Vision Quest: The Making of The Tree of Life

Trevor Hogg chats with visual effects supervisors Dan Glass and Bryan Hirota about the creation of Terrence Malick’s latest, The Tree of Life…

Considered by many to be an enigma because of his reclusive nature and the long gaps between his films, American director Terrence Malick returns to the big screen with The Tree of Life (2011). Partly autobiographical, the story revolves around a boy growing up in the 1950s American Midwest whose relationship with his strict father and nurturing mother haunts him into adulthood. Featuring a cast of Brad Pitt (Se7en), Sean Penn (Mystic River), Jessica Chastain (Jolene), Joanna Going (Inventing the Abbotts), Jackson Hurst (The Mist), Fiona Shaw (Fracture), Crystal Mantecon (The Waiter), and Tamara Jolaine (Tough Love), the drama ignited worldwide curiosity when word came out that it included footage involving the formation of the universe. Could this be the resurrection of the mysterious project Q which was to explore the origins of life on earth? Given the responsibility of creating the nonexistent imagery was Visual Effects Supervisor Dan Glass, who has worked with the likes of Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins) and The Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, Speed Racer). “My first discussions with Terry began about four and a half years ago and they were very vague and rather roundabout,” states Glass. “I remember one of the things that we talked about was trying to find a common language and approach. I asked, ‘Can you list the music that you imagine behind these sequences? Can we approach it from that angle?’ And he sent me a CD with a ton of music that was the type of stuff that he could imagine emotionally playing across these works.”

Even though Dan Glass points out that each movie production has its own unique set of creative challenges, he readily admits that Terrence Malick “was like no one else I’ve ever worked with or imagine I will work with again.” The native of London explains, “If I sat down to write out what I thought would be ideal for a director of a visual effects film, especially a lot of complex visual effects, he would probably not tick any of the boxes. Whilst you can say that was the challenge it was also very much the best and the most exciting thing about the project.” One of the big differences was the source material. “The script, if you can call it that, was really more like a set of notes that he has written and built up over some 35 years. He has been working on this project since the 70s. And we actually have negatives that he shot in the 1970s that we incorporated into the movie. So it really becomes a lifting of notes and ideas.”

“The first person we brought on was a very versatile Digital FX Supervisor by the name of Brad Friedman,” states Glass. “Brad helped build a small team in Austin to work closely with the director, editorial and myself to interpret, previz and ultimately complete many shots for the production. This team was critical as an experiment lab right next to Terry at all times to evaluate, to try things out. Production also set up a Research department gathering tons of imagery and scientific data for reference, and included a garage workshop where they would shoot chemical experiments and various things from Petri dishes to fluids in tanks; that was in conjunction with the stuff we did on a bigger scale with Doug Trumbull.”

Of major importance for the VFX Supervisor was the selection of the visual effects companies. “The way we had to approach the film was really very piecemeal,” says Dan Glass. “Aside from bringing in many people I have worked with over the years, that I trusted greatly to be able to interpret what was needed, we also brought in some very fine artistic sensibilities from several companies from around the world that approach things in a particular non digital fashion.” A plan was implemented to distribute the visual effects workload. “The material was divided into four broad categories we termed Realms: Double Negative in London handled the majority of the Astrophysical Realm led by supervisor Paul Riddle, journalist Michael Benson consulted and provided extraordinary source imagery from actual probes and telescopes. He and a colleague initially selected and stitched the images together, cleaned them up, and created huge resolution images of 30,000 pixels which we then broke into layers and dimensionalized over very slow exploratory camera moves. For the Microbial Realm we hired a small London boutique company called One of Us headed by Tom Debenham and Dominic Parker that do beautiful work; they have their own little studio where they shoot practical pieces and elements and combine them with very photographic looking CG. We also commissioned work from Peter and Chris Parks [Image Quest 3-D] who are a father and son duo in England…They do these richly detailed visual flows of colour which are very hard to describe and can imply things at any scale. We then had a couple of things that arose later in the schedule that really needed a very fresh approach.” Glass brought on Method Studios to help. “I knew some of the people there who had worked at BUF many years ago, and I loved that company and the way they worked which is very creative and collaborative. Also, because of their commercial background, Method were a hive of ideas rather than anything that just came with a particular process or specification for how to work.” Evil Eye Pictures based in San Francisco handled material principally in the Contemporary Realm including the live action segments of the film.

Regarding the topic which has garnered a lot of Internet attention, Dan Glass answers, “I can confirm that there are dinosaurs.” Given the responsibility of bringing the prehistoric animals back to life in the Natural (History) Realm was Frantic Films under the guidance of Mike Fink, which took on a new name after commencing work on the project. “I came onto it after it was already underway at Prime Focus,” states Bryan Hirota who served as a visual effects supervisor at the VFX facility. “The company worked on it for maybe eight months.” Hirota goes on to say, “Terrence Malick is notoriously secretive…I don’t know much about this movie. I don’t really know how the work fits in.” This is not surprising to Glass. “I would sometimes deliberately misguide the intention,” he admits. “An animator would want to know, ‘What’s the purpose here? What’s my motivation?’ So I would deliberately misguide a little and push in one direction and say, ‘Now adjust it and do this,’ just to try to get that zone where you have a little bit more of an ambiguity and something that’s more animal than human in its characteristics.”

“We used a tremendous amount of practical and scientific work,” reveals Dan Glass. “Terrence Malick would insist that every frame be attached to some amount of live action or practical content. It’s fantastic. I love that as an approach. Doug Trumbull, who is a good friend of Terry’s, came on board to help and consult in setting up a series of practical shoots that we did. We did three in all that we called the skunkworks and which were done over long weekends in Austin, some of the techniques dating back to 2001 [1968]. Techniques that Doug had used but then incorporating many of the things he has developed or worked with over his career, we would capture this terrific library of abstract, strange forms, and shapes. Those contributed to elements or in some cases the majority of an image within the movie; we would augment it with additional detail…mixing it up so it was never really clear what scale, or what was the origin of the material. Where it wasn’t possible we would include aspects of the ‘real.’”

An important part of the production for The Tree of Life was the effort devoted to portraying science realistically. “We were always very respectful,” emphasizes Dan Glass. “For example, to do some of the cosmological simulations of very early space there’s obviously little that we could have shot practically for that. But we paired up with some of the leading scientists in their respective fields, like Volker Bromm who specializes in Population III stars, the first to theoretically form in the Universe. So there’s this very deep, rich science behind the imagery…we also had the help of Donna Cox and Robert Patterson of the NCSA [National Center for Supercomputing Applications], who would take a base simulation, and start to create visualizations which were then fed to Double Negative, guided visually by contributions from a concept artist called George Hull. We would craft the thing into…picturesque imagery based on literal science.”

Questioned on how a unified look was achieved, Glass remarks that was not something Terrence Malick desired. “He preferred the idea of a patchwork quilt. If he shot something on a Super 8 camera, then an IMAX camera, then on a digital camera or…in space you might have something based on magnetic resonance imaging or infrared photography from the Hubble, each would have its own character, and that in his mind would lend to authenticity because you weren’t trying to smooth it, shape it and make it conform.”

Known for his stunning cinematography, Terrance Malick wanted to make the most of the imagery featured on the screen. “We had one shot we were working on for the longest time that was nearly two minutes long,” says Dan Glass. “It is there to give you time to take in what you’re looking at. Part of his focus is always rich, detailed images, generally keeping as much depth of field as possible so it gives your eyes plenty to wander around and take in.” After spending many months finessing a shot, Terrence Malick, Dan Glass and his visual effects team would view the end result in one of the theatres in Austin. “We’d reach a stage where we were happy with it,” says Glass. “Then sometimes weeks later he’d ask, ‘Can we put that back up again? Let’s think about this again.’ And he’d consider trying to experiment on another track. There was always this element of the piece continually evolving and developing, which was very different to what you normally have a chance to do in a lot of the bigger visual effects pictures where it can all too often be a case of ‘That’ll do. That’ll do. Move on. Move on.’”

Bryan Hirota observes, “Malick, it seems to me, needs to see stuff, and then brings his film to life in the editorial process; it’s not necessarily clear to him exactly where his film is going to take him. It’s like a process of discovery for him.” Informed of Hirota’s comment, Dan Glass responds, “With Terry… his vision is strong. He knows where he’s going but because his goal is much more esoteric, it’s less tied down to any literal representation. That’s why the editorial process is critical to him, even with his live action; he shoots a lot of footage that can play in many different contexts, and some of his favourite moments are things where they’ve yelled, ‘Cut!’ and the actors almost break character. Those are the pieces he’ll love. Similarly, in the visual effects…you’re working for days, weeks, sometimes months trying to make something so precise. And yet for Terry that could work against the very organic nature of the material so we had to spend more time to free it from itself.”

“Each shot is unique and crafted as such; they’re really approached from every angle as an individual piece,” says Dan Glass. “At one point we were approaching 60 minutes of footage that we were completing, of which somewhere between 12 to 15 minutes was ultimately used.” The IMAX format was chosen because they wanted to retain an incredible level of detail. “All of the work in Tree of Life is done to 5 1/2 K resolution…There’s a genuineness to that; it’s really trying to more closely represent the photography of the real thing. And the music and sound I would say are tremendous. The sound design I was really bowled over by, in terms of how it helps emotionally taking you through the piece.” Summarizing the final cinematic experience, Glass states, “It’s a very powerful movie about memories, emotions, and our place in the world.” As to what he thought The Tree of Life was going to look like, he confesses, “I don’t know in some ways what I was expecting it to be…I think the thing that was constant throughout the experience of working with Terry was that you know not to expect anything. There’s always something mysterious to be found.”

The Tree of Life universe footage…

Vision Quest: The Tree of Life & The Big Lie
Image Conscious: A conversation with visual effects supervisor Bryan Hirota
Image Conscious: A conversation with visual effects supervisor Dan Glass

Visit the official website for The Tree of Life.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

  • Brandy

    Nice title for the astronomical scene, Hogg. Cuz, like, the rest of the movie takes place outside the universe.