Depending on how many times you’ve watched Koyaanisqatsi on a stomach full of mushrooms, The Tree of Life was one of the 2010’s most stunning or most baffling films. What everyone remembers, whether you liked it or not, is the wordless sequence in which director Terrence Malick explains the creation of the universe, or something like that. There’s a stunning array of supernovas and constellations, of stars and cosmic matter washing out from nothingness.
Typical fare for our CGI wizards, but did you know that the effects weren’t all computerized? To create the feel he wanted, Malick enlisted Douglas Trumbull, veteran of trippy visuals on films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner. Trumbull had been out of Hollywood for sometime, but the promise of "showing these bastards how it’s done" was apparently enough to get him started up again.
Entertainment Weekly‘s got the exclusive "for your consideration" vignette produced by Fox Searchlight in which Trumbull explains how he got involved with the film. "Terry Malick is a very old friend of mine, and we are contemporaries," Trumbull announces, as though it’s the most casual thing in the world. "We are both amateur astronomers among other things, and we’re very into space. He told me about this movie and said ‘I’m really not into computer graphics as a way to get there,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m with you 100%.’" He refers to the images he produced as "organic effects," more art than science.
Over a montage of the film’s more stunning space shots, Trumbull explains how experimental the effects were: they’d shoot a glass with water running over it, or with paint being sprinkled over it, and figure out afterwards what they’d be able to use and how. "The whole agenda was to be able to be free to experiment, and to try things we couldn’t be sure what direction they’d go," he says. "Mysterious, unexpected things happen that you can’t think of, that you can’t draw. And they remain exciting on the screen. That’s what I think Terry was after, to create things that look naturalistic and beautiful." A successful goal, then. You can watch the explanatory video at EW, and part of the film’s sequence below.