By Iain Blair
A new Terrence Malick film is always a cinematic event, and his latest, Voyage of Time, doesn’t disappoint. Thought provoking and visually transcendent, it’s nothing less than a celebration of life and the grand history of the cosmos. It’s a journey that spans the eons from the Big Bang to the dinosaur age to our present human world… and beyond.
A labor of love, several decades in the making, it also represents Malick’s first foray into documentary storytelling and will be released in two formats: Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey, the 90-minute version narrated by Cate Blanchett, and Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience, a 45-minute version narrated by Brad Pitt.
Of course, as all cinephiles know, it’s hard to say which is the bigger mystery, Malick or the origin of the universe. The reclusive, enigmatic, thrice Oscar-nominated director — who taught philosophy at MIT before attending AFI — is the writer/director of such films as Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and an upcoming untitled project starring Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and Rooney Mara. But in the 43 years since the release of Badlands, Malick has rarely done any press.
Happily, longtime collaborators, such as producers Sarah Green and Nicolas Gonda, as well as the film’s VFX supervisor, Dan Glass, and producer, Sophokles Tasioulis, were eager to talk about making the film and Malick’s vision for it.
How long has this labor of love been in the making?
Nicolas Gonda: The ideas behind this film have been gestating ever since Terry’s childhood. He’s always been fascinated by nature and man’s place in the universe. It’s always been on his mind. Sarah and I began working very actively on it about 14 years ago, making budgets and planning all the different shoots we knew we’d need. About four years ago, we joined forces with Sophokles, who brought his great experience making natural history documentaries to both the post part of it and the international distribution.
Why did he decide to make two versions of the film?
Sarah Green: Terry had a very strong vision for it, and he saw opportunities to expand on it this way — he saw it could be for both the educational and entertainment markets. So when he shot, it was for both films, and then we could just edit for each version.
Having worked on many of his films, tell us about Terry’s approach to post.
Green: He absolutely loves post and sees it as this wonderful, exploratory experience for him. Whatever the film is, he always likes to shoot a lot of footage during principal photography, and then he settles down to really explore it in post.
On this one, we all knew the beats he wanted to hit — whether they were emotional or cerebral — but post was also about trying the find the best way to tell this amazing story succinctly and the most emotionally.
Where did you do all the post?
Gonda: At our offices in Austin, and then we finished it all in LA, here at IMAX headquarters in Playa Vista, including the DI.
Sophokles Tasioulis: We had this great post supervisor, Jini Durr, and we were able to project all the VFX on the IMAX screen and really see what we had. It was a real education for all of us, because finishing in 4K is fairly standard, but here at IMAX, that’s their lowest resolution.
How did it work using two editors — Keith Fraase and Rehman Ali — who had also worked with Terry before?
Gonda: They were the main editors, but Terry used a number of editors on the project — a lot of young people who had work on specific shots or scenes. We’d joke that anyone over 25 would be kicked out of the edit room by Terry, because this film really gave him a chance to experiment and work with young kids, which he loved doing.
After all the years it took to become a reality, was Terry happy with the final film?
Gonda: Very, and I don’t think he could have done it 10 years ago. All the recent scientific discoveries put him in a position where it was possible, and using the great imagery of outer space from Hubble and NASA. But then Terry could have continued working on it for another 10 or 20 years.
Green: He’s so curious and knowledgeable, and there was always a new study, a new theory, a new discovery that would excite him. In the early days, he’d give me lists of cutting-edge scientists to contact and learn from. (Laughs) And when they recently announced they had finally discovered gravity waves, I think we all panicked — “Oh no, how will we fit that into the film now?”
The Visual Effects
In a career spanning more than 20 years in the industry, Daniel Glass has built an extensive list of credits as a visual effects supervisor on such films as The Hateful Eight, Batman Begins and The Matrix franchise. Voyage of Time is the culmination of a 10-year working relationship with Malick that began with the Oscar-nominated and Palme D’Or winner The Tree of Life.
When did you start on this film?
Ten years ago, but he’s been working on it for decades. He has footage in it that he shot back in the ‘70s. But it’s never really had a script, although obviously the story itself provides a timeline, and he had a huge amount of notes which formed the structure of the film. The whole thing was very much a journey in itself, and one major challenge was keeping up with all the scientific advances made over the past decade or so, and trying to incorporate those into the film.
I heard that you and Terry formed a “skunkworks” operation to deal with some of the imagery you developed?
Yeah, we set up this lab in Austin to do chemical experiments to see how various elements such as liquids, dyes, gasses and fluids — and combinations of them — behaved as we filmed them at high-speed. We used everything from gels and glass to smoke machines and fluid tanks to create a whole range of effects. We’d build up all these layers, to illustrate tiny debris in the cosmos or floating particulates at the microbial level, along with various models of orbs with strong backlight and so on. It really was fascinating work.
We also built our own “flow tables” that we filled with milk and dyes and paints, to mimic galaxies. And we used water tanks, because just a few drops of dye in a water tank can feel like vast nebulae or strange microscopic environments. Those were really effective, and we also used ferrofluids that become strongly magnetized in the presence of a magnetic field to explore other unusual effects, like black holes. When we played with the ferrofluids, we were able to create these wild, amazing shapes by controlling the current around them. So you get very bizarre yet organic effects that suggest some of the theoretical ideas surrounding black holes. We also used salt crystals on a disc, which we then spun very slowly to replicate the movement in asteroid belts. The big challenge was that nearly every effects shot was a one-off, so the breadth of it was a bit daunting.
Where did you do the rest of the VFX?
Like the film, they were very disparate, and from vendors all over the world. Terry’s original mandate to me was that he wanted every shot to feel as if it was created by a different artist, and while that was a beautiful ideal, it was a very difficult process to manage. But we got pretty close to it in the end. He always wanted the VFX to stem from an analog place first, and not have that overly polished, artificial CG look.
Is it fair to say that every shot has some kind of VFX?
Yes, although some are relatively minor, while others used layer upon layer to create an effect. In the end, we used pretty much every digital tool out there, including Maya, Nuke, 3D Studio Max, Flame for clean-up, Houdini, and a lot of custom renderers.
How do you look back on the project now?
In many ways this was a culmination of taking everything I’ve learned over all the films I’ve done, and then reapplying it in a different way, which made it immensely satisfying.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.