The 20-minute “creation” sequence in The Tree of Life depicts the birth of stars, the beginning of life on Earth, a memorable interaction between two dinosaurs, and a meteor crashing into the Earth, among other cataclysmic events. The sequence begins with the formation of early stars and ends over 5 billion years from now, when the sun will, according to scientists, shrink to a small “white dwarf.”
In creating the sequence, artists led by senior visual-effects supervisor Dan Glass worked with an array of material, including 65mm and 35mm motion-picture film; digital footage captured with the 4K Dalsa Evolution, the Red One and the Phantom HD high-speed camera; and large-format Canon stills. Real and virtual elements, like the CGI dinosaurs, were layered and composited in 5K (5,464 pixels across) and recorded as 32-bit floating-point EXR files. The finished images were exported to EFilm’s DI suite as 10-bit log DPX files.
“The greatest challenge of this project is that Terry Malick’s approach is the opposite of the way we commonly work in visual effects,” say Glass. The director, he explains, wanted to avoid defining the imagery ahead of time and often used the word “Tao” to convey an organic search for unpredictable images. “Terry objects if there’s a sense of the human hand [in the image], of someone interfering with the process,” says Glass, “so our work involved a lot of experimenting. The goal was to create glimpses of natural moments.”
To get these images, Malick organized a series of shoots he called “Skunkworks” over three weekends at a studio in Austin, Texas. A small group led by visual-effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey) experimented with liquid tanks, flashlights, glass paperweights, dry ice, pinhole flares and sundry objects to shoot elements that were then layered to represent cosmological images. “The material that came out of those shoots was really rich and fantastic,” says Glass. “We tried to create interesting visual imagery first, and then figured out how to shape it and where to place it in the film.”
A shot of light lattices in the early universe was primarily constructed with layered light leaks recorded with a Red One without a lens — flashlights were shone through glass objects like paperweights. “There’s an organic core to the image, a kind of natural beauty,” says Glass.
A dark eclipse image was shot with a polystyrene planet on a pole in front of a light shining through dry ice. In post, the colors were finessed and tiny details of planetary fragments were added.
A cloud-like nebula beginning to form was a 4'-wide pool of half-and-half poured into a water tank and shot in slow motion, with stars added and colors shifted to auburn later.
Another reference for imagery was scientific visualizations. For instance, an intricate, reddish image of early “Pop III” star formation was based on a simulation by astrophysicist Volker Bromm that he ran at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Illinois. With the scientist’s approval, Glass asked a concept artist to “illustrate up” the image and render it as a “cavern” from which light emerges, “incorporating nebulae-like elements. We then fed that data to Double Negative in London, and their team mixed in additional elements and artistry.”
The Hubble telescope was another image source, providing the shot of the Carina nebula, a tiled assembly that was 27,000 pixels across. The visual-effects team added depth cues, “tamed” the arbitrary coloring and added a slow push in, according to Glass.
Background plates for the creation sequence were shot in 15-perf 65mm Imax. They are perhaps most prominent in the dinosaur scene, the longest segment of the creation sequence. “Terry didn’t want to feature the dinosaurs more than necessary, so sometimes they’re almost in silhouette,” notes Glass. Once Malick and a scientific adviser vetted 4'-long maquettes of the dinosaurs, the maquettes were scanned to form the basis for CG models.
Malick asked the visual-effects team to listen to music as they worked, and he often tested the imagery with different music as the team watched. “That’s highly unusual — visual effects is a silent world,” says Glass. “Working on this movie was a wonderful, all-encompassing experience.”