatingly enough realized imo (the dust storms and “eating corn at every meal” just did not convince me) and 2)the entire concept of “plan a” (transporting the entire population of earth to another galaxy) was preposterous on it’s face no matter what supposed science-y talk was presented….and even plan b was never convincingly portrayed.
    SPPPOOOOILER!!!!!!!: honestly….the entire scenario by which an astronaut drives his space craft into a black hole a 1)survives at all and 2)ends up back in time in his daughter’s room behind her bookcase tapping out the secrets to the universe in morse code on her wrist watch is simply stupid, unconvincing, and painfully sentimental. it completely failed as a powerful ending imo.
    Events i found amusing in
    back to the future (a comedy) took me out of Interstellar altogether. SPPOIIILER OVER!!!!
    This was a bummer….i was really expecting “the next great science fiction movie” (to follow 2001, Alien, Blade runner, etc)….and what i got was a muddled and overstuffed 200 million dollar mess.
    ok…thanks for letting me vent….ha!

    • Go watch Big Hero 6. I think that would be the perfect antidote – no expectations whatsoever, completely entertaining 🙂

      • interesting….ironically i have found that animated features do spectacularly well for me on the big screen (often times better than live action movies). There is something about the large vivid details that really pops and the editing, compositions, and color schemes are often quite controlled and beautiful. Toy Story 3 was impressive and (also ironically) full of the moving emotion that Interstellar so wanted and failed to get.

    • Agree completely. 2001 is a cinematic masterpiece. Kubrick was a photographer for Look magazine before he became a movie director and it shows in his films. Interstellar is a loud, ridiculous adventure flick. No comparison.

      • Old times are always better. The book was WAY better than the movie, that is a pretentious piece of sixties lcd-induced pompous elitism.

      • i have to agree….I watch the 2 films practically back to back….Interstellar is an overstuffed mess compared to the elegant perfection of 2001. everything that was painfully and annoyingly explained in Interstellar was left to the imagination in 2001 and it changes the entire impact. The visual and musical compositions of 2001 are so much better constructed….it’s not even close. I should add that it’s not really fair to compare the 2…but there you go.

    • Thomas Glaser says:

      I just watched Interstellar in Wellington’s Embassy Cinema (where soon another instalment of The Hobbit will debut) and it is literally as if Mr. Friedmann had plucked the words right out of my mouth.
      I have to agree with every single one of his observations, my major gripe being that the sound was far too loud and distracting at times: the Embassy’s sound system tried to keep up, but to no avail.
      Some of the scenes like the docking and playing with vectors and directions, forces, I found thoroughly enjoyable. The fixed “Craft-Cam” that is very prominent throughout the movie – not so. If there is a “camera” to this movie, I would give it a 3 of 5. Some of the environments like the multi-layered ice planet, were really, really good.
      I hate to say it but some scenes could have benefitted from being shot digitally. They at times feel like they had been shot on a cheap miniature movie set. I am not sure if that is supposed to be the intended effect.
      Story: any good SF book from the 50s to the 70s eclipses it. It is really not that memorable. Very bland, and there is no lesson to be learned from it. The pictures are simply not good enough.
      The robot, voiced by a human actor, the conversational tone – brilliant!

      As for the 70mm: still FFCs Apocalypse Now reigns supreme.


      • glad to hear i’m not alone on this one!
        For me the most impressive use of 70mm film cameras in a recent movie was Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master”….the images were absolutely lush. i got a chance to see it in an actual 70mm film projection….stunning. It helped that the acting was also top notch. By comparison i thought Interstellar was actually hurt by the large, slow, loud cameras….something more nimble and modern might have helped make the sci fi action more fluid and engaging.

  22. “I think I must be one of the few people who finds the pre-show ads and trailers interesting”
    Well.. one of our local art houses use to have an evening of movie trailers. Always a fun night at the theater.

    • Not just me then 🙂

      Seriously though, the art of editing a story down to a minute or two and making it interesting enough to want to watch without giving away the ending is not easy!

  23. Very interesting to read the opinion of one of the few people qualified to comment on both the artistic and scientific aspect of the movie.

    I did watch Interstellar and Big Hero 6 and enjoyed both movies. I think a lot of it also had to do with the trailers. As you mentioned, most trailers today are formulaic but they also tend to give away major parts of the plot. Take for example the trailer for the new Avengers movie, I feel it would have been far more compelling if they hadn’t revealed the appearance of the villain.

    With regards to the length of the movie, I have to agree with you. Most movies today seem to be very anti climatic. There is a tension built up for most of the movie but you’re disappointed at the inexplicably abrupt ending.

    I’ll definitely have to re watch Interstellar and pay attention to the changes in lighting you talked about. Sounds like a good exercise for a photographer.

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