Giving VFX Birth to Tree of Life
For the Astrophysical, Hubble photos were stitched together and high-res images were created and broken down into layers with depth and parallax and gentle camera moves by Dneg. Malick called this process "Bierstadting" after German-American landscape painter Alfred Bierstadt because of the incredible detail, even into the infinite distance. This work was done mostly at 5.5K to hold the sustaining resolution almost beyond what the film print could hold.
Meanwhile, Glass set up an in-house team in Austin led by Brad Friedman, the digital effects supervisor. This group of local talent as well as more experienced compositors could literally "mix paints," as Malick called it, experimenting close to him and testing ideas. Like the enigmatic yet symphonic film itself, it was a process of discovery. However, Malick resisted storyboards and previs, for the most part, which made Glass' task on this unconventional film even more challenging. But the director provided a very eclectic musical roadmap on CD to help guide him. Glass found the experience very liberating, particularly since it relied heavily on old school techniques.
To this end, filmmaking guru Doug Trumbull (2001) consulted as a favor to Malick, working a few long weekends in Austin, where he set up a lab called "the skunkworks" in a small studio to photograph practical elements for the Astrophysical realm. "I think it's an extraordinary thing and it comes at a time when the world really needs something that's outside the box," Trumbull proclaims.
"We were shooting with a combination of the Phantom Gold 2K camera at up to 1,000 fps and sometimes with a Red One camera using it at 4K, sometimes at 24 fps and sometimes even under cranked at 6 or 12 fps," Trumbull continues. "There were a lot of experiments in water tanks, different kinds of turbulence tanks that I would design; lighting effects in tanks; combinations of dyes and liquids, paint and a lot of milk and half and half. It's the way I like to work. When we first spoke, Terry was frustrated that even some of the best super computers in the world that were doing galaxy and Black Hole simulations tended to look a little synthetic. So he wanted to explore the possibility of doing it in a more organic way. And I said that's exactly what I would suggest. And so that's what I was helping him with. The whole objective was to make shots that, even though we were using Nuke for compositing, were at least 80% organic."
The Microbial section, which was much more theoretical and abstract, was constructed like a primordial soup. One of Us provided four crucial shots: lightning flashes, which initiate the formation of DNA, as if seen from the bottom of the ocean and looking upward; a fission of cells dividing and stretching like a long journey through a canyon toward rays of light; spirochetes that attach themselves to lipid, fatty membranes and swim through a cloudy atmosphere (akin to a Turner sunset-like environment); and phagocytosis: almost akin to predation in cellular organisms.