Deluxe’s Method Studios produced much of the visual effects for the 45min long IMAX Voyage of Time. The origin of life story by Director Terrence Malick shows the grand history of the cosmos, “spanning the eon from the Big Bang to present day and beyond”. The film was released as a 90min 35mm theatrical film narrated by Cate Blanchett and as a 45min IMAX film narrated by Brad Pitt. The documentary explores monumental, never-witnessed events with Malick’s trademark sweeping imagery. Deluxe’s Method Studios helped bring the film to the screen, crafting the birth of the Earth’s solar system, glimpses of the first unicellular life forms and reconstructions of extinct species.
As one of the film’s key vfx houses, Method contributed to some of the film’s most complex and demanding CG work. As with many of Malick’s previous films examining shot count is a poor metric to judge the work as shot lengths were substantially longer than average, and furthermore the work was completed in 5.5K for an IMAX projected experience.
The IMAX version was not only mastered at 5.5K but in the IMAX 1.85 aspect ratio, which must also incorporate an effective ‘centre’ of frame that is different for the audience than traditional cinema 1:2.35 or even 16:9. The film was shot both digitally and on 35mm film, using the Panavision 65 HR Camera, Phantom HD Gold and Red One Camera.
According to IMDB:
The film was originally intended as a conceptual piece entitled “Q”, and began production in 1979 before Terrence Malick abandoned the project. It was conceived as a multi-character love story set in the Middle East during the First World War which begins with a prologue set in prehistoric times. Eventually, Malick removed the WWI narrative and the prehistoric prologue became the whole film, with the narrative becoming more metaphorical and involving a prehistoric Minotaur or a “sleeping god” resting in the depths of the water while dreaming about the origins and formation of the universe.
The Production VFX Supervisor Dan Glass was also Senior VFX supervisor on Malick’s The Tree of Life and is currently Method’s Chief Creative Officer. Glass began working on Voyage of Time more than a decade prior to its release. He collaborated closely with Malick and leading academics to develop artistic and emotional concepts that were scientifically sound. This team of scientists, film makers and visual effects specialists were known as the ‘Skunkworks’ lab . According to Glass, there were chemical experiments conducted to see how various liquids, dyes, gasses and fluids might behave while being filmed at high-speed. Malick and Glass used everything from gels and glass, to smoke machines and fluid tanks, to create a whole range of effects. One of their main inspirations was the rich work of 19th-century painter Albert Bierstadt, to the extent that Malick referred to their work as “Bierstadting” (IMDB).
Glass explained, “Method is a rare company in that it’s a group of highly creative and diverse artists. This film was completely atypical in most respects, and the team approached each challenge with tremendous enthusiasm.”
For the astrophysical simulations, Method was given scientific data as a starting point. Artists then collaborated with Malick to determine the camera location in XYZ space, and teased out depth and dynamic range through clever compositing techniques and miniature photography to create shots ranging from 15 to 25 seconds long – about seven minutes of total content. Method VFX Supervisor Bruce Woloshyn said, “One of my favorite shots contains no CG, just practical smoke and miniatures that Dan filmed on a sound stage and we composited. It was fun to go old school, but we had to make sure the work would translate to the IMAX format where every piece of minutia can be scrutinized, and it turned out beautifully.”
Creating the film at IMAX resolution provided artists more creative opportunity when working on the shot showing bacteria cell division. Method VFX Supervisor Olivier Dumont said, “The level of detail afforded by IMAX was ideal. The background plates we received, although astonishing, were fairly static; we were able to add a lot of depth through cutting pieces out and re-positioning them in 3D space following the CG camera move. We then added CG floating particles to add a better sense of travel. It was quite effects heavy, and the result is rich with dimension.”
To develop the look of the bacteria, Dumont and his team scoured scientific reference photos, crafting near identical digital duplicates that deviated only slightly in color for a more cinematic result. Method also was responsible for the shots featuring dinosaurs, including the meteor that resulted in their extinction.
VFX for the project overall (including the longer 35mm version) incorporated practical effects, the work of Deluxe’s Method Studios (above), and other houses such as Locktix (Matthew Bramante Locktix Vfx sup.) and One of Us (Rachael Penfold ex.Prod One of Us).
Interestingly, the film actually started shooting in 2003 when cinematographer Paul Atkins alerted Malick that there were volcanoes erupting in Hawaii. The production sent Atkins off to capture the molten lava bursting up under the ocean and one of his cameraman took the IMAX camera so close to exploding magma it melted his boots!