See how the 'Interstellar' robots walked on set as life-sized puppets, not CGI

A fascinating behind-the-scenes video shows how mobile metal cabinets TARS and CASE really walked among the actors of Christopher Nolan's sci-fi opus.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
2 min read

"Interstellar" takes us to other worlds, some wetter than others. Warner Bros/Paramount Pictures

In a film packed with out-of-this-world visuals, one of the most arresting and innovative sights in " Interstellar" is the walking-file-cabinet design of the robots TARS and CASE. If you thought they were brought to life by CGI, a fascinating behind-the-scenes video reveals how TARS and CASE actually joined the cast on set as life-size puppets. Update: The video is no longer online, but this article gives you a flavour of the movie magic that went into making the "Interstellar" robots.

"Dark Knight" and "Inception" director Christopher Nolan wanted a physical effect rather than CGI for the "Interstellar" robots. So TARS and CASE were built by the effects team as real machines operated by a puppeteer, with CGI used only to erase the human operator and add those functions that couldn't be achieved in real life.

Actor and clown Bill Irwin operated the puppet, then was digitally erased by CGI. Warner Bros/Paramount Pictures

The result was a 200-pound stainless steel apparatus controlled by a compressed air system for lifting and moving the segments, which the operator described as "like a video game." Different versions of the robots were built for different shots and effects, such as a model attached to a quad bike that could drive the machine through water.

Every geek movie we're excited about in 2015

See all photos

"To me the idea of a robot is a machine that's impersonating a human being," says Nolan, explaining the philosophy behind TARS and CASE. "These are purely machines."

The design of the machines takes the form of a big block divided into smaller blocks, each with the same proportions as the original block. The minimalist design was inspired by 20th century modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who sought to express a style specific to the age of technology and rationalism. He designed buildings including the monolithic IBM Plaza in Chicago and the raised, glass-enclosed Farnsworth House; he also designed furniture that used supporting metal cantilevers, like the Barcelona and Brno chairs.

The machines even have their own backstory: co-writer Jonathan Nolan describes how TARS and CASE are "as marooned as everyone else -- literally military surplus." Human cast members describe the operating of the machines as "the toughest job" of any of the cast, both physically demanding and in terms of endowing a walking metal block with personality.

Actor, clown and vaudevillian Bill Irwin and Mark Fichera brought life to the machines, such that the cast claim they almost forgot the operators were there, and recognised the characters of the two different machines -- Matthew McConaughey even gave them nicknames.

NASA's real 'Gravity' photos

See all photos