From Microscopic to Cosmic: The Fittingly Organic VFX of 'The Fountain' & 'The Tree of Life'

Other than their deep meditation on mortality -- and the associated motif of a sacred source of life -- Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain (2006) and Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (2011) couldn't be more different. That is, aside from the way in which the films achieve much of their strikingly beautiful cosmic imagery. In an era of filmmaking in which CGI and space-bound science fiction are far from strangers, these two films opt for a more naturalistic alternative -- such as macrophotography and high-speed microscopy -- to visualize their explorations of life in the universe. What could be more appropriate effects for films so occupied with the organic? Click through for some details on how VFX allowed the microscopic to 'double' for the cosmos.

The Fountain

Below is some material from a behind-the-scenes mini-doc on The Fountain -- set to begin playing wherein VFX designers Jeremy Dawson and Dan Schrecker go into detail about the effects specifically -- followed by further exemplification of the results (between the quotes below):

Aronofsky cites 2001: A Space Odyssey as a key influence in his desire to avoid CGI, because that film's FX powerfully illustrate how well real photography of real objects can hold up, even viewing the film decades later. An article from Wired goes into even greater detail about the work of macrophotographer/marine biologist Peter Parks, who masterminded and filmed the chemical and biological elements key to the effects:

Parks and his son run a home f/x shop based on a device they call the microzoom optical bench. Bristling with digital and film cameras, lenses, and Victorian prisms, their contraption can magnify a microliter of water up to 500,000 times or fill an Imax screen with the period at the end of this sentence. Into water they sprinkle yeast, dyes, solvents, and baby oil, along with other ingredients they decline to divulge... The upshot is that Parks can make a dash of curry powder cascading toward the lens look like an onslaught of flaming meteorites. "When these images are projected on a big screen, you feel like you're looking at infinity," he says. "That's because the same forces at work in the water – gravitational effects, settlement, refractive indices – are happening in outer space."

Video is no longer available:

"The studio gave Darren a really hard time," Parks recalls. "Nobody believed he could make this film without CGI. The studio thought he was crazy." With a stack of Hubble photographs for inspiration, [Parks and his son] worked from before dawn till late at night for 10 weeks. The cost of a single f/x sequence from ILM can reach several million dollars, but Parks shot all the footage Aronofsky needed for just $140,000.

And thusly, through creative problem solving and 'good old fashioned' photography, Aronofsky was able to largely avoid the use of CG except in compositing these elements together. There's much more fascinating material to be read on The Fountain and its visual effects, but unfortunately far too much to be included here. You can read plenty more where that came from in the links below.

The Tree of Life

Come to think of it, there's yet another connection between these two films, and that's the 2001: A Space Odyssey one. For Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, SFX legend Doug Trumbull returned from a three-decade 'hiatus' from feature work -- which includes 2001. From Animation World Network:

Filmmaking guru Doug Trumbull consulted as a favor to Malick... he set up a lab called "the skunkworks" in a small studio to photograph practical elements for the Astrophysical realm. "I think it's an extraordinary thing and it comes at a time when the world really needs something that's outside the box," Trumbull proclaims. "We were shooting with a combination of the Phantom Gold 2K camera at up to 1,000 fps and sometimes with a Red One camera using it at 4K, sometimes at 24 fps and sometimes even under cranked at 6 or 12 fps," Trumbull continues.

"There were a lot of experiments in water tanks, different kinds of turbulence tanks that I would design; lighting effects in tanks; combinations of dyes and liquids, paint and a lot of milk and half and half. It's the way I like to work. When we first spoke, Terry was frustrated that even some of the best super computers in the world that were doing galaxy and Black Hole simulations tended to look a little synthetic." [From Vanity Fair:] "[Malick] said to me, 'I don't like CG.' I said, 'Why not do it the old way? The way we did it in 2001?'"

All this and we haven't even gotten to the part about the dinosaurs! In all seriousness, though -- it's inspiring to know such imagery can be accomplished with a concrete basis in photography, and that there are creative minds in filmmaking still interested in pursuing it. Once again, there's loads of material here regarding both Fountain and Tree of Life -- both of which detail the makers of each pulling off miracles of altogether different kinds to get them made as well.

What do you guys think of these effects? Do they outperform digital imagery at the task -- and can they hold up better than contemporary CG animation? What other examples of non-traditional (or traditional, I guess, depending on your perspective) visual effects have stuck with you?

Links for The Fountain:

Links for The Tree of Life:

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Your Comment


I love the completely natural organic look these effects have! I also love the "as above, so below" metaphor suggested by the filmmakers when choosing to use practical effects in petri dishes to simulate the action in nebulas.

May 6, 2013 at 9:26PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


...remember the CGI dinosaur though....that was funny.

May 6, 2013 at 9:40PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography in the Tree of Life is amazing. I agree though, the only part of the film that took me out of the story was the cgi dinosaurs.

May 7, 2013 at 12:47AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Luke Lasley

Watching the creation seen in "The Tree of Life" was a life changing experience for myself as a filmmaker.

I went on to create SCI-FLY solely on the inspiration these films gave me.

Check out the trailer and judge for youself.

Long live practical effects!!!


May 6, 2013 at 11:07PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Wow! Is also whole movie available?

May 7, 2013 at 1:20AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


As I understood they still used vfx, shooting practical elements to later compose them in a compositing software is still considered visual effects. Actually, studios use practical elements all the time to save time and money.

May 7, 2013 at 6:30AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Is this a joke? The CGI in Tree of Life was laughable. Why they mixed that garbage in with the gorgeous cinematography elsewhere in the film was incomprehensible.

It was like: gorgeous film --> cheesy 90s discovery channel special ---> gorgeous film.

May 7, 2013 at 7:36AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Totally agree. LSD may help people appreciate this film otherwise its rubbish

May 9, 2013 at 6:55PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


the budget for tree of life was laughable. except that it's not really funny.

May 9, 2013 at 9:11PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


The Fountain is Aronofsky's masterpiece. Hugely underrated on it's release by critics but it is loved by many...

May 7, 2013 at 8:27AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


One of the best and at the same time most philoshophical films I have ever seen!
Also a great soundtrack!

May 9, 2013 at 2:24PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


... I meant "philosophical"

May 9, 2013 at 2:25PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Thanks for deleting my comments.

I see Marcus and Hummer had the exact same issues.

This article is poorly researched.

Readers should be informed of Jordan Belson, considering he pioneered this type of cinema 10 years before Kubrick/Trumbull. Also I know for a fact that Malick studied Belson's work in preparation for Tree of Life.

May 7, 2013 at 12:57PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Larry Sanders

This is not "The Exhaustive List of Organic VFX in Film History." The comments were deleted because you couldn't find a respectful way to disagree - and beside the point - I don't know what you're taking issue with, because we're simply referencing what's available in the links provided, and if the filmmakers didn't mention a person you clearly have great respect for, it's pretty silly to call an entire post trash just because we didn't mention him. We don't go back to Buster Keaton movies every time we mention anything about filmmaking - and, believe it or not, he basically did everything before anyone else.

CGI or CG - Computer Generated Imagery, is referring to something that has been completely built from the ground up in a computer. A Visual Effect can be all sorts of things, and that's what we're talking about here. Compositing is not CGI, you're simply taking plates that you've shot and are fitting them together in a natural way. We've been doing plate photography and background replacement forever, and it was never called CGI then, and it isn't now.

May 7, 2013 at 1:23PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Joe Marine
Camera Department

I agree with Joe's defense of the article; so-called "Larry Sanders" was way out of line expecting the end-all treatise on this subject. Instead of bitching about how the article didn't read minds, I thought I'd add something constructive: Malick also incorporated the pioneering art of Thomas Wilfred, a deeply influential time-based visual artist who certainly predated CGI with his beautiful color works, such as this example, using a "Clavilux":

Malick licensed usage in the Tree of Life (controversially, because it was never meant to be filmed), and it's really the central icon for his movie, at the beginning and end.

May 10, 2013 at 8:32AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I need to find a second hand fish tank and some half and half. Out of all the comments how is no one interested in shooting something like this?

May 7, 2013 at 6:40PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Darrell Ayer

If you don't like CGI you just don't know how to cook it. Hire a really good artists for the right task, jeez.

May 7, 2013 at 9:46PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


those diretors who say they don't like CGI/visual effects are missing a good opportunity to enhance their stories, I've worked with a couple of directors who despised vfx, they just make the whole process harder, it's almost like someone made them work with vfx artist against their own volition, and of course the final output suffers with it. Maybe the case for the dinos in Tree of Life?
And then there are others like Nolan who says he does't like vfx, then he builds a practical batman flying car and when you go see his movie it's almost all CGI built car. along with more the 1500 well done vfx shots all along. ;)

May 8, 2013 at 6:50AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


There was a nice article about how to do practical effects like this before on nofilmschool (which is actually linked as related post #3 above):

Then Joey Shanks himself, who that article is about, posted above with a link to his own film. Then I noticed that his Vimeo channel ( is filled with how-to videos on how to do this kind of work. Major props to Joey for this. Seems like a modest guy, so someone else had to point it out. :-)

May 8, 2013 at 4:35PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Another good article on the subject of Trumbull, 2001, and The Tree of Life:

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

May 13, 2013 at 6:20PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Binx Bolling

クロエ バッグ miumiu バッグ 楽天

October 3, 2013 at 4:11AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM