Terrence Malick's 'Voyage of Time' Producers on Making an Epic Cosmic History of the Universe
Inside the daunting process of bringing the history of the universe to the big screen.
Science and art are more similar than meets the eye. Though the methodology may be worlds apart, both disciplines are born of curiosity, grasp at truth, and ultimately arrive at wonder. "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious," Albert Einstein once said. "It is the source of all true art and science."
Terrence Malick's work is fueled by the mysterious interplay of science and art. In his breathtaking magnum opus Tree of Life, the veteran director explored the emotional echoes of cosmology through the story of a family. His latest undertaking, The Voyage of Time: Life's Journey, is even more ambitious: spanning the entire history of the universe—14 billion years, to be exact—Malick trains his searching lens on earth's primordial dawn.
"We're really excited about the way the visual effects work. I think they're like nothing you've ever seen."
An intensely internal experience—every viewer will have a singular narrative journey—the film poses existential questions about nature's indefatigable will to create and, in turn, devour itself in spades. Enlisting a team of scientists from Harvard, NASA, the European Space Agency, and more, Voyage of Time renders life's geological beginnings onscreen with unprecedented acuity. Events unfathomable and spectacular, such as the first impossible meeting of cells, grace the screen. Volcanoes erupt in the depths of Earth's early oceans; absurd sea creatures navigate lonely waters; Homo Sapiens sees his reflection for the first time.
"I think the process began as Terry was a kid and was staring at the night sky, wondering about our place in the world," Nicolas Gonda, one of the film's producers, told No Film School at TIFF 2016.
Behind every visionary is a team of great producers, and Malick's long-time collaborators are no exception. 12 years ago, when Gonda and Sarah Green first encountered Malick to produce his 2005 film, The New World, the director intimated that a project of vast proportions lay waiting in the wings. "Even before he gave me the script for The New World, he was talking about this nature-driven film about these big ideas," said Green. "It's something that he had shot footage for since he started making movies. He started talking about it in ways that were very engaging, like, 'What if... could you imagine... is it possible?'"
The further Malick ventured into his idea, the more invested Gonda and Green became. After multiple conversations, the producers began distilling the nebulous concept into a rough budget and schedule, bearing in mind "how this could be accomplished in a very responsible way," said Gonda. "But at the same time, we wanted to be agile enough to respond to new scientific discoveries or events that happened around the world."
"[Malick] pushes the boundaries of what's possible, but then he works within the confines of what's possible."
Gonda and Green were unfazed by the prospect of distilling the scope of Malick's project into a cinematic experience. As they tell it, his reputation as a free-wheeling auteur belies his deeply felt responsibility to the filmmaking process. "Terry is a phenomenal artist who is also very aware of practicalities," said Gonda. "So, when we talked to him about parameters, he then will work within those parameters, whether that relates to schedule or budget or technical capability or visual effects tools. He pushes the boundaries of what's possible, but then he works within the confines of what's possible. So it makes our job a lot easier when we are not having to pull him back from being irresponsible."
Once the producers had created a loose framework for the project, effectively setting it into motion, Green and Gonda allowed time for incubation. They took on other films—Green discovered Jeff Nichols with Take Shelter in 2011, and both made various other Malick films—but Voyage of Time remained Malick's foremost passion project, and the producers never lost sight of it.
"There were periods of time that we were very focused on it," said Green, "like when we received the first grant. We shot a lot of natural history with that. But the visual effects work took a lot of time and planning and thought. We waited until we were really ready, and we knew exactly what we would need."
Four years ago, Gonda and Green realized they had to fill a glaring need: someone to produce the film's outdoors sequences, many of which would be complex and dangerous. They recruited experienced nature documentarian Sophokles Tasioulis, known for his work on Earth, a feature-length film based on the television series Planet Earth. "It was at that stage that we really buckled up the plan," said Gonda.
The crews shot on location in Hawaii, Iceland, Chile, the American Southwest, and Papua New Guinea. Cinematographer Paul Atkins honored Malick's preference for deep focus with wide-angle lenses, but eschewing the telephoto nature photography staple meant that his crew had to get up close and personal with dangerous phenomena. "As we moved the IMAX camera precariously close to molten lava to get a shot with a 40mm lens, the soles of our boots literally melted," said Atkins.
"As we moved the IMAX camera close to molten lava to get a shot with a 40mm lens, the soles of our boots literally melted."
When a momentous event occurred in the natural world, such as a volcanic explosion, Tasioulis sent his team out to capture it. "It's a process," Tasioulis said. "You have to be prepared to fail. If you send out crews and they always come back with something, you should be worried, because you're after the easy stuff. If they say, 'Look, we spent two months and didn't even get the footage,' then you know you're after the difficult stuff. It's a lot of piecemeal. That's the only way to do it."
"Sometimes we would have to send [crews] back a year later," Green added.
All the while, Gonda, Green, and Malick were at the mercy of the scientific process. (Malick would be the first to tell you that mapping the history of the universe is a giant work-in-progress.) As the producers shaped the narrative of the film, new discoveries and theories superseded commonly accepted truths, and the team had to respond in kind.
"Sometimes we would call each other hoping that Terry would not find out about [a scientific discovery]," said Tasioulis, "because Terry is such a curious person and he wanted to have the latest scientific discoveries in the film. At some point, it was like, 'Oh, please, stop him. We can't use any more [information].'"
Voyage of Time is the product of meticulous scientific research; every frame of the film is informed by intimate collaborations with the world's foremost scientists. Dr. Andrew Knoll, a professor at Harvard, consultant for NASA, and the film's chief science advisor, was initially struck by the film's simple objective: to cultivate awe. "The wonder of Terry's film is that not only will it inspire a 10-year-old girl to think about new things," Knoll remarked, "it also inspired a 60-year-old scientist to think in new ways."
"We had this rock star list of scientists that we started reaching out to, and virtually every one of them said 'yes' with great enthusiasm," said Green. "Because to have their work interpreted through the eyes of a visionary like Terry Malick is a rare and wonderful opportunity."
But how to visually conceive of the inconceivable? Much of the imagery in Voyage of Time bears no precedent. Some events, such as those of the early astrophysical period or the first unicellular forms of life, have hitherto been only described in theoretical terms, tasking the team of scientists and VFX artists with depicting the abstract.
The VFX team conducted chemical experiments to test the ways in which cosmic substances would behave if filmed at high speeds.
To create the first act's ming-boggling sequences, which detail the birth of the universe, the scientists used comprehensive data and images from Hubble to create "very crude simulations of what a celestial event might have looked like," said Green. "What might have happened when a star collided, or a galaxy formed, or a black hole was created." The Voyage of Time VFX crew, led by Dan Glass (The Matrix, Batman Begins) would then interpret these events, adding "the piece that would make it cinematic," Green said.
"We asked scientists, 'Is this realistic? Are we straying?'" Green said. "They were very, very specific with us about what was appropriate and where we were going too far. We had to pull back sometimes. It was a lot of back and forth in the visual effects world."
Sometimes, the choice between live-action and CGI was not an obvious one. "When we were thinking about what creatures we wanted in the film, in some cases, we started from scratch, but in other cases, we used modern-day analogs for pre-historic creatures," said Green. "They have the same structure as they would have had in prehistoric days, but because it's live [footage], it's going to tell the story better than us creating it from scratch."
Using liquids, dyes, gasses, fluids, and smoke machines, Glass and his VFX team conducted chemical experiments to test the ways in which cosmic substances would behave if filmed at high speeds. After the blueprint image was established, the VFX team added a romanticized "glow" that Malick modeled after 19th-century painter Albert Bierstadt's sweeping landscapes of the American West.
Malick's process is famously iterative. On every film, he employs dozens of editors, divides the footage among them, and gives open-ended directives that promote free association. "Terry likes to discover more than he likes to dictate," said Green. "If he knows he has different ways of telling a story, he would try them all, and see what one spoke the most clearly."
Glass said his VFX experiments dovetailed well with Malick's emphasis on discovery. "It was very much in tune with how Terry's mind works," said Glass. "The process allowed him to bring his intuition and react to things in real-time."
By nature, VFX work requires extensive pre-planning, so Green and Gonda had to introduce malleability into the process. "We were able to take a process that is sort of the antithesis of the way Terry likes to work—which is in a very free, open, discovering way—and adjust so Terry got a certain amount of experimental time," said Green. "We built in a lot of editorial time."
"That's one of the incredible qualities of Terry: he will listen. He has his vision, but he's open to suggestions."
"That was probably the thing that I was the most nervous about, how the visual effects were going to work with Terry's style," said Tasioulis. "It worked out remarkably well. We're really excited about the way the visual effects work. I think they're like nothing you've ever seen."
The nature documentary footage also presented challenges in the editorial process. "When I joined the project, I was probably one of the very few people who was not afraid of the sheer amount of footage," said Tasioulis, "because that's what you deal with very often in natural history. For Planet Earth, we had 10,000 hours of footage. And here, it's not quite as much, but I think it's still in the thousands of hours."
Tasioulis was surprised, however, by the age bracket in the editing room. "As the newest member of the Malick family, what was very surprising for me when I first went into edit office, was how many young people were there. If you're over 25, he'll kick you out of the edit room. He's inspired by young people. That's one of the incredible qualities of Terry: he will listen. He has his vision, but he's open to suggestions."
Voyage of Time will be released in two versions: a 45-minute IMAX version, featuring minimal narration from Brad Pitt, and a 90-minute director's cut with extended narration from Cate Blanchett. The shorter version will be targeted to a wider audience and will screen at IMAX theaters as well as museums and scientific institutions. The longer version—"Think slow and heavy," according to Tasioulis—features extended interstitial sequences of modern humanity shot on Harinezumi cameras across the world.
"It allowed us to kind of untether from the IMAX units, which are very fixed," said Gonda. "You could literally put the Harinezumis in a pocket. We had people that were traveling the world, and we were able to send cameras to them and take advantage of that insect's point of view, to be able to see humanity from all different shapes and forms and origins."
For the producers, the Harinezumi footage functions as a humanistic counterweight to the metaphysical nature of Voyage of Time. "This footage reflects a lot of the suffering in the world," he said. "As you see in the film, nature is, on one hand, very peaceful or beautiful. On the other hand, it can be very destructive and violent. Those images help to represent nature's flow. Even as we are speaking right now—while we are sitting in this room, peacefully—there's still very deep and dark suffering that still exists in the universe."
"All the other imagery is so overwhelming," Tasioulis agreed. "It can be far away, so this Harinezumi footage kinds of bring you back into reality, and allows you to reconnect with all of what you see."
To watch Voyage of Time is to reckon with man's place in the universe. "If you put the entire universe on a clock, we are the last second," said Gonda. "Editorially, that's an impossible challenge. But we are very proud of how Terry ultimately handled that. I think we cover so much of life's journey. We paid respect."
"Every scientist I know thinks the universe, life, and all the phenomena of nature are mysterious in the best possible way," said Knoll. "Knowledge doesn't lessen your sense of beauty and mystery; it enhances it. Our job as scientists is to reach into that mystery and try to build understanding. That that is also what Terry does, in his own way, with this movie."