VFX supe Dan Glass on The Tree of Life

Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life includes a 12-minute long montage sequence contemplating the history of the universe. The sequence and other effects in the film, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, were more than five years in the making and the result of close collaboration between Malick and VFX supe Dan Glass. We caught up with Glass in London recently to dissect the different realms of the montage piece.

Watch a clip from the ‘birth of life’ sequence, courtesy of our friends at The Daily.

fxg: This film seems to have such a large back story in terms of how it came to be made. How did you get involved initially?

Glass: My involvement began over five years ago. It started with a question from the producer Grant Hill, who I’ve worked with over the years, and he said, ‘Would you be interested in working on a Terence Malik project?’ And I have to say, as I think many film lovers would react, I thought I don’t care what it’s about, I don’t care what the work is, absolutely – I would love to participate. I think I never thought I would get to work with a filmmaker like that in the field of visual effects. Having done quite a large number of Hollywood visual effects films, those things never felt like they would really come into meeting. That was very exciting. I got to meet him about five years ago. We met in a little cafe in Beverly Hills, which almost paints Terry in a light that isn’t terribly accurate, because he’s not a Beverly Hills type of individual. He lives very quietly in Austin, Texas. He’s very easy-going and just utterly inspirational. He talks as if he’s unsure of things but it’s really just his gentile nature and you find that he’s incredibly intelligent and has amassed all kinds of knowledge over his lifetime.

The project he discussed was a kind of peace that he wanted to create within the film, something that really told the history of the universe itself – no small ambition! Literally, he wanted to tell this with images from the dawn of time but prior to the Big Bang, the first periods of the universe – stars, galaxies, formation of planets – the birth of life and its evolution on Earth. And he wanted to put this together as a montage piece.

fxg: So how did you start planning for that?

Glass: Well, there weren’t particular storyboards – it wasn’t the type of thing where there were typical storyboards or previs to start breaking it down. That’s not the way he traditionally works. There were these beats of either important steps or stages, or particular emotional beats he wanted to represent, but he didn’t necessary have a complete way of defining what those were yet. The first light, and how that occurs, or the beauty of the solar system, the origins of life itself…and then as you get into higher life itself – the evolution of higher consciousness. There’s one particularly important moment in the piece that talks about the evolution of mercy and creatures – that takes them to a level above animalistic.

It was really this pastiche of various ideas. On top of that he wanted it to be deeply based on current theory or research and to that end, he had already been in touch with some of the world’s leading scientists in each of the fields of this evolving tale. So we would gather the information from them, and develop imagery and we would have them vet, as we went along, the process. At the end of the day, he wanted the imagery to fundamentally be emotional or almost painterly or artistic. He didn’t want to be like a science textbook. The emotion needed to be underlying – it needed to be this visual wonder – you had to gaze out and feel fascinated at the world that existed.

fxg: What kind of reference did you look to?

Glass: It clearly wasn’t going to be like a regular project or the regular kind of approach. We tried to devise ways of gathering hoards of reference. We brought on Brad Friedman as a digital effects supervisor who I had start to collate this stuff into a digital library, and that became a vast library system. It helped identify the key moments and the moments most critical to Terry. But also to accumulate imagery that appealed for all sorts of reasons, whether it had been a beautiful thing he’d scene, or the quality of light in an image. That type of stuff would just begin to amass to bring to life something that made cohesive sense. The other thing we looked at was music. I suggested if you don’t have a specific idea of how this thing should look, maybe you can think of the music that will play over it. That he was able to do, and he gave me a CD with a ton of tracks that had the right emotion.

fxg: Can you talk about how you then split up the visual effects work for the montage?

Glass: With Brad in Austin, we set up a small local team that could research and find reference, but also begin to mock up ideas – previs in a fashion, but more like style or look boards. We divided the work into four realms: the astrophysical realm – covering all things astrophysical; the microbial realm – covering things at the opposite end of the scale, covering the origins of life; the natural history realm – which was the evolution of creatures and fauna on our planet; and the contemporary realm – things of our current time, which fell more within the live action portion of the film.

The live action film tells broadly the tale of a man looking back at his life as he grew up with his brothers, and the tension and day-to-day challenges faced by his father and mother and their different approaches to raising children and their outlooks on life. In there is the death of one of the brothers and what that did to the family and how it causes them to reflect on their lives.

Within that set of emotions and ideas is where this sequence plays in its entirety – there’s no narrative but there is a tremendous score and occasional spoken words throughout it. It happens fairly early in the picture, then the picture plays out and towards the tail-end of the movie is another short segment that carries us through into the future – which shows what we may expect to happen to our solar system with the sun expanding to a red giant and then ultimately collapsing to a white dwarf and in the process strips off the atmosphere off the Earth’s surface – although this is way, way into the future.

fxg: Let’s talk about the realms you had to create. What was involved in the astrophysical realm?

Glass: Double Negative was mostly behind the astrophysical realm. They had come on board early in 2007 and done a small test. One of their artists here, Laurent-Paul Robert, had partnered up with a photojournalist, Michael Benson, who gathers source Hubble imagery and interplanetary probes that’s public domain material. But he takes this material that’s often shot in tiles, cleans it up and pieces it together to form these beautiful high-resolution images. The Hubble images are really just rich and so detailed that they don’t need augmentation – they’re just stunning as they are. A lot of them a relatively familiar to people as they’re quite celebrated and seen quite regularly.

So Michael worked with Laurent here using this imagery and built subtle motion and movement to them – ‘three-D-fied’ them, basically. We took some shots of Jupiter for example and added subtle swirls to the gaseous surface so that you got this sense that it was alive. But it was very slow moving, so there was this stately grace to the shots. We designed the shots in a way that they had this scale and you felt this massive presence of these objects. Terry loved this test and it’s really the reason why Double Negative came on board. It also dictated the way we approached these shots, which were things that were based on our planetary system. We basically took it as high resolution as we could, cleaned it up, built layers into it to add subtle movements, and we also replaced all the stars that tend to be brightly flared, then added those in as these tiny detailed additional elements.

fxg: There are other shots in the astrophysical realm, though, like the Big Bang, that probably didn’t have real world reference, I’m guessing. How did you do these?

Glass: For areas that didn’t have any analogy, say the birth of the universe itself and the early cosmos, we created some abstract materials with light leaks through camera lenses. We also looked at one of the world’s leading researchers for the dark ages, a scientist called Dr Volker Bromm, who did a simulation on ‘Population-3s’, theorized as the first stars in the universe. As that condensed mass expanded, it began to create pockets that enabled light itself to begin to travel – prior to that it was too dense. In that process some of these stars would form. We took the base of the simulation from Dr Bromm and it was rendered and processed with the NCSA (National Center for Supercomputing Applications).

They also helped us deliver a fly-through of cameras which they do for a number of IMAX-type specialty venues, but this was the first time they’d done it for a feature film. Contrary to those custom-themed pictures, this was not about a ride, this was about drifting in space almost, feeling like you were there and present. We then took the imagery that was created, which was still somewhat scientific in appearance, and gave it to concept artist George Hull and had him work up the frames to suggest this thing that was very painterly and beautiful to look at. That was brought to Double Negative who worked it up for the film. Pretty much each shot – there’s not a tonne of shots in total, but they tended to be pretty long and each shot had its own detailed story in terms of what it represents and how we created it.

fxg: The basis of these shots is something real, even though you’re still simulating parts of it. Was that the aim?

Glass: Terry was very consistent about wanting the material to look utterly convincing and real. Either that was because it was photographed and very subtly enhanced or to him if it was based on something real. To him, real was a very complex simulation of data – but it was still real and represented science and fact, and we would bolt onto that and it would give it this very solid foundation that we needed. In the example we just talked about, we’d also layer in a texture of a cloud into the shot, so it had an air familiarity with scale. We were trying to depict this also cavern that life begins in.

Rarely do you see two shots succeed each other that were built the same way. We mixed into this area a lot of material generated in workshops that were done with the collaboration of Doug Trumbull. He came down to Austin for three shots, and set up these fascinating three day workshops where we literally had a whole lab of experiments, and tanks with fluids and dyes and dry ice, and heated ball bearings, salt on tables – really a whole bag of tricks that Doug has been working with his whole life. We amassed a great amount of material shot with a Phantom for high speed, and with film cameras. Some of it was specific shots we designed to create. Other material was just for general ‘energies’, as Terry would say. That would then be layered into shots to add organic natural organic elements. We had some dyes floating slowly through a tank, for instance, that doubled up later as nebulae. We’d play it in ultra slow and then add stars, to kind of give that impression that this was an entirely different scale.

fxg: The next realm you mentioned was the microbial realm. Can you take us through that?

Glass: There were two avenues we approached here. We went to the father/son duo of Peter and Chris Parks who have done work over the years on nature footage and marine biology. They also shoot small microbial creatures and organisms. They also have an experimental lab process of mixed chemicals and fluids that create these extraordinary rich shapes and designs. We commissioned them to shoot some material for us that was more apt for the microbial realm. It was very subtly augmented.

The principal vendor for the microbial shots was a company called One of Us Ltd, a small boutique in London run by Tom Debenham, Dominic Parker and Rachael Penfold. I’ve known them for many years, and they were so perfect for this type of project. They’re musicians and photographers and have their own studio, as well as being very adept digitally. They really encompassed so many things we needed for the project as well as being able to communicate ideas and come up with things. In the development of their material, they would often send it along with modern classical music played over the top, and Terry loved that. They did some exquisite very-heavy CG shots to represent the early stages of early cellular life, but always mixed in with some pieces of the real, whether they were rich painterly backgrounds that were photographs of textures and dyes and paints. Or in the case of one shot, some marmalade floating in a tank that were mixed in with various pieces, that really helped to give it this high level of detail and texture.

There was one egg yolk shot in stasis that was shot in different lighting conditions and then composited together with an ocean plate filmed in Hawaii filmed by a surfing photographer who Terry knows. In other instances, it was much more heavily CG but using textures that were from rust or some kind of very practical or organic origin, and then layered again with composited pieces and elements. Each one had a very different look and story to how it came to be, but they principally look at that first pulse of consciousness or independence of will, in a very primitive form – like the reproduction of cells, fission – which enables the development future life. One other studio involved there was Method Studios which came on board to do a shot which is inside a cell to show how the nucleus splits – you see the chromozone separate and a new cell wall come down. It’s that moment of first separation of slightly more evolved cells.

It was all about mixing and matching, so that things didn’t necessarily have to have a consistent feel. It feels like almost over time there were different camera mechanisms that existed to capture the realms. It wouldn’t have made sense in Terry’s mind that everything had the same look and feel, because that would have meant to same equipment and crew was there the whole time. The patchwork nature of it was by design. Interspersed with these key effects moments was some amazing natural footage. They would require some analogies, whether it was shooting the volcanoes erupting in Hawaii, going to Iceland where there’s no real established trees – it has large moss-covered rocks and so is a great stand-in for an early period of Earth. So there’s this exquisite footage shot and used regularly throughout this piece to help ground everything in reality. That was photographed, along with creatures and animals, by a roving team that went around the world to shoot things.

fxg: The natural history realm is the next part of the montage – what was it made up of?

Glass: We do get a spell where you arrive at the dinosaurs. It would be hard to tell the tale of our planet and our time without landing on them at some point, seeing as they were around for such a long period of time. I think part of what intrigued Terry was capturing the moment of evolution of mercy, in a creature like the dinosaurs. They are so known in our film and TV media as vicious creatures. Terry deliberately wanted to pick a couple of species that were not that commonly seen, and really not that remarkable, so they would feel a little bit more run of the mill and everyday in the nature of the creatures themselves.

The way that we photographed them was we went to the Northern Redwoods in California and shot beautiful natural plates heavily backlit so the creatures would appear heavily silhouetted and rim-lit and not necessarily as you would if you wanted to feature this animal. I remember Terry’s view was that he wanted to feel like as if you we just happened to find the creature, the light’s beautiful but not ideal for the creature but it was the opportunity of being there. So we put them in there photorealistically, but the challenge was that it was almost the only narrative or sequential series of shots in the piece. dromaeosauridae – a slightly bird-like dinosaur – comes out to find a baby parasaur. It’s tired or wounded – it’s not totally clear – lying by the rocks by the river. The other dinosaur comes up, pounces on it, hurls it to the ground and we see it release momentarily, but then holds it back down again. Then there’s this fairly lingering moment where it releases its claw and it hovers and thinks about it. Ultimately, for some reason that we never really know or need to know, it decides to wander off, and spare this poor creature. Trying to capture that moment was actually one of Terry’s key early beats when we first discussed the film.

I went to Mike Fink, then at Focus Films, which is now Prime Focus. I knew he would understand the subtleties of this picture and the sequence. Key was animation that very was just very subtle. There’s often a real tendency in a long, lingering shot that doesn’t move much, there’s a tendency to over-animate. So we knew we had to be very restrained on that approach. The other creature they did was plesiosaur on a beach, which was the equivalent of a beached whale. We come up slowly on this wounded plesiosaur with a vast gash on its side. It almost looks towards its own kind and calls out in a moment of sorrow or pain, that echos some of the sentiments of the live action pieces of the film.

fxg: How did you film the live action for the dinosaur shots?

Glass: I had a team there with a plate supervisor, a set wrangler and we gathered all the information with chrome balls and HDRs etc. Where we knew a creature was going to feature in a shot, we would drop in bluescreens to break up the area. A lot of the way things were shot was much more fluid and organic, so that meant we were rushing around quite a lot. Terry loves shooting in the magic hour and there were only fractional moments to get the light right. We shot most of it with a steadicam, and we would shoot quickly, and the team would have to gather the data straight afterwards.

fxg: There’s another shorter sequence at the end of the film showing the future. Can you describe that?

Glass: It was really part of the astrophysical realm, which is as the Earth advances or as we see it journey into the future. For that we took elements from the Doug Trumbull workshops, which we actually called the Skunk Works. We also had some stunning plates that came from rock formations in Iceland. The camera comes around from behind, and we stripped out the sky and replaced it with a star field with a white dwarf sun and the scattered remnants of Venus and Mercury – as if the sun had expanded to a red giant and destroyed the inner planets in the process. In the light casting on the plate we painted in these hard shadows from the rock formations. It’s a very striking image that’s got a lot of reality in it, but it’s obviously significantly adapted to represent this different period.

Then we have this near parting shoot which has a very high resolution imagery of Venus that’s a stand-in for the future Earth. Some scientists say that current Venus is not a bad representation of where Earth may be in many millions of years from now. We have this beautiful shot of Venus slowly eclipsing the fading white dwarf sun as it goes down. So it was just wonderful imagery to get to work with. That was also from Double Negative. I should also mention in the contemporary realm we had a had a bunch of invisible shots completed by Evil Eye Pictures.

fxg: As a visual effects supervisor who’s done a lot of big Hollywood films, what was it like working on something like this, which doesn’t really seem to be any smaller particularly, but certainly was a different kind of project?

Glass: Well, it was really just the opportunity to work with Terry. You are really involved in the process of filmmaking, and he’s constantly wanting to hear your thoughts and feedback. He’d occasionally grab individuals, even some of the assistants, and ask them what they feel about a sequence. Not that it’s a movie designed by committee because at the end of the day he’s definitely making the shots. For the first few years, it was a lot of part time work. I would fly to Austin on weekends. We brought this group together almost as an experiment. Some of the material that we captured in the Skunk Works we ran through a local team of four compositors based in Austin. For the final stretch I was out in Austin, using cineSync to communicate, but I also went to London and Vancouver to supervise shots.

fxg: What do you think was your lasting memory of working on the film?

Glass: Well, Terry was always obsessed with the feeling that if you shoot reality, if you then zoomed in and in into reality, you’d never run out of resolution. So the idea was to try and make the screen feel like that was the case. We came up with a technique we nicknamed ‘Bierstadting’, named after a German painter called Albert Bierstadt, who Terry admired. He had these beautiful rich tableaus that when you look at them – they just had these incredible attention to detail in all sorts of areas of the frame. What we would do is take quite highly detailed textures and shrink it all the way down to a very small part of the frame.

It wasn’t done universally, but selectively in patches so that your eye would get drawn to reading detail which came from a higher resolution itself, so you get this sense that things just had an endless level of detail. It succeeded in giving that impression. We would regularly review things on large screens in Austin. We actually elected to work at 5 and a half K, partly because we shot on large format plates so the resolution was there in the backgrounds. We wanted to keep the work at that level so it maximized the detail in the end as a result. It’s definitely evident in the richness of the shots.

All images courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. TM and (c) 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.  All rights reserved.  Not for sale or duplication, do not reprint.