The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Tree of Life
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The Tree of Life
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up

Although Tree was shot single camera, Brown prepped three cameras every day: an Arricam Lite on the Steadicam, another Lite in an EasyRig configuration, and an Arri 235 for run-and-gun work. All three cameras were outfitted with Arri wireless focus controls so that the assistant could quickly switch from one to the other. Brown maintains that 90 percent of the movie was shot without a tripod.      

Lubezki chose Arri/Zeiss Master Primes and wider-angled Arri/Zeiss Ultra Primes. Brown says the lenses most often used were the 14mm, 18mm, 21mm and 27mm, and that the camera was usually very close to the actors, “often between 1½ and 2 feet.      

“It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” Brown continues. “There were no marks, and I had to guess what the operator was about to do because he was reacting to what the actors were doing. I developed this wonderful partnership with Chivo and Joerg that became a dance where they led and I followed.”      

Production designer Jack Fisk, who has worked with Malick since Badlands (1973), notes, “I often tell people when they start working for Terry that he asks for nothing and expects everything, so they have to be prepared. Terry’s very humble and very passionate. You end up doing more for him than you would do for anybody else because the film is so important to him.”      

The shooting rhythm on Tree was exceptionally fast. Widmer would often start filming a scene with the Steadicam with Lubezki at his side riding iris, and when the magazine ran out, they might trade places, with Lubezki shooting handheld. “I’ve never been on a set where the crew was so tuned into the movie,” says Lubezki. “At one point while we were shooting, somebody suddenly screamed, ‘Oh, my god! The fireflies are out!’ because he’d heard six weeks earlier that Terry wanted to shoot fireflies.” The crew immediately rushed out to shoot the fireflies.      

Serendipity is another key feature of Malick’s approach. His collaborators are always open to shooting the accidental and the unexpected. One morning, a butterfly flew by as the crew was preparing for the day. Lubezki grabbed the Arri 235 and filmed it as it landed on Chastain’s outstretched arm. The shot then follows the butterfly onto the grass, where a cat shows up in the frame.      

“Usually on a film set, you wait more than you shoot, but in our case we shot more than we waited,” says Widmer. “Sometimes we didn’t wait to reload; we simply took a different camera and restarted the scene. Everything happened so quickly, and the kids’ energy was lost so easily if we didn’t continue immediately.      

“The concept was to change, to always vary things,” he continues. Malick would alternate between Steadicam and handheld, go from “an 18mm to a 27mm,” from low mode to high mode, putting the actors in different positions, and sometimes he would redo the scene in another way the next day, perhaps with a different child or in a different setting.      

“Terry was incredibly well prepared because he had been thinking about this film for many years, but he wanted the film to feel unprepared,” says Lubezki. “We couldn’t really ‘set up’ shots; we had to ‘find’ them.”      

Mornings in Smithville started with Malick meeting with the crew, reading from index cards that bore typewritten notes about things to find. “They could be shots, emotions he wanted to capture or specific angles he wanted to get,” says Lubezki. “Sometimes he had a little picture clipped to the index card that he wanted to show me. Or he might talk to Jack [Fisk] about changing colors in a room. Every morning he had information to share, and then everybody knew what to go for during the day.”      

The filmmakers were “constantly talking behind the camera, trying to steer the shoot into a place that felt unrehearsed,” he continues. “The scenes had to be found, like in a documentary.”      

He adds that Malick would often surprise the actors and crew by introducing unexpected elements, a technique referred to as “sending in a torpedo. Sometimes it was another actor, sometimes it was a dog, or sometimes it was the operator running through the scene without telling anybody! It’s like pulling the rug from under your feet. What happens is that you suddenly get something unexpected that feels more natural.” For example, during a scene that shows the father and mother arguing, Malick sent in one of the boys, and it immediately changed the way the adults acted. “If something felt intentional to Terry, be it in a camera move, a performance or a sound, he would react against it [in the edit],” says editor Mark Yoshikawa. “He didn’t want that feeling of manipulation. He wanted to feel as if things were found and not presented. We ended up just cutting out anything that felt false, and that gave way to the jump cuts, which give the movie its elliptical feeling. Terry said, ‘If it’s a 10-second shot and five of the seconds feel false, then just take it out and see what happens.’ A lot of the time it didn’t work — it was a horrible cut. But sometimes it did work, and we went with that feeling.”      

For Lubezki, the greatest challenge posed by Malick’s emphasis on naturalism was obtaining a good exposure and extended latitude. Part of the solution came from his collaboration with Fisk. “In the dining room of one of the houses we used, we replaced wall space between two windows with a third window so that the whole wall was glass, and it faced south,” says Fisk. “We also put in a new back porch with a plastic ceiling so it would let light into the kitchen.” To avoid “light sandwiches,” Fisk’s crew would often “darken the backgrounds as much as possible” and add drapes to opposing windows.      

Thomas Edison’s small film studio, the Black Maria, was built on a giant turntable that allowed him to turn the building to follow the sun. The filmmakers on The Tree of Life adopted a similar strategy by shooting in three separate houses with different orientations to the sun. Fisk explains, “If we had a room that faced east, we could shoot early in the morning, and if it faced west, we could shoot later in the afternoon. Terry took that to the extreme by having the same room represented in several houses so that we could shoot at different times of the day.”      

According to Yoshikawa, the editing team described Malick’s approach to continuity as being “like Cubism, shooting the same scene in different locations. We’d mix and match them with no continuity and worry only about the feeling. We jumped around the three different houses, but you don’t really catch on because you’re accepting the house as Jack remembers it.”    

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