Tree of Life: Creating the Stunning Visuals

“The Tree of Life” is the most ambitious, surreal, haunting, and provocative film I have seen this year at the Cannes Film Festival.

In this picture, Terrence Malick puts on screen some of the most primeval, chaotic and seemingly unknowable moments that have ever percolated in the human imagination.


These include the formation of the universe in a stunning blast of cosmic power 14 billion years ago; the formation of Earth from the accretion of solar nebulae 4.5 billion years ago; the appearance of the first single-celled life forms in the Proterozoic Eon; the 160 million years during which dinosaurs reigned as the most dominant and complex beings on the planet; and the universe’s ultimate fate projected billions of years from now when our sun has become a white dwarf and the scattered remnants of Earth trail behind.

Visual Effects

To create all of this in an authentic way would mean using extensive visual effects for the very first time in Malick’s career.  It would also mean doing so with an original approach that would jibe with Malick’s aesthetic sensibilities – mixing Old School paint-and-water effects with the latest in digital generation to find an organic, even emotional, feeling within these seemingly spectacular, mind-boggling events which are of course nature, played out on the screen.


Years ago, when the project was still just a seed of an idea in his mind, Malick began consulting with Douglas Trumbull, a pioneer in the inventive use of special effects, most renowned for immersing audiences in outer space for Stanley Kubrick’s masterwork 2001: A SPACE ODDYSEY.  Trumbull went on to create effects for Steven Spielberg’s classic CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER and the first STAR TREK movie, as well as directing such sci-fi films as SILENT RUNNING and BRAINSTORM.

Non-Computer Graphics

Though he has not worked in Hollywood for years, Trumbull was drawn to Malick’s vision.  For one thing, Malick wanted every image to feel like a natural phenomenon, which meant relying as little as possible on computers, and using what Trumbull dubs “Non-Computer Graphics.”


“Terry and I share a perspective on visual effects and imagery as it pertains to wanting to get to something that’s completely organic.  We both want to push into new territories of what film can actually be. It wasn’t that we didn’t use computers on this film – we used a lot of them and there are some truly amazing computer graphics,” explains Trumbull.  “But, for example, when you see the dinosaurs they look like truly living creatures and they are then super-imposed into a world that is completely real.  It’s not a synthetic world with a synthetic creature in it. Only 10 to 20 percent of what you’re seeing is computer-generated, but you can’t tell which part of the frame is computer generated and which part is real which fits into Terry’s naturalistic world.”


Trumbull had fallen in love with Malick’s naturalism as soon as he saw DAYS OF HEAVEN while he was then working on STAR TREK: THE MOVIE.  “I was really impressed that the movie had such a profound effect on my memories.  It was a very ethereal, experiential movie that was trying to break the language of cinema,” he observes.  “What I like about Terry’s films is that it’s more of a poetic film style.  He’s constantly trying to learn something, which is rewarding.”


When he read a script for The Tree of Life, he was overtaken by its creative possibilities.  “It takes a simple human story and puts it in the spectacular framework of the beginning and end of the universe and the infinity of life,” Trumbull says.


Soon after, Trumbull and Malick began a series of hypothetical conversations about how some of the sequences in Malick’s vision could best be created.  “We talked about doing many of the intergalactic effects he wanted the way that we did things many, many years ago — using water and paint and high-speed cameras,” Trumbull explains.


They also talked a lot about astronomy in general, says Trumbull, “about the workings of the universe, the Big Bang Theory, cosmic expansion, general relativity and how they might all fit together.  Terry wanted to explore these ideas as an artist, not a scientist, to take film into new territory.  He would talk about certain things he wanted to see – protostars [the earliest conglomerations of dust and gas becoming stars], accretion disks [a rotating disc of gas and dust that forms around stars and other massive space objects], the sun turning into a Red Giant [a star in the last stages of its life which has expanded after core collapse] – and we would talk about how it might be done.”


Then Trumbull put together a kind of secret laboratory in Austin, Texas, dubbed the “Skunkworks,” where they began to experiment.  “We worked with chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography to see how effective they might be,” he says.  “It was a free-wheeling opportunity to explore, something that I have found extraordinarily hard to get in the movie business.  Terry didn’t have any preconceived ideas of what something should look like.  We did things like pour milk through a funnel into a narrow trough and shoot it with a high-speed camera and folded lens, lighting it carefully and using a frame rate that would give the right kind of flow characteristics to look cosmic, galactic, huge and epic.”


To keep the creativity flowing, Malick did not use typical storyboards for these sequences.  “He didn’t want a mechanistic approach that would be set in cement,” observes Trumbull.  “He would rather have mysterious phenomena spontaneously occur while the camera was rolling.”


This process of experimenting and shooting individual effects went on for well over a year.  “All along,” says Trumbull, “Malick was hunting for the Tao, that completely unanticipated phenomena, those magical unexpected moments that no one could possibly design.”


That hunt proved to be very satisfying.  “I’m very proud of how it all worked and all that we discovered,” concludes Trumbull.  “I hope the result is a kind of experiential, immersive cinema that goes beyond words and beyond the envelope of a conventional Hollywood movie.”


About four years ago, producer Grant Hill also brought in Dan Glass to work in concert with Malick and Trumbull on the high-tech end of the visual effects.  The request from Hill took Glass aback, “As a visual effects professional I never imagined I would have the opportunity to work with a filmmaker like Terrence,” he explains.  “It was very exciting.”


The process was quite different from what he had experienced on some of cinema’s biggest action, fantasy and sci-fi blockbusters, including MATRIX RELOADED and BATMAN BEGINS.  “Visual effects are normally very systemized, very planned out at the earliest stages,” he comments, “but Terry was more interested in creating vignettes that really communicate emotion and mood and are more spontaneous feeling.”


In keeping with that process, Glass never learned the full story of THE TREE OF LIFE, or anything about the O’Brien family.  He was only made aware of the sections of the film tracing the history of the universe, the earth and nature itself.


Like Trumbull, he spent a lot of time with Malick discussing what we have gleaned of the history and fate of the universe over billions of years from the latest scientific research.  “Terry had read and read and had a phenomenal level of knowledge about our current understanding in these areas,” Glass says.  “He had contacted world experts and it was very important to him that in the midst of trying to make beautiful, emotional imagery that it also be representative of the latest scientific theories. As we arrived at ideas and shots, these would be sent to scientists for their input.”


Science consultant, Dr. Andrew H. Knoll, Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard University, talked with Malick and his team for some years about the history of life and the processes that underpin that history.  “What impresses me about Terrence Malick is his deep commitment both to artistic vision and to the facts that inform his film’s philosophy,” says Dr. Knoll.  “Terrence worked hard to get the science right, seeing in life’s history the broadest of frames for an intimate family story.”


Glass also joined the proceedings at the Skunkworks in Austin, bringing his own assortment of smoke machines, dyes, chemicals and other Old School cinematic tools to add to the mix.  “Most contemporary directors would have done these scenes in a very different way. For example, the moment where a meteor hits the earth could be very flashy.  But Terry wanted to make it very understated, where you see just the arc of the earth as the shadow of night is crossing over it, and then the meteor hits and the wake is this dispersion of clouds and matter that was created with milk in a circular tank.  The result was a very natural, organic feel.”


That same kind of organic feel is imbued in recreating the time of the dinosaurs, in which life takes on a fiercer intelligence and perhaps the beginnings of compassion.  Glass worked with a lot of filmed material, from redwoods in Northern California to the Atacama Desert in Chile.  “Then we would decide where we could place the creatures, almost like an afterthought,” he explains.  “We would fit in a creature maybe half framed out of the shot to make it feel more natural.  The creatures were chosen to be more understated, not the famous representations of dinosaurs you expect, but more as if you’ve come across a scene from every day life.  We worked in close consultation with renowned paleontologist Dr. John “Jack” Horner from Montana State University to keep everything accurate to what we know.”


These gaps in human knowledge gave Malick, Glass and Trumbull an open space in which to create.  “A lot of what you see in the film is something closer to poetry or painting in the way that it was made,” sums up Glass of the film.  “But I think the beauty of that is it allows everyone to draw their own different impressions of what they’re seeing and enjoy it in a personal way.”

Lubezki: Genius Cinematographer

The great span of natural worlds depicted in The Tree of Life, from intergalactic movements to rustling trees to domestic moments of love and fear, flow out of the camerawork of four-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki who previously worked with Malick on THE NEW WORLD.  As he had done before with Malick, Lubezki focused not at all on typical master shots or coverage, but rather on the sheer expression of emotion through organic images and perpetual motion.  He did so by feeling his way into the shots, using natural lighting and handheld cameras, and following the sun, the wind, the trees and his instincts as much as the dialogue or action.

Dance of Two Artists

“Terry is the most visual director I’ve come across and he and Chivo have a huge amount of trust between them,” says Sarah Green.   “They both are driven to use visuals to their fullest extent.” Adds co-producer Nicolas Gonda, “Chivo Lubezki is a vital part of Terry’s process.  In a sense he had to be as much a writer as a D.P. because when the two of them are on the set, things can change in the moment.  It’s a dance between the two of them riffing creatively off each other.”