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Tree of Life Premieres at Cannes Film Festival

  • May 02, 2011

Tree of Life is described as the journey from the innocence of childhood to a disillusioned adulthood, and the quest to regain meaning in life. The film, which premieres at Cannes, stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain. It is the latest collaboration between Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki, AMC. Their previous film together, The New World, earned Lubezki an Academy Award® nomination for best cinematography, and was the first studio feature film in nine years to use the 65 mm film format for anything other than visual effects plates.

Malick is a master whose credits also include Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. Lubezki caught the cinema world’s attention with Like Water for Chocolate, and his credits since then include Y Tu Mama Tambien, A Little Princess, Ali, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Burn After Reading, and Children of Men, which earned a fourth Oscar® nomination and an ASC Award for the cinematographer.

From left: Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan, and Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life. (Photo by Merie Wallace © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)
Sean Penn in The Tree of Life. (Photo by Merie Wallace © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

For Tree of Life, Lubezki once again used a mix of 35 mm film and regular 65 mm, as well as the huge IMAX™ format. He says the large formats deliver an enhanced “jolt” to viewers, and that Malick’s emphasis on expressing himself through images makes for a unique and sometimes impressionistic cinematic experience.

In the following conversation, Lubezki explains his collaborative with Malick and the thought processes that led to their decisions.

How does working with Terrence Malick differ from other shoots?
Lubezki: It differs completely, and in every possible way. Terry does not impose himself on the situation the way a conventional Hollywood movie director might. With those films, the most important thing is to finish the day. You put up a big silk so you can control the situation and eliminate surprises. On Tree of Life, it was the opposite. We used real light, and the sun, wind and rain and other elements that came our way became part of the story. A very important theme in the movie is the constant passing of things, the changes and flow that are part of life. By not imposing yourself on nature, you are able to catch these very fleeting, ephemeral moments. That theme had a parallel in our approach to the filmmaking.

Does shooting film help you make that approach work?
Yes! Film has been an important aspect of our method, especially the new negative films that Kodak produces. As we prepped this film a few years ago, we saw nothing in the digital world that resembled or came close to the latitude of film. The cameras and lenses we have now are the best we’ve ever had. Also, there are some scenes in the film like an eclipse that Terry filmed 25 years ago, that show film’s beauty and longevity. Terry has been thinking about this project for a long time.

Why did you choose 65 mm for some scenes?
We chose it because of the high resolution. One of the rules Terry and I follow is to achieve maximum resolution whenever possible. We would have preferred to shoot the entire movie on IMAX. When these scenes appear in the movie, they give you a jolt. It’s a feeling of enhancement and majesty. It’s almost as if someone cleaned off the window you were looking through.

Which film stocks did you use?
We used KODAK VISION2 500T Color Negative Film 5218 and KODAK VISION2 200T Color Negative Film 5217. We used ARRI LT and 235 cameras for the 35 mm scenes. The 65 mm camera was a Panavision. We used mostly ARRI Master Prime lenses. I operated most of the handheld scenes. Handheld camera plays an important part in Terry’s movies. The post was handled at LaserPacific and at EFilm in Los Angeles. We have a 2K version going to Cannes, but we are in the process of doing a 4K DI as well.

You mentioned that you used very little lighting on the film. Why?
It’s interesting. Once you start shooting without film lights, and you go twenty days without using an HMI, if you then put up film lights, they look really bad. It just doesn’t make sense. If you really look carefully at natural light, you realize how complex it is, and how it’s constantly shifting. When you put up an HMI and diffusion or bounce, it’s very monochromatic and has a different feeling. So we burned our bridges, and sent all the lights back to the rental house. You can do this with Terry because he really understands lighting and camera very well. If we are inside a house and it’s not working, instead of bringing in lights, he would rewrite the scene and reassemble it outside. Or we’d shoot something else, and come back the next day when it was sunnier. The production was very agile in that sense. Also, the production designer, Jack Fisk, made the entire film possible. In the house that was one of our main locations, he added some windows in key places that became the main sources of light.

Terrence Malick is known as a very visual filmmaker. How does that affect your work?
Films have inherited a lot from other arts, like theater and literature. Since I first met him many years ago, I have felt that Terry is trying to make films, and to express himself, without using the part of film’s DNA that comes from these other arts. The images in his films are very, very important to him. Sometimes he says to me, “Dialog is not what I’m trying to capture. I’m trying to capture an emotion, and I want to do that visually.” I think he has succeeded, and that’s why his films are so strong.

How does that translate into filmmaking techniques?
It’s incredibly difficult. We joke that we are like fishermen. We are trying to get little bits from a river that is constantly flowing. Sometimes you catch one or two, and sometimes you don’t. It’s very nerve-wracking. Sometimes it seems like he is almost trying to create a mistake, to take the actors and the camera to a place where they are going to crash. And it’s those little accidents and moments which are in the film and look naturalistic. Those are the truly visually expressive moments.