Even for a director as accomplished as Terrence Malick, creating the universe can present some problems. Hardly known for his special effects extravaganzas, Malick’s approach to filmmaking (capturing spontaneous events) is at odds with the pre-planned discipline of CGI processes; they are simply too synthetic for his more organic methodology. Instead, Malick had to opt for methods and skill sets that have all but disappeared. For the spectacular and epic 22-minute birth of creation sequence in his new film, The Tree of Life, Malick contacted one of the few people with the experience, skill and creative drive to get the results I needed. In short, he needed Douglas Trumbull, a man who hadn’t worked on feature films for almost 30 years, a man who could be the savior of cinema.
Trumbull, a self-confessed and artistic “creative geeky,” had no real plans to become a special effects technician. Angelenos came to Hollywood in the early 1960s with a portfolio “all full of science fiction, alien planets, spaceships, things like that.” he found work in advertising, doing layouts and paste-ups, while looking for a path in the world of cinema. He was soon pointed in the direction of the small graphic film company, which made space films for NASA. it was here that he did all the art for a short film called to the moon and beyond, the only film shot in the cinerama 360 process, whereby circular images were projected onto a domed planetarium screen. Shown at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, the film caught the attention of director Stanley Kubrick and science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke, who were investigating a possible collaboration called Star Trek.
impressed with what he saw, kubrick struck a deal with graphic to bring his best people to england to work on the film. Trumbull, 23, quickly found himself transplanted to London, with all the resources of a major studio, as a nine-month gig turned into nearly three years and the film was renamed 2001: A Space Odyssey. p>
It’s hard to imagine a better introduction to the world of filmmaking than in 2001. Trumbull not only learned how to make the most of his creative impulses, he also learned the technical side of filmmaking to the highest possible level. “There were every conceivable level of quality control that Stanley Kubrick himself oversaw.” remember trumbull. “extreme testing, constant rigorous monitoring, on every camera and projector.” Trumbull also approached Kubrick with an idea he had been working on, an effect that involved moving artwork while the shutter remained open, to solve the problem of the film’s legendary stargate sequence. “It required the construction of a special chamber,” says Trumbull. “Once we got it up and running, it worked perfectly for months, running almost 24 hours a day.”
viewing the finished film, trumbull was impressed by the immersive qualities of the climactic sequences and saw that this was an area worth exploring. but hollywood had other ideas for him and so began years of compensation:
He would provide special effects for movies like Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters, Blade Runner, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but only so he could fund his plans to raise the state of the art, and also further his directing ambitions.
trumbull’s directorial debut, silent running (1972), was a groundbreaking piece of science fiction that remains influential today. his second feature film, however, ended in tragedy. brainstorm (1983) was planned as a spectacular journey into the inner mind using trumbull’s revolutionary showscan process, a high-speed, large-format film technique that delivers images that would be indistinguishable from reality. But when star Natalie Wood drowned during production, the studio turned its back on Trumbull.
This meant a return to what he knew best, and trumbull focused entirely on developing his techniques. Decades of research and development followed, resulting in impressive and immersive theme park displays, like the trip back to the future in Universal and regular, unwanted offerings of special effects work. unwanted, that is, until terrence malick came calling. “I just did [the tree of life] as a friend,” he says. “There’s nowhere you can go to ask for special effects like this, so I suggested we open up a little lab and run some experiments.”
dan glass, the film’s visual effects supervisor, picks up the story. “Terry approached me about five years ago with the project. It was a surprise – I never expected to work with a filmmaker like Malick. But it was clear a different approach was needed here. So we set up a little lab called SkunkWorks and they gathered and brought the cameras every few weeks.”
‘I’m exploring a new territory that goes far beyond what cinema has always been’
To show the swirling cosmic soup from which the universe and other phenomena were formed, experimentation was the order of the day. the sequence of creation ranges from subatomic events spanning nanoseconds to cosmic events spanning millennia. The approach was something like alchemy: using materials more likely to be found in a hardware store than in a high-tech cgi workshop (fluorescent dyes, flares, co2, paints, chemicals, even milk), they found images that were unique, surprising and often accidental. it was up to malick to keep them inspired and on the right track.
for trumbull it was a return to happier times. “It was a work environment that is almost impossible to find these days,” she says. “Terry wanted to create the opportunity for the unexpected to happen on camera, and then do something with that. He didn’t want to use a very strict design process, he wanted the unexpected to happen, and use that.”
although computers were used to manipulate the images, glass believes that the key to the success of the sequence (virtually a movie within a movie) was variety. “we had a lot of vendors for the bits used. what you’re seeing is pretty much a different technique used for every shot, which makes it look interesting and harder for the viewer to understand. we all wanted to impress terry. there are a lot of these stuff that didn’t even make it into the finished movie.”
for trumbull it’s just another in a long list of triumphs, the only difference is that this one is in the public eye. Over the years he developed showscan, brought imax to audiences, worked on the magicam real-time video compositing system (as seen in carl sagan’s cosmos tv series), and even toiled away on one of the first interactive video games. A pretty impressive list of accomplishments these days, but when he considers that all of these projects started in the late ’70s, he’s even more amazing.
mgm and paramount, which financed many of these developments, eventually lost interest and abandoned them. It is only now that directors like Peter Jackson and James Cameron have the influence to effect the changes that Trumbull predicted and developed. Both Jackson’s The Hobbit and Cameron’s Avatar 2 will be shot at more than twice the usual speed of 24 frames per second. the idea is that the faster you go, the clearer and more realistic the images will be. “I was doing this 35 years ago,” says Trumbull.
The Tree of Life, however, has put Trumbull back in the game and has big plans in mind. “I’m developing some high frame rate 3D processes that will be, I hope, indistinguishable from reality. This is going to be quite an unusual cinematic event: you’re not just telling an ordinary story, it’s more like a first-person experience where the melodrama doesn’t get in the way.” … being inside the movie instead of watching the movie. I’m exploring new territory that goes far beyond the experience of what cinema has always been.” he laughs. “It’s always been a fight and it probably always will be a fight.”
hollywood, you really should listen to this man.
the tree of life is out