Giving VFX Birth to Tree of Life
Perhaps the boldest part of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (which took the Palme d'Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival) is the birth of the universe portion that occurs nearly 30 minutes into the film. Sparked by grief and questions about life and death and the meaning of existence, the 22-minute segment suddenly hurls us into the cosmos for a poetic journey into creation reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's trippy 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed, The Tree of Life is our 2001 as well as Malick's summary statement about the coalescing of nature and grace.
"It's a real coalescing of ideas and metaphysics about the history of the universe that takes us from [notions] of origins right through some semblance of the Big Bang to the early genesis of stars and galaxies and planets forming, ultimately life itself on planet Earth.," explains Dan Glass, the esteemed visual effects supervisor who oversaw the VFX-laden sequence.
Glass, who's worked on The Matrix sequels, Batman Begins and Speed Racer, and is currently EVP and senior vfx supervisor at Method Studios, was first approached to join the project about five years ago by producer Grant Hill. "It was one of those opportunities that I really couldn't believe," Glass admits. I had gotten into the film business inspired by filmmakers like Terrence Malick, and I never thought I'd get an opportunity to work with a real independent auteur, especially after doing a number of Hollywood blockbuster/visual effects movies."
Glass recalls the initial meetings with Malick at a Beverly Hills café. "There were key moments that Terry would talk about -- emotional beats that he wanted to capture," he continues. "We are taken through this journey illustrating our place in the world, the idea of birth and renewal, and at its core it's based on the science that is available."
At Malick's request, they also contacted some of the leading world scientists, including Volker Bromm, professor at the University of Texas in Austin, concerning Population III stars of the Dark Ages, and Donna Cox and Robert Paterson of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. "They do these simulations for vast interstellar periods that are very accurate, based on scientific research and current theory," Glass continues. "As we get further down the line, we had Lynn Margulis on early origins of cellular and microbiological life and Dr. Jack Horner from Montana State University, who consulted on dinosaurs."