For more than a decade, Austin-based producers Sarah Green and Nicolas Gonda have helped Terrence Malick to achieve his far-flung filmmaking ambitions. Oscar-nominated “The Tree of Life,” starring Brad Pitt, has come and gone, as well as “Knight of Cups,” starring Christian Bale, and now arrives the 40-years-in-the-making documentary “Voyage of Time,” which actually started shooting in 2003 when renowned nature cinematographer Paul Atkins (who shot second unit on “The Tree of Life”) alerted the filmmakers that volcanoes were erupting in Hawaii.
So, they sent him off to capture some of the most extraordinary shots in the film, as molten lava bursts up under the ocean. One cameraman took the IMAX camera so close to exploding magma that his boots melted.
Backed by an original National Geographic Society grant, IMAX, foreign sales company Wild Bunch and indie distributor Broad Green (which began financing and releasing Malick’s films in 2014) the movie takes two forms. IMAX is showing a 45-minute version at Toronto with a scientific narration by producer Brad Pitt; this film opens in 13 IMAX theaters October 7. Broad Green screened the 90-minute feature “Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey,” narrated by Malick veteran Cate Blanchett, in Venice and Toronto; they will open it in theaters in 2017.
“Life’s Journey” begins with a blank screen. “Mother, you walked with me then in the silence,” intones Cate Blanchett’s voiceover. “Before there was a world. Before night or day.” The orchestra warms up, and she continues: “Mother, where are you?” We see sun and clouds. And cut to a shakicam shot of a homeless man in L.A. and then an Oxfam refugee camp in Africa. “Am I not your child?” asks Blanchett. “Who are you, life giver, light breaker?”
From there the movie shows the explosive fires of earth’s formation, moving through the beginnings of cellular life, primitive fish, dinosaurs, and a section of Australian aborigines hunting in the desert, which Malick filmed in the ’70s. The narration continues: “I tremble, quake in wonder, where are you leading me?”
Much of the underwater and outer-space photography is gorgeous, accompanied by choral pieces like Bach’s B Minor Mass. The movie rolls over you. It has no cohesive narrative; it comes in waves and surges and sections of often wondrous imagery and sound. (See it high, by all means.)
And when you’re the producers of an ephemeral work that intends to accurately represent the formation and evolution of life on Earth, from one of the most enigmatic directors of our time, it presents some special challenges.
Malick read and researched and interviewed top scientists for over 40 years; Green and Gonda began the work of creating the infrastructure that would turn it into a film in 2003. In addition to producing Malick’s various narrative movies (the next one is known as “Weightless”), they also oversaw the village required to produce “Voyage.” That included working with VFX supervisor Dan Glass, supervising Atkins’ IMAX footage shot around the world (locations include Australia, Hawaii, Kenya, Iceland, Utah, Chile, the California Redwoods, and beyond), as well as people sending in their own material shot with low-fi Harinezumi Japanese digital cameras.
“We had people out shooting underwater footage, people in the desert, people in the Serengeti with 65 mm cameras,” said Green. “It was quite extraordinary, it needed a whole different plan of action to capture this footage. We’re command central.”
Green and Gonda plan as best they can to accommodate Malick’s unusually loose filmmaking on films such as the upcoming “Weightless,” where they flew actors into various music festivals along the way.
“We plan the best way to make use of our resources,” said Green. “We schedule together based on the treatment. We have actors and characters who have to interact. Because he doesn’t script so carefully, we can’t schedule so tightly, so we create a plan and schedule for this story point. It’s a puzzle, making locations without a specific script, like, he has to be done with this actor by Friday. We know a lot about what’s important for him while shooting, give him things that the actor can work and interact with. He likes to go to the location and work with what is there, so the team and designers plan carefully, so for Terry it’s fresh, it’s new to him he and his actors are discovering it together. Everyone knows on the team here to fill in the blanks.”
It was important to Malick to meld the hard-earned knowledge of his board of science advisors led by Dr. Andy Knoll with an aesthetic of beauty, mystery, wonder and awe. When Glass came on board “Voyage of Time” around 2004, they sought the world’s biggest super-computers in order to visualize what, before then, was only available in very crude simulations. “We had access to data from scientists in rough form,” said Green. “We made them into high-resolution pieces, took footage from stiletto imagery, shot single images one after another, and stitched them together. We also had amazing plane shots from NASA, all in the public domain.”
The result was a film that combines hard data translated into scientifically accurate, high-resolution visuals. “Scientists had all the data, but even the microbiological sequences were unprecedented visualizations,” said Gonda. “Terry likes to works in ways to be surprised and allow for actors and elements in the frame to be organic and not repeated. The VFX were antithetical to that, but we were able to devise with Glass a VFX process to enable Terry to work with effects in the way he worked with actors, controlling every element, which took ingenuity on the part of the production and VFX and vendors, to work in this very unusual way, creating these effects most people have never seen before.”
Some of the most stunning outer space material was created by Glass and his team in Austin. “The astrophysical sequences were routed from the Hubble space telescope or the Jet Propulsion Labs or the European Space agency,” Gonda said. “Our VFX put in information that has never seen before, like the proto-planetary disc, the cradle where the planets where formed, which are not available to see in space through the telescopes we have. Terry worked with scientists to figure out what it would look like, and using analog and organic ingredients that are available today, Glass and his collaborators could emulate and create these real-life effects, like they did in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ From there, the VFX team worked with the science team to construct something to meet that scientific standard.”
The historically accurate dinosaurs were CG, of course. And the VFX were a big chunk of the budget, which came out somewhat over its reported $12 million. When did Malick —who did not fly to Toronto and does not speak to press— know he was finally done?
“Obviously we had a premiere to make,” said Gonda. “He spent a lot of time with this film, in his own mind well before the editing room. As science continues to reveal more, this is the moment where we are right now in terms of our understanding of the universe. He reached a critical mass with the material.”