Gilbert Colon, currently a state court employee, has contributed to periodicals such as Filmfax and Cinema Retro, as well as the book Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute (Stark House Press). Most recently he interviewed Matthew R. Bradley, author of Richard Matheson on Screen, for The New York Review of Science Fiction.

“…Oh my God — it’s full of stars!”:
The Transcendental Style of Douglas Trumbull and The Tree of Life

“…his soul, overflowing with rapture, yearned for freedom, space, openness. The vault of heaven, full of soft, shining stars, stretched vast and fathomless above him. The Milky Way ran in two pale streams from the zenith to the horizon.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.

One of the casualties of this year’s Oscar nominations is Douglas Trumbull, the visual effects artist thrice-nominated by the Academy for his work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Blade Runner. While director Terrence Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life garnered Academy Award consideration for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography, it lost the nod for Best Visual Effects to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Hugo, Real Steel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon. (This, despite a January announcement by the Academy including The Tree of Life on a “shortlist” of 10 contenders for the visual effects award, among them Captain America: The First Avenger, X-Men: First Class, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.) While the value afforded the Oscar culture is open to legitimate debate, it remains a disappointment that the visual effects artist who revolutionized special effects and was brought out of a nearly three-decade retirement by Malick goes unacknowledged by industry peers for his most current technical achievement.

The Tree of Life stars Brad Pitt as a stern father and Jessica Chastain as a gentle mother, one the personification of Nature and the other Grace, raising a family in 1950s Texas. Interspersed throughout this domestic drama is the cosmic drama of Creation and the dawn of life, including dinosaurs. This grandiose vision required special effects magic for which Malick recruited the legendary Trumbull, and reflecting upon Trumbull’s past body of work, one can instantly see why.

In the Olaf Stapledon science fiction novel The Star Maker, which inspired 2001: A Space Odyssey author Arthur C. Clarke, a godlike super-being calls into existence whole universes for his own artistic delight. Trumbull has made a career of creating cosmoses and other special effects marvels, so one could playfully think of him as a “Star Maker” in his own right, crafting celestial wonders with terrestrial techniques. (Trumbull began that career as Special Photographic Effects Supervisor on Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece film 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

For The Tree of Life, Trumbull served as visual effects consultant and was teamed with senior visual effects supervisor Dan Glass (Batman Begins and the Matrix sequels), and the fruits of this collaboration are visionary. During these special effects sequences — the formation of the universe and beginnings of microbial and dinosaur life — The Tree of Life feels like a live-action version of the Igor Stravinsky “Rite of Spring” chapter of Walt Disney’s Fantasia. As described by Malick’s screenplay, “Molecular clouds gather to make galaxies, which sail out through the void … New stars, new worlds are born…,” and from his script notes, “music strong and triumphant,” with Zbigniew Preisner “Lacrimosa’s” “rapture … weeping even over those stars … shining … from the abyss of space.” Making glorious use of Hubble Telescope and Cassini spacecraft photography and Jurassic Park-like CGI, The Tree of Life was heralded as a much-anticipated special effects event long before its release. From the outset its effects were showcased in articles in Wired (“Video: Tree of Life Visualizes the Cosmos Without CGI,” 6/17/11), Cinefex (“Creationisms,” January/February/March 2012), and, most recently, The New York Times (“Below the Line: The Effects of The Tree of Life,” 1/11/12). Nearly all who wrote about the film’s visuals emphasized the fact that though computer animation would feature in the dinosaur-era flashback, the bulk of Trumbull’s effects would be of the old-school variety that hark back to his earliest work on 2001.

In his earliest script notes (obtained by Paul Maher, Jr. at All Things Shining), Malick sought to “shoot what we can ourselves from space (high resolution video) or big telescope (35mm) – moon with earthshine, sun, Mars, Jupiter (time lapse) … reflect new astronomy, new vision of the world: solar winds[,] ripples moving through space[,] the gray state between energy and matter[,] new relations and connections between things…” Mandates included “astrophotography … sound photography, tomography, SEM?; get official sanction from NASA, NSF, etc.” The sovereign beauty Trumbull helps Malick to channel through artistry inspires nothing less than awesome wonder. Malick writes in those script notes, dating back to 1979, that he is “…interested in new techniques; want this to look like something never done before,” and even anticipates “Trumbull for non-Futurex process” well before Trumbull was on board. At this infancy stage, he even theorizes effects “through liquids and gases,” which is exactly how Trumbull achieves his sprawling 22-minute visualization of Creation.

From Malick’s memo of instructions, Trumbull extrapolated innovations like filming fluorescent dyes poured into a water tank lit in unique ways, as well as effusions of paint, ink, smoke, oil, chemicals, and other fluids (including milk and half-and-half!) shot through funnels and syringes or spattered with toothbrushes, airbrushes, and spoons. These were filmed with high-speed HD cinematography. Like a magician, Trumbull transubstantiates lead to gold, the most ordinary elements into star-stuff. In short, Trumbull went back to the water tank and liquid-generated effects he pioneered in 2001 and Close Encounters. In The Tree of Life‘s production notes, Trumbull explained how Malick encouraged experimentation: “He would rather have mysterious phenomena spontaneously occur while the camera was rolling … Malick was hunting for the Tao, that completely unanticipated phenomena, those magical unexpected moments that no one could possibly design.”

Of course Trumbull did not accomplish all this wonderment alone. Besides Glass, several special effects houses and teams went to work creating Malick’s “cosmic epic”: Double Negative for the cosmic sequences, One of Us and Method for the microbial scenes, and Prime Focus/Frantic for the dinosaur segment. Worth singling out are Peter and Chris Parks, the same team responsible for a film with almost identical space photography and fluid dynamics visuals, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. The Fountain coincidentally features a literal Tree of Life, and Malick’s screenplay for his own film even describes the O’Brien family’s “oak tree in the front yard … [its] branches spread towards the light, towards discovery and utterance” as “a fountain of life.”

Most genre enthusiasts might scoff to think of a drama like The Tree of Life as science fiction, but comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, too numerous to list here, were rife from the start, and only partly due to Trumbull’s involvement (not to mention both films’ classical music scores). The conspicuous science fiction elements — in reality, science fact — are the Big Bang, dinosaur, and death of the universe sequences, but there are other less obvious flourishes. Significantly, by day the boys launch model rockets from their backyard — “Did he go to the moon?” — and by night one reads Jack Coggins and Fletcher Pratt’s 1952 book By Spaceship to the Moon. Interestingly, the book’s artwork of astronauts exploring a lunar landscape recalls those 2001 scenes where man discovers the black monolith. As further demonstration that Tree of Life deserves at least a modicum of consideration as a genre entry, Malick’s notes even demand the film at times be “shot like … Forbidden Planet, Curse of the Cat People.” Twice he invokes “(Terry Carr and Rick Baker)” in his script notes under the headings “Age of Dinosaurs” and “Australopithecus.” Anyone familiar with the 1976 Dino de Laurentiis remake of King Kong, a film with its own prehistoric environs, will know the names Carr and Baker as, respectively, production manager and makeup effects artist from that production. (Baker, like Trumbull, is a legend in his own right within science fiction and horror circles.)

Malick, in fact, was prepared as far back as the late 1970s to recruit an array of talent affiliated, to various degrees, with the science fiction genre. When calling for “Quasars, Galaxies, Proto-Solar System,” the name Malick lists is a man widely proclaimed to be the father of computer graphics, John Whitney. Whitney’s early work with slit-scan photography was adopted by Trumbull for 2001‘s Star Gate effects, and in fact Trumbull and Whitney worked together on the 1971 science fiction film The Andromeda Strain (though Whitney is uncredited for his early video effects). Ken Middleham, identified twice in Malick’s notes for “time lapse” for “Atoms, Crystals … science photography” and “Ice Age Sights … Melting snow,” was Malick’s time-lapse photographer on Days of Heaven, as well as serving in a photography capacity on germane genre material like Damnation Alley, The Mutations, and The Hellstrom Chronicle. Then there was Al Giddings, a man with extensive National Geographic credits, whom Malick hoped to assist with “Quaternary Wildlife … blue whale.” Besides eventually co-producing James Cameron’s Titanic, Giddings went on to contribute his underwater photography skills to DeepStar Six and Cameron’s The Abyss. While only Trumbull from Malick’s wish list survived the passage of time, it is an early indicator of the type of talent — men versed in the cinema of the fantastic — that the director was searching for.

Whereas 2001 audaciously charts the trajectory of man’s evolution, Malick reaches for even grander ambitions, chronicling the history of the universe from beginning to end and everything in between, including the origins of microbial life to the meteoric extinction of the dinosaurs to family life in twentieth-century Texas. By setting the intimate chamber-drama chapter of the film against this backdrop of vastness, Malick imbues cosmic significance to ordinary life and death on our seemingly insignificant speck of a planet. Like 2001, The Tree of Life even features fetal imagery, only this time not as a Star-Child super-being but as Jack O’Brien (played as an adult by Sean Penn) in his mother’s womb, juxtaposed with Trumbull’s genesis of time and space. During these scenes, instead of Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra” we get Ottorino Respighi’s “Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 3,” prefiguring a “childhood’s end” quite different than 2001‘s evolutionary triumph of the will to power.

Before the Big Bang and dawn of dinosaur sequences, The Tree of Life opens with a captioned prologue from Job 38: 4, 7: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?…When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” Yet to see The Tree of Life through the lens of the swirling debates between intelligent design, Creationism, or Darwinism is a form of reductionism that misses the point of the film. When embroiled in his own disputation, Galileo Galilei invoked Cardinal Cesare Baronius in the famous letter where he said that Scripture is meant to show us “how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” Embracing Genesis and science, Malick dares to dramatize both, positing that the two can co-exist side-by-side, just as Nature and Grace do. These controversies are not Trumbull’s concern; his only interests seem to lie in communicating transcendent visions of the Infinite, be they Malick’s or Kubrick’s.

Malick’s script notes express how he is “concerned about the depletion of the metaphysical value of celestial phenomena by other films; what else can we use to communicate the same feeling?” Malick’s proposed solution to contemplating the Infinite is “digital technology … science photography … microphotography … underwater … macrophotography … astrophotography,” effects that Trumbull and his team realize with brilliant results. To the problem of communicating the metaphysical itself, apart from the “celestial phenomena,” Malick’s eventual solution to presenting a Maker is to bookend his film with a “flickering flame that can only represent the creator … the elusive deity,” concedes A. O. Scott in The New York Times. The film’s credits reveal the flame to be “Opus 161,” one of many light sculptures artist Thomas Wilfred crafted by transforming everyday mirrors, metal, lamps, lenses, and glass — in other words, “special effects” — into what one journalist called “feats of ethereal engineering … that represent the universal flow.” This Uncreated Light, figuring in Trumbull’s formation of the universe and prefacing some of the domestic drama, fulfills Malick’s stated goals in his notes where “everything seems like an emanation, a mere ray, of the First Light, deriving vigor and glory from this first source … we should feel part of all this glory.” Thanks to Trumbull and his team, we are all able to feel a part of this glory.

Simply because The Tree of Life quotes from sacred choral music, Dostoyevsky, and medieval mystics like Thomas à Kempis and St. Thomas Aquinas does not mean Malick hesitated to consult with leading science experts of the day — Dr. Andrew H. Knoll, Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard University, Montana State University paleontologist Dr. John “Jack” Horner, and others. Malick also consulted journalist Michael Benson for his “astronomical photographs from a variety of NASA sources to create accurate, ultra-high-resolution photo mosaics,” as well as researchers at the University of Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and Dr. Volker Bromm at the University of Texas for astrophysical computer model simulations. This is consistent with the worldview of Malick who is, as Brad Pitt describes him, a man with “a strong belief in God but also in science.”

Trumbull’s liquid skies and Cretaceous parklands do not merely add up to a dazzling but superficial planetarium light show; they come in the context of Jack O’Brien’s sprawling unveiling of “the beginning of things and their last end,” an interior rapture in which he is caught up to the vault of heaven in order to see “…all that has gone into our world’s preparation, each thing … a miracle — precious, incomparable…” and, ultimately, “the eternal scheme of which we are a part.” This spiritual ecstasy, revealing man’s eschatological destiny, stands in sharp contrast to 2001‘s materialist vision of “Man [as] the bridge connecting Ape and Superman.” It becomes clear that Malick’s cosmic intelligence is not Stapledon’s aloof “Star Maker” or Kubrick and Clarke’s monolithic alien entity, nor an anonymous energy force, but as the film’s title telegraphs, along with its culmination of clues, quotes, images, and references, the ancient God of Job and Dostoyevsky.

Despite the immensity of Malick’s vision, unbelievably it is still only a portion of what he envisioned in his screenplay. With tantalizing slug lines like “PANDROMEDA” and “A THOUSAND TRILLION YEARS FROM NOW,” “THE MULTIVERSE (CGI) – MULTIPLE BIG BANGS — THIRD EXPANSION,” including a line that describes “atoms the size of the Milky Way, and other bizarre products of this era,” we are left only to ponder what Trumbull would have done with these. Another passage reads: “The last days of the earth. Man has long since left its surface to seek asylum on worlds yet unknown.” As it stands, we do glimpse the sun collapse into a white dwarf, signaling the beginning of the end for our solar system. Does the toy Noah’s ark early in The Tree of Life foreshadow this mass migration? What spacefaring vessels would Trumbull have dreamed up for such a sequence? Perhaps these exodus craft would have resembled the “Earthship Ark” from Trumbull’s science fiction series The Starlost, or the Discovery from 2001

While it would be overstating it to label The Tree of Life “science fiction” in the strictest sense of the word; its themes of the origin and fate of man and the universe, along with its special effects, earn it at least a footnote in the canon of science fiction. Beginning with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein through Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and the works of Philip K. Dick to the recent Battlestar Galactica remake, it would not be the first time science fiction explicitly integrated religious themes.

All things said, last year may simply not have been Trumbull’s year — a documentary chronicling his special effects contributions, 2001: Beyond the Infinite, was scuttled by Warner Home Video. Perhaps as a consolation prize for their nomination lapse, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented Trumbull with the honorary Gordon E. Sawyer Award, not on Oscar night at the Kodak Theatre, but on February 11 at the Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. While not a red-carpet moment, the statuette at least abundantly fulfills it stated intention to laud “an individual in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry.”

And this season’s egregious Oscar omission may yet hold a happy ending for Trumbull, as a second chance at recognition of his cosmological spectacle is around the corner. Malick envisioned an IMAX documentary as a companion piece to The Tree of Life. This documentary film, The Voyage of Time, will reportedly borrow special effects from The Tree of Life, as well as add more, though a release date has not yet been set. Malick’s script notes called for The Tree of Life to feature “Quasars,” “Galaxies,” “Proto-Solar System,” “Ancestral Earth,” “Molten Oceans,” “Volcanoes,” “Infant Earth,” “Night Meteors,” “Electric Skies,” “Raging Sea Atoms,” “Crystals,” “plants,” “Pre-cambrian era,” “Supernova,” “Comet,” “Aurora,” “Cambrian,” “volvox,” “underwater, “Silurian era,” “Age of Dinosaurs” and so much more. While much of this finds its way onto the screen, what does not may well end up in Malick’s The Voyage of Time. Mr. O’Brien himself from The Tree of Life, Brad Pitt, will even narrate.

Then there are Trumbull’s plans for a “big space adventure movie” in 120FPS 3D that promises to go “way beyond anything that Peter Jackson and Jim Cameron have been doing or are thinking of.” Though last year may not qualify as “2011: A Spiritual Odyssey,” thanks to the Academy’s poor judgment, with Trumbull still going strong at 70, we have a lot to look forward to.

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, one of many books that served as inspiration for Malick and his Tree of Life, Alyosha says of his heavenly vision, “There seemed to be threads from all those innumerable worlds of God, linking his soul to them, and it was trembling all over ‘in contact with other worlds.’” For the earthbound of us who are not Alyosha, Jack O’Brien, or even astronaut David Bowman – not “in contact with other worlds” — the visual effects magic of Douglas Trumbull must for now suffice.

Tagged with:

Filed under: Movies

Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!