The Physics Behind “Interstellar’s” Visual Effects Was So Good, it Led to a Scientific Discovery

While he was working on the film Interstellar, executive producer Kip Thorne was tasked with creating the black hole that would be central to the plot. As a theoretical physicist, he also wanted to create something that was truly realistic and as close to the real thing as movie-goers would ever see.

On the other hand, Christopher Nolan – the film’s director – wanted to create something that would be a visually-mesmerizing experience. As you can see from the image above, they certainly succeeded as far as the aesthetics were concerned. But even more impressive was how the creation of this fictitious black hole led to an actual scientific discovery.

In short, in order to accurately create a visual for the story’s black hole, Kip Thorne produced an entirely new set of equations which guided the special effects team’s rendering software. The end result was a visual representation that accurately depicts what a wormhole/black hole would look like in space.

Artist's conception of the event horizon of a black hole. Credit: Victor de Schwanberg/Science Photo Library
Artist’s conception of the event horizon of a black hole. Credit: Victor de Schwanberg/Science Photo Library

This was no easy task, since black holes (as the name suggests) suck in all light around them, warp space and time, and are invisible to all but X-ray telescopes (due to the bursts of energy they periodically emit). But after a year of work by 30 people and thousands of computers, Thorne and the movie’s special effects team managed to create something entirely realistic.

Relying entirely on known scientific principles, the black hole appears to spin at nearly the speed of light, dragging bits of the universe along with it. Based on the idea that it was once a star that collapsed into a singularity, the hole forms a glowing ring that orbits around a spheroidal maelstrom of light, which seems to curve over the top and under the bottom simultaneously.

To simulate the accretion disk, the special effects team generated a flat, multicolored ring and positioned it around their spinning black hole. Then something very weird and inspiring happened.

McConaughey explores another world in Interstellar (top). Thorne’s diagram of how a black hole distorts light. Credit: Kip Thorne
Thorne’s diagram of how a black hole distorts light. Credit: Kip Thorne

“We found that warping space around the black hole also warps the accretion disk,” explained Paul Franklin, a senior supervisor of Academy Award-winning effects house Double Negative. “So rather than looking like Saturn’s rings around a black sphere, the light creates this extraordinary halo.”

The Double Negative team thought it must be a bug in the renderer. But Thorne realized that they had correctly modeled a phenomenon inherent in the math he’d supplied.

“This is our observational data,” he said of the movie’s visualizations. “That’s the way nature behaves. Period.” Thorne also stated that he thinks he can get at least two published articles out of it.

But more important than that is the fact that Thorne, a thoroughgoing scientist and lover of the mysteries of space and physics, has a chance to show a mass audience some real, accurate science.

The movie premiers in North America on November 7th.

Christopher Nolan and Kip Thorne explain the science behind creating the movie’s black hole.

Further reading: Wired

24 Replies to “The Physics Behind “Interstellar’s” Visual Effects Was So Good, it Led to a Scientific Discovery”

  1. Nice article. Just to clarify: visualizations of accretion disks around black holes have been properly visualized since the early work of Cunningham & Bardeen, in 1972/1973 or Luminet 1979. See, for example,…183..237C&refs=CITATIONS&db_key=AST

    for a list of papers that mainly include visualization calculations.

    There has also been a very nice set of visualizations of black holes by Ute Krauss ( and recently by Thomas Mueller.

    I think what is new here is the coordinate system in which the calculations were done, this is a really technical aspect, but please do not get the impression that “Interstellar” has the first ever correct visualizations of a flow around a black hole…

  2. I don’t agree with the white fuzz… I believe we should be seeing a set of airy discs, concentric rings surrounding the singularity, each disc with its own chromatic aberration and so… circular rainbows. As a ship accelerates towards a singularity, the closest discs should phase blue, so depending on both the Fraunhofer angles and the relative velocities, this shifting would tell us both the off axis and the speed differential. So no, I don’t agree with the white fuzz.

    1. The title also calls the movie “Intellstellar”. Looks like it was written in a hurry. *S*

  3. LOL Science? To begin with wormholes at the center of a spinning black hole are a convenience theory for interstellar space travel. Just because the mathematics says its possible doesn’t make it so. To state something is mathematically sound is no different than stating a sentence is grammatically sound. Just because you can write a grammatically correct sentence that states leprechauns are real doesn’t make them real…

    1. I’m kind of puzzled. Perhaps I misunderstand what you are saying?

      There is a LOT of observational data which strongly supports the existence of black holes. Rejection of the idea of black holes would require invocation of either some other object which would likely have to be stranger than a black hole, or a pretty wholesale rejection of our knowledge of Physics.

      There is a lot of cosmology which is on rather shaky grounds, the existence of black holes is on surprisingly firm ground.

      1. I should point out that wormholes are, of course, not at all on firm grounds if that was the only point you were making.

      2. You’re wrong and what is absolutely hilarious and horribly sad at the same time is the fact that you are completely unable to recognize how wrong you are because you’ve been totally sold by the pseudo-physicists that are occupying the upper reaches of modern academia in particle physics, gravitational physics, astrophysics and cosmology. Black holes are now and always have been an intellectual fiction. To understand what the pseudo-scientists in academia are calling ‘black holes’ would require a wholesale rejection of much of our knowledge of modern physics; not all… but quite a bit.

        First you have to learn what is true. But I can tell you one thing that is taught that is not true at all. Elementary charged particles don’t always repel each other if they have the same charge and they don’t always attract each other if they have the opposite charge. They only obey Coulomb’s Law when they are not overlapping in the same momentum space. Being in the same momentum space or overlapping in the same momentum space is just a fancy way of saying that they are at rest or very nearly at rest with respect to each other. So, if two deuterons (the nuclei of two deuterium atoms) have a common de Broglie wavelength (calculated from a center of momentum frame) that is equal to or greater than their inter-particle distance then they will behave opposite to the expectation of Coulomb’s Law. This was only discovered recently (about two decades ago) but you won’t find it in any modern physics textbook. Yet, it can be proven to be completely true using only one of Maxwell’s equations and literally mountains of well known and universally accepted experimental data concerning the attractive interaction of parallel current carrying wires. People have looked at the interactive behavior of marco-scale objects like charged pith balls or charged balloons and then they concluded (quite erroneously) that because macro-scale objects like pith balls obeyed Coulomb’s Law then they could reverse-extrapolate that interactive behavior right down to the level of quantum scale objects like protons and electrons. Yet, there is not a single experiment in all the history of science that elementary charged particles that are at rest with respect to each other will behave in accordance with Coulomb’s Law. Not one. Yet. in most first year texts of college physics they’ll put problems giving the coordinates of one proton with respect to that of another proton at a different set of coordinates and ask the students to calculate the magnitude and direction of the force between them. This one fundamental fact ought to bring down the entire house of modern physics but it doesn’t because it is universally ignored. That one fact will show that black holes as they are presently conceived to come into being are absolute and total fictions. Modern physics, especially the Standard Model of particle physics, is a house of cards. Since cosmology and astrophysics is advised by particle physics … well, you guessed it … they are all houses of cards. What is keeping them standing? Ignorance and apathy. They don’t know and they really don’t care … as long as they can keep the public believing that they are truly the experts then the money will continue to roll in. They want you to conflate (that means mix up) the real science that is being done by material scientists and experimentalists that end up bringing you cell phones and 3D TV and all kind of wonderful modern conveniences and gadgets with the pseudo-science that they teach. All they have to do is get you to think that they are the same. The first group is to be praised for all of the great inventions that they are coming up with. And you know what? They are being very well paid by commercial interests to continue to do that sort of thing and to keep the inventions coming. These people actually work for a living like most of you reading this do. But the pseudo-scientists in academia who like to brag that they are theoretical physicists or quantum theorists or astrophysicists (who’ve never been to nor seen the inside of a star) or cosmologists …. well … they want you to give them the same praise and the same rewards for having done nothing but speculate concerning things that they can do no experiments on but can only observe from afar. Remember that it was the technologist scientists who invent and build the telescopes that they use. If you lined them all up against the wall and shot every last one of them, the world would be a better place. First, it would put fear into the next generation so that they’d choose careers that are not just story telling and downright lying to the members of the paying public (that they think are all too stupid to refute what they are saying) but which actually correctly inform us about the universe we live in. We don’t mind paying people to tell us entertaining lies when we turn on the TV or go to a movie; in fact, we expect that. We should put the pseudo-scientists on notice right now that we want real science and not intellectual fictions and if they don’t start giving us real science then we’re going to put them all up against the wall and we won’t show them one bit of mercy.

      3. You’re right, what we need is a Stalinist purge of all these so-called “cosmologists” who are only in it for the money

        I… I don’t know where to begin

      4. My goodness, I’ve searched high and low for a publication of any sort that might be related to you. Would you please steer me in the right direction? With your insights I’m sure you’ve been published, even if it is in the National Equirer.

      5. It is not hard to find confirmation of his claim about Coulombs law:

        It seems, however, that it *is* in textbooks, it’s just that high school physics textbooks oversimply stuff a lot. E.g. my daughters textbook keeps going on about the “force of gravity”, and I have to explain that gravity isn’t actually a force – it’s what you feel when some other force, whether rocket engine or surface of the earth, accelerates you. The planet surface we live on is an accelerated frame of reference.

      6. @CustomDesigned

        That “confirmation” of his claim is actually his own website (I did some googling), so perhaps not the corroboration you were looking for 😉

  4. Black holes are intellectual fictions. They certainly are not ‘scientific’ even if people (and the number of people doesn’t matter since real science is not consensus based …. it’s fact based!) believe that it is. We might as well say that there are magical gnomes living on the moon and that the closer we get to one the more invisible do they become. How nice to say that quarks can never be torn apart from their union into a particle such as a proton. It is always convenient to give reasons why something that you believe exists cannot be observed and then call the whole thing ‘science’. Science comes from the Latin ‘Scientia’ which means ‘to know’. There is a difference between pseudo-knowledge (that’s what the people who claimed that they could see the Emperor’s New Clothes had) and actual knowledge like when you can observe the actual moon through a telescope. It is amazing to me that people like Wheeler, Thorne and Misner can write a large book of speculations and it later becomes esteemed as actual science (actual knowledge) when it really is nothing but pseudo-knowledge. Totally appropriate that this stuff is for science fiction. By the way… lots of stuff taught in the highest reaches of modern academia today concerning astrophysics, particle physics and cosmology …. really is …. you guessed it … really is … yes… science fiction!

  5. Wow… so even the astrophysics community has to deal with “truthers”? SMH…

    Mr. Science Truther, please do tell us then what exactly are the super massive objects at the center of galaxies, along with why light mysteriously bends around objects that emit no light?

      1. More common than you think! Though they usually tend to be of a religious bent. Andrew Schlafly of Conservapedia thinks they were invented to “sell magazines”.

  6. It is always convenient to give reasons why something that you believe exists cannot be observed and then call the whole thing ‘science’.

    And it’s even more convenient attacking vast areas of science as non-science without using a single scientific argument.

    Of course, don’t be astonished if you get laughed out ot the room.

  7. Always a pleasure to read posts by self-proclaimed scientific experts. These semi-pseudo-quasi-faux scientists/people attack everything and everyone associated with the perceived scientific “establishment”. Einstein, Oppenheimer, Bohr, Heisenberg, Hawking, Feynman, Wheeler, Thorne, Witten, Bose, Penrose, Dirac, Et al, are all fair game. It must be very difficult to carry all that additional weight with a head size almost too big to fit through a door. Please continue to dazzle the community with these conspiracy like posts.

  8. Westerners have this way of painting things black that don’t really understand. They say that the scientific method has no place for religions, yet they still seek a ‘knowledge’ that is absolute, they still, quite rigorously try to find a truth that is absolute, one that exists all by its own – God.

    Western world is quite good at solving problems, but they never arrive at the answers. They find it not a fundamental error to use invalid concepts for validating others.

    Take the definition of Zero for instance. In western Maths it is defined as ‘nothing’ (forgive my English), but they are quite contend of using a symbol to represent ‘nothingness’. How is it possible? How can you represent or present ‘nothingness’? One cannot even grasp it… This brings me to my question, regarding the ‘Black Holes’.

    If light does not escape a Black Hole, then accurate or valid, or reasonable, it is to use the color Black to paint its epicenter (for the lack of a better word)?

    1. Well, pure black is an absence of light (there is no emission of any photons) rather than a ‘color’ per se, so it’s an accurate description of a singularity.

    2. I really don’t see any problem here. Why exactly should the symbol be imbued with the qualities of the thing it is representing? You might as well complain about the existence of the word “nothing”, that’s essentially the same argument. Words and symbols are conceptual pointers, not the things themselves they are pointing at. And wrapping your head around the absence of a numerical value, or just the idea of absence in general isn’t quite as hard as you make it.

      As for black holes, I suppose it would be more correct to label them as dark holes, or something else, but keep in mind the word “black” has more than one meaning here. Sure, it can mean the presence of a color, black marker, black paint, black ink, but it is also used to describe the absence of light. A black night, or a black sky, or a black room, doesn’t indicate that these things are covered in or filled with black paint or substance. It means there is an absence of light here. For these things, light is absent. Seems like that works just fine as a descriptor for black holes.

      And if you’re talking about painting or drawing a black hole…well, you’re no longer dealing with a real black hole, are you? You’re dealing with a physical medium and pigments in order to create an artistic visual work meant to cognitively suggest something else. Attempting to say that painting a black hole with black pigment is wrong makes as much sense as criticizing someone painting stars for not adding fusion to the canvas so it emits heat and light.

      As for your note on religions…I’m not sure I’m following. By definition (and as far as we can tell), any kind of religious happenstance, if it exists, defies science. If God or religious beings or power is the only kind that can circumvent physics and natural laws, then they are supernatural, and above our ability to explain them in ways that can be modeled, replicated, or understood. Trying to use science to support religion, or religion to support science, tends not to work too well. Most religious things don’t tend to stick around long enough to be confirmed as existing, measured, and so forth. They are in books, or ephemeral events. Can’t really apply science to that. What we do have are physical things, energetic things, stars, cosmic objects, things that can be detected, observed, and measured in different ways. And from what we can observe, we can work toward a truth. Will we always have a truth? Will we ever arrive at a truth? We may not. And yeah, there’s some confusion and some hubris here that can cause some to jump the gun and declare we’ve already reached the truth. But just because science can’t get us all the way there yet, just because science may not have the maturity in these areas to have the accuracy to grasp truth, doesn’t mean that it’s foolish or worthless to pursue it. I guess I’m wondering what your alternative would be.

  9. One thing I have never understood in the depiction of black holes: they are always shown like an eclipse. If the accretion ring glows brightly and is really a sphere rather than a ring, why wouldn’t we see a bright sphere pretty much like a star, rather than a ring surrounding a black disk? Wouldn’t the entire event horizon surrounding the black hole as a sphere glow brightly, and so we wouldn’t see black at all?

Comments are closed.