The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Tree of Life
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The Tree of Life
Presidents Desk
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ASC Close-Up
Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC creates emotionally resonant imagery for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

Unit photography by Merie Wallace, SMPSP. Photos and frame grabs courtesy of Fox Searchlight and Twentieth Century Fox.
At a press conference after The Tree of Life premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, it fell to the producers and lead actors to explain the film. Not surprisingly, director Terrence Malick, who is known to shun all personal publicity, was absent. Brad Pitt, who produced and stars in the movie, was asked about his experience working on the film. “It’s changed everything I’ve done since,” he said. “The best moments were not preconceived; they were not planned. I’ve tried to go more in that direction.”    

The Tree of Life went on to win the festival’s top honor, the Palme d’Or.   

Malick’s unique approach to filmmaking appears to have left a similar mark on his other collaborators, starting with director of photography Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, ASC, AMC. “You learn so much by watching an artist like Terry at work,” says Lubezki. “For me, he has been an extraordinary film teacher and much more.”      

The cinematographer counts himself fortunate to have worked on three of Malick’s films; they first teamed on The New World (AC Jan. ’06), and after wrapping The Tree of Life they embarked on another feature, as yet untitled, that will be released next year.      

The Tree of Life is a film whose scope and ambition rival that of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (AC June ’68). Malick combines a poetic evocation of childhood in an American suburb in the 1950s with plainspoken metaphysical questions that echo the Book of Job’s inquiries about the mystery of unjust affliction.      

The main characters are the O’Brien family: Jack (played as a boy by Hunter McCracken and as an adult by Sean Penn); his younger brothers, R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan); their mother (Jessica Chastain); and their father (Pitt). The story begins with Jack’s parents learning of R.L.’s sudden death at the age of 19. This tragedy leads the mother to ask, “Why, Lord?” and the whispered question calls forth a dazzling, 20-minute history of the universe, including the birth of stars, volcanoes, dinosaurs and a meteor crashing into the Earth.      

The primary narrative focuses on Jack’s childhood, which is evoked in a series of powerful vignettes that begin with his birth and end roughly a dozen years later, when his family moves from the home where he was raised. Images of the brothers playing, fighting and exploring their neighborhood are beautifully and simply lit with natural light through windows, doorways and tree canopies. The scenes are often brief but telling, often jump cut, and feature little dialogue. Fluid Steadicam and handheld camerawork follows the children through the house, yard or woods, or frames a family fight at the dinner table.      

After the family moves out of Jack’s childhood house, the narrative returns to the adult Jack for a mysterious epilogue. The story concludes with Jack’s mother delivering a memorable answer to God.      

When they began planning The New World, Malick and Lubezki sketched out a set of rules that, over time, evolved into what the crew called “the dogma.” However, Lubezki observes that rules have always been a mainstay of his own work. “In all the movies I’ve done, I always worked with a set of rules — they help me to find the tone and the style of the film,” he says. “Art is made of constraints. When you don’t have any, you go crazy, because everything is possible.”      

He says his previous movies were dictated by rules such as using only one lens, or shooting the entire film at T2.8. Although there is no written version of the Malick-Lubezki dogma on Tree, interviews with the cinematographer and some key collaborators suggest some parameters:

    •    Shoot in available natural light
    •    Do not underexpose the negative Keep true blacks
    •    Preserve the latitude in the image
    •    Seek maximum resolution and fine grain
    •    Seek depth with deep focus and stop: “Compose in depth”
    •    Shoot in backlight for continuity and depth
    •    Use negative fill to avoid “light sandwiches” (even sources on both sides)
    •    Shoot in crosslight only after dawn or before dusk; never front light
    •    Avoid lens flares
    •    Avoid white and primary colors in frame
    •    Shoot with short-focal-length, hard lenses
    •    No filters except Polarizer
    •    Shoot with steady handheld or Steadicam “in the eye of the hurricane”
    •    Z-axis moves instead of pans or tilts
    •    No zooming
    •    Do some static tripod shots “in midst of our haste”
    •    Accept the exception to the dogma (“Article E”)

With a laugh, Lubezki notes, “Our dogma is full of contradictions! For example, if you use backlight, you will get flares, or if you go for a deep stop, you will have more grain because you need a faster stock. So you have to make these decisions on the spot: what is better in this case, grain or depth?      

“The most important rule for me is to not underexpose,” he continues. “We want the blacks; we don’t like milky images. Article E does not apply to underexposure!” The cinematographer concedes that there is a single underexposed shot in Tree, an amazing accomplishment for a film shot in such free form.      

Lubezki appreciates the “com-plexity” of natural light. “When you put someone in front of a window, you’re getting the reflection from the blue sky and the clouds and the sun bouncing on the grass and in the room. You’re getting all these colors and a different quality of light. It’s very hard to go back to artificial light in the same movie. It’s like you’re setting a tone, and artificial light feels weird and awkward [after that].”      

Lubezki shot Tree with two tungsten-balanced Kodak Vision2 negatives, 500T 5218 and 200T 5217, going to the faster stock when the light was low. He did not use an 85 filter because it “homogenizes” the complex color. Instead, he prefers to color balance in the timing.      

The picture was shot in standard 1.85:1, in 4-perf for maximum resolution and low grain. Lubezki explains, “Even though anamorphic has more resolution, we decided on 1.85 because the close focus was going to be extreme — we were so close to the kids, their faces, hands and feet. And we didn’t want the grain of Super 35.”      

Lubezki’s camera team included operator Joerg Widmer, who often shot Steadicam, and 1st AC Erik Brown. Underwater footage was shot by Pete Romano, ASC, and second-unit photography was done by Paul Atkins and Peter Simonite. Principal photography ran for 12 weeks. The main location was the Texas town of Smithville, with other scenes shot in Austin, Houston, on the Texas coast and in Utah. (Additional photography was done in New York by Ellen Kuras, ASC; in Versailles by Benoît Delhomme, AFC; and in Italy by Widmer.)    

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