How Did “The Tree of Life” Involve Special Effects Legend Douglas Trumbull?

Early in The Tree of Life (2011), we’re treated to a long, 20+ minute visual symphony of images depicting the birth and infancy of life. From the cosmic explosions that created our universe, to the first organisms in water, through the presence of dinosaurs and into modern times, Malick’s visceral journey is amazing to behold and has so much to say without uttering a word.

While many modern filmmakers would rely heavily on computer-generated imagery (CGI) to craft a concept like this, Malick felt computer renderings could not achieve visual justice. They’re too synthetic, and Malick wanted to make the natural beauty of everything his focus. He relied on an old friend - Douglas Trumbull - and his legendary, but now archaic, special effects methods to create the sequence without the help of computer graphics.

Trumbull is famous for his groundbreaking effects work on films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Blade Runner (1982), and is a man who, prior to The Tree of Life, had not worked in films for nearly 30 years. With the help of visual effects supervisor Dan Glass, the team was able to create the majestic visual work by combining components such as space photography and nature shots with shots of dyes and coffee creamer being dropped into water. Trumbull’s involvement is a large part of the reason the film draws frequent comparison to the illusory effects in Kubrick’s 2001.

Phelim O’Neill of The Guardian discusses the process: “To show the swirling cosmic soup that the universe formed from, and other phenomena, experimentation was the order of the day. The creation sequence goes from sub-atomic occurrences that stretch nanoseconds to cosmic events that condense millennia. The approach was something like alchemy: using materials more likely to be found in a hardware store than a hi-tech CGI workshop (fluorescent dyes, flares, carbon dioxide, paints, chemicals, even milk), they came across images that were unique, striking and often accidental. For Trumbull it was a return to happier times. “It was a working environment that’s almost impossible to come by these days,” he says. While computers were used to manipulate the images, Glass believes the key to the success of the sequence – virtually a film within a film – was variety. “What you’re seeing is practically a different technique used for every shot, which keeps it looking interesting and harder to figure out for the viewer.”

They created images that looked like they came from the Hubble telescope by mixing colors with water and shooting it with various lens and light combinations. They took actual space footage and edited it slightly, smoothing things out or adding details.

From an interview with Hugh Hart on Wired, Trumbull said “We worked with chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, carbon dioxide, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography to see how effective they might be. It was a free-wheeling opportunity to explore, something that I have found extraordinarily hard to get in the movie business. Terry didn’t have any preconceived ideas of what something should look like. We did things like pour milk through a funnel into a narrow trough and shoot it with a high-speed camera and folded lens, lighting it carefully and using a frame rate that would give the right kind of flow characteristics to look cosmic, galactic, huge and epic.”

The result was a film able to be shown in IMAX, as it was produced with 5.5K screen resolution and tremendous detail.

It shows that while CGI is amazing and can produce fantastic work, there’s still something to be said for the lost art of creating effects the old-fashioned way.