Cosmic cinema: The science of Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

The massive, luminous balls of gas in Terrence Malick’s cosmic family drama “The Tree of Life” were a lot of work.

And besides Sean Penn, the special effects were tricky too.

‘The Tree of Life,’ which centers on a Texas family in the 1950s and stars Penn, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, contains a long, dialogue-free chunk that deals with some of the enigmas of the universe. Malick relied on a network of about 30 scientists to help him depict with authenticity such ambitious astronomical scenes as the Big Bang, a fly-through of the Milky Way galaxy and an asteroid crashing into Earth that may have lead to the extinction of the dinosaurs.


“We wanted to make sure the decisions we were making were as scientifically accurate as they were beautiful,” said Nick Gonda, a producer of “The Tree of Life.” “A lot of this has become possible as a result of years of research taking place in sometimes windowless rooms. As filmmakers we can collaborate with those scientists and celebrate what is now possible to experience, the mystery of the unknown and the infinite.”

“The Tree of Life” is just one of several recent films rich with outer space imagery and cosmic themes, including “Apollo 18,” “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and “Another Earth,” an issue explored in greater depth in Thursday’s newspaper.

Malick tapped researchers at the University of Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) to create animated simulations based on data collected by astrophysicists. Prior to Malick’s film, the widest audience for that research were readers of Astrophysical Journal.

The filmmaker also used imagery obtained by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which was then cleaned up and dimensionalized by visual effects artists at Double Negative in Britain, and incorporated works by New York-based artist Michael Benson, who crafts raw data from space probes into cinematic images.

“A movie is an opportunity to inspire curious thinkers, to contribute to something that might inspire a 12-year-old to think about space,” Gonda said. “While it doesn’t directly push forward the core research, it has the opportunity to inspire in a way that makes them read textbooks in the first place, a pursuit of that knowledge.”

“The Tree of Life” Blu-ray, which includes a 30-minute documentary about the making of the film, will be released Oct. 11.


Tree of Life’ cinematographer: It was like no set I’ve ever worked on

First footage of Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’ exceeds expectations

Cannes 2011: Finally, the end of secrets on Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’

--Rebecca Keegan