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Giving VFX Birth to 'Tree of Life'

Go behind the scenes of Terrence Malick's experimental creation of the universe sequence.

Check out The Tree of Life trailer at AWNtv!

This is the "ultimate trip" of the millennium. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

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."

The theme of birth and renewal helps propel the film from the micro to the macro.

The work was divided into three realms: Astrophysical, which dealt with the early cosmos and evolution of the universe, stars, galaxies and planets, principally handled by Double Negative in London (under the supervision of Paul Riddle); Microbial, the molecular and cellular origination of life, which was primarily done by the London boutique One of Us, with supplemental work by Method (the splitting off of DNA strands to form more complex organisms, supervised by Olivier Dumont) and the father/son team of Peter and Chris Parks, who shot interesting flows of colors; and Natural History, which focused on the much anticipated dinosaurs, created by Prime Focus/Frantic (supervised by Mike Fink and Bryan Hirota).

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."

The Petri dish approach is anathema to VFX but proved liberating.

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.

The demonstration of mercy from this sentient creature helps explain the difference between nature and grace.

"The level of our work wasn't just scientifically rigorous, but also emotionally rigorous, and has resonances that Terry felt were important and belonged in the story," explains Tom Debenham, co-owner with Dominic Parker of One of Us. "He had very clear ideas about animate or inanimate organisms conveying human emotions to the audience." And fractal level of detail was important to have a rich visual world to explore.

Moving on to the Natural History realm, there are four dinosaurs in the movie: a wounded Plesiosaur on the beach, a solitary juvenile Parasaur, an adult Parasaur in the background of the first river shot and a predatory Dromiceiomimus ("the Drama Queen"), which approaches, attacks and then leaves the young Parasaur alone that has lost its mother. This concept of mercy is revelatory, according to Glass. In fact, it illuminates the whole tension between how we're supposed to behave (nature) vs. transcendence (grace). "It was a very tough challenge," he concedes."

This is reinforced by Fink's experience with Malick as well. "Terry made it clear that there were certain emotional beats that he wanted to get," Fink adds. "He wanted to see things in the animals' actions and reactions that implied that they were sentient beings that were starting to evolve a social consciousness. And we talked about different angles that would help sell that. But he didn't want it to appear staged, and he didn't want to pull focus, so everything had to be sharp from foreground to background."

The dinosaurs were built in Maya but rigged in 3ds Max because Frantic [now Prime Focus] had a robust Max pipeline for creatures. Glass didn't want the animators to over animate, so, in many cases, he misdirected to give the creatures a sense of ambiguity. "In this way, we were able to make it feel more natural."

As Trumbull observes, it was all about "searching for the Tao."

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.