Director Terrence Malick uses the visual effects in ‘Tree of Life’ to express his ideas about the origins of life and time. VFX Supervisor Dan Glass and FX teams around the world built the shots using a spectacular mix of animation, image capture and compositing techniques.

Dan Glass and Terrence Malick met over five years ago to start on the ‘Tree of Life’ project. They discussed diverse topics, references and philosophies, contributing to the film’s experiential quality and its usual use of visual effects. 

The effects in ‘Tree of Life’ are confined almost entirely to the opening creation sequence, composed of subtle, dreamlike images viewers recognise from the prehistoric era, astronomical phenomena and the inner world of microbes and cells. This introduction precedes the film’s narrative about a boy growing up with his family in a small town in Texas in the 1950s.

Dan Glass was thrilled at the opportunity to work with Terrence Malick, a director who had inspired Dan to get involved with movies to begin with, but when he got started in visual effects, he found himself working on an entirely different type of film than those Terrence was making.

Terrence wanted to tell a history of time, covering many unphotographable concepts by using analogous photoimagery, such as terrain that can stand in for different periods of time or live action material that suggests extreme scales and scenes that most people imagine but never actually see. A strong element of the brief was using symbolic, suggestive images instead of CG.

Dan’s background is in compositing, so a challenge to hide the film’s VFX to a large extent appealed to him. “What is hopefully evident in the result is a collection of practical components. That may lead to a conclusion that digital elements have been minimized, but in fact they play a greater role than people recognise. We took a cautious approach with a goal of authenticity and naturalism, more like found artefacts and events,” he said.

Rare Chance
“One of Terrence’s traits that forced us to think differently about our work is that he isn’t a strictly visual director, although he has a sharp eye for detail. He won’t simply draw a composition in a frame and talk about camera position, which is a VFX team’s typical interaction with a director because those things are critical to designing and building shots. Terrence has a more esoteric and philosophical approach. Early discussions were more about what each shot has to communicate.”

This was a rare chance to help interpret the visual aspects of scenes in a film, where and how it took place. The VFX work on the film was divided into four realms, handled by different facilities. A dinosaur sequence representing earth’s natural history was completed at Prime Focus, supervised by Bryan Hirota and Mike Fink from their Vancouver studio where the animation was done, with compositing and other work done in Winnipeg and Los Angeles.
One of Us in London, led by Tom Debenham and Dominic Parker, worked on representing the microbial world, supported by specialist photographers Chris and Peter Parks. Double Negative led by Paul Riddle carried out shot development for the astrophysical realm. Evil Eye in San Francisco handled a few shots in the main body of the film in Texas. Some shots were also completed at Method Studios in LA, led by Olivier Dumont, and a small in-house team was organised in Austin, Texas, run by digital effects supervisor Bradley Friedman.

Building Dinosaurs
“While the dinosaur sequence, of course, did need to be CG, the team’s priority was absolute realism. The lighting was to be fairly dark and single-source for a rim-lit or even silhouette effect. Normally for such scenes, the preference is to flood the CG with light because so much effort goes into the work.” Nevertheless, the idea of working the light in this way appealed to Dan.

Terrence actually prefers not to use previs or even storyboards because they seem cold and unemotional to him. But the team did do some of their own for the dinosaur sequence though it wasn’t precise in terms of lining up shots for the CG. It was more for the flow and idea behind the whole sequence. For example, previsualising a scene in which a young dinosaur collapses into water helped them decide on the riverbed location and how it should look.
The team at Prime Focus established the species of the dinosaurs they would be building and set up basic scenarios so they could shoot the plates to work with the CG and post production more easily, and took scale reference with them on location to help with lens height and composition. They also built physical maquettes of the dinosaurs to get a feeling for them in three dimensions. These were photographed and scanned and used to put the scenes together digitally.

Consultants helped choose modern creatures to base the animation on, and even skin colours and textures. The nature of all of the teams’ work required a huge amount of research, not just for the dinosaurs. Specialists including biologist Lynn Margulis and paleontologist Jack Horner were consulted.

Sustained Performance
On the shoot, along the Northern California coastline among the redwoods, lighting reference was captured with HDR setups at the location and tried to match this as closely as possible without deliberately highlighting the CG. In wooded areas, where the lighting capture didn’t show all the occlusions in the trees, they had to alter the light, but always kept it simple and natural with no fill, art directed lighting or keys.

Prime Focus worked on the creatures in 3ds Max, sculpting with Mudbox. Their priority was the animation. The length of the shots demanded sustained performances, but not lots of movement or action. They needed to avoid over-animating the dinosaurs, and just letting them behave like animals. The sculpted models were exported from Mudbox back into Max for texture painting, rigging and animation.

Dan said, “Water interactions had to be created in some shots, such as when a Dromiceiomimus, a predator, attacks the smaller Parasaur in a puddle. More extensive, subtle water work was done as a wounded Plesiosaur, washed up on a beach, raises its flipper causing ripples and splashes that integrate it into the plate.” The dinosaur sequence comprises about 80 to 90 fairly long shots.

Experimental Elements
The remainder of the introduction uses a wide variety of techniques. Terrence wanted the audience to keep wondering where the images had come from and where the story was heading. Shots of erupting volcanoes were captured in Hawaii and needed little treatment in post. The surface of the sun was shot by Chris and Peter Parks in the UK. The Parks also helped set up unusual chemical effects in tanks, based on descriptions of desired effects from production, which they shot with RED or stills cameras. This imagery could be used to design spectacular looks.

They held three long weekend shoots during the post schedule devoted to such work at a studio they hired near Malick’s home in Texas. Photographic FX supervisor Doug Trumbull joined them to set up experiments – from liquid nitrogen to fluids and dyes in tanks to flares set off under water, lens flares shot through a peep hole arrangement and many others. They heated up ball bearings and other objects, and watched them cool down. All of this was used to compile an array of elements they could put together later to form shots.

True to science
They experimented with cream in flow tanks to produce rippling effects used for expanding galaxies, and then digitally replaced some of these ‘galaxies’ with imagery of real ones shot from Hubble. Some of flow tank material re-created the Cretaceous-Tertiary impact expansion wave, resulting from a meteor reported to have hit the earth at the end of the dinosaur era. Thus, the myriad practical effects contributed to all kinds of objects and phenomena the director wanted portrayed in the film’s introduction, composited and edited together with stock footage, CG and live action.
“Also impacting on our processes was close collaboration with editorial on ideas for the cut. It was important that the effects work with the sound and music as well. One of Us actually composed some original music for their work,” said Dan.
“In Terrence’s view, staying true to science and consulting scientists about the effects were major considerations. Nevertheless he let flashes of spontaneity guide some scenes. For example at one point, when the family is gathered under a tree in the front garden, their mother floats up off the grass and briefly spins and pirouettes through the air with joy. This was achieved with a rig, and only required some clean up later in post.”

Celestial Bodies
The astrophysics section was mostly based on Hubble footage, shot in space. Double Negative extruded these images, rebuilt them in 3D and re-projected them, preserving as much of the HD stills as possible to maintain their integrity. All shots were given subtle movement and parallax, such as the swirling gas clouds on Jupiter. Planetary imagery and recognizable nebulae built from Hubble and interplanetary probe stills were painstakingly stitched together and cleaned up. Each star is built from tiny lens flares so that each one has a small spark of life.

“Early in the sequence are some shots depicting the birth of the first stars – Population III stars – built up from some powerful simulations based on current theories about this era,” Dan explained. “But these scientific simulations look very sparing on detail, so our challenge was to take those with their core data and turn them into something more dramatic. I commissioned a concept artist George Hull to paint frames that Double Negative combined with the scientific data to construct their shots. It was yet another technique, but still based on science.

Abstracted Stars
“It was a question of how to visualise this data. Especially hard were the Population III stars. These are usually shown as a latticed structure of thin veins connecting denser areas, from where the stars originate. But I reckoned that this could only be an abstraction of the true state of compressed matter. The universe would have been extremely dense at that time. Light itself would not have formed until the density dropped enough for light to travel.

“I suggested to the concept artist the idea of painting the scene as a vast cavern on a truly massive scale with explosions lighting the interior. The cavern would represent the interior of the star and the ‘space’ around it would be the compressed matter of the universe. We also kept true to the scientific palette – red walls for the caverns but the light itself would be blue-white. To suggest a vast enough scale, similar to a nebula, we used cloud-like textures for the walls.”

At Double Negative, Shake and Nuke were used for compositing, and Photoshop to extract and clean up the Hubble imagery. They used Maya to construct layers for the 3D but much of this task was also handled in the composite. The local team in Austin, who helped break shots into layers and re-project them, did a lot of their work in Nuke as well.

Living Microbes
To stand in for dinosaur embryos, they were advised that footage of chicken embryos would be the nearest modern equivalent. But the footage they had was noticaebly older than the rest and the grain and colour had to be cleaned up.

One of Us based their microbial work closely on real microscopic footage showing such processes as cell division. But because these are very flat, pressed onto slides, the images show little depth. “For reference, they used some electron microscopy, which shows the full depth but has to be used on dead cells. The team had to take these combined resources to create images with both depth and a living process. Much of the content had to be CG, while capturing the phenomenon graphically.

One of Us built their backgrounds by shooting liquid suspended in tanks to show wide panoramas, with depth and light spilling through it. These were combined with CG elements to introduce depth and detail. Textures were shot from rust and other real textures, to give the composite a feeling of real objects.

Words: Adriene Hurst
Images: © 2010 Cottonwood Pictures
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