The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents August 2011 Return to Table of Contents
The Tree of Life
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The Tree of Life
Presidents Desk
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In day interiors, Lubezki often placed the actors near the windows, riding the iris “to keep the negative healthy,” he says. “It sounds easy, but it’s incredibly scary! Let’s say the sun is out and it’s bouncing into the room. You start the scene at T8 and follow the kids, Brad comes into the shot, and then clouds suddenly drop the exposure to T1.3 in the same take. You have to think really fast: does it work?”      

One scene where Lubezki kept the exposure constant is a beautiful moment that shows R.L. playing guitar in a doorway in changing sunlight.      

In other scenes, like family dinners at the table, the challenge was filming people with a range of exposure values. Lubezki notes that he does not use white bounce boards or white cards to help the exposure “because they will show.” At one meal, for example, “Brad was 2 stops darker than the boy sitting next to the window. You can only capture that with film; I had to expose for Brad, and those closer to the window were many stops overexposed.”      

Lubezki marvels at film’s latitude. “Looking out from inside the house, we were sometimes shooting at T2, and you can see detail in the curtains, you can see the grass outside, you can see the sky and you can see the clouds, which were maybe T64. They’re overexposed, but you can see them!”      

In day exteriors, the cinematographer would often reposition the actors to shoot them in backlight for continuity. “We can ensure that shots will cut together if the actors don’t have direct light on their faces, because that tells you the time of day and what kind of light is there,” he notes. “Backlighting is very important because it helps the editing without requiring silks and so on. If both characters in a scene are backlit, you can cheat the audience — no one will know that one was shot in the summer and the other in winter.” In the scene where Jack’s father teaches him to fight, both characters are backlit, a physical impossibility that intercuts well.      

“We also used backlight because it gives a sense of depth, whereas frontlight is flat,” adds Lubezki. “However, we didn’t backlight all the time because that would be boring.”      

Another important tool for exteriors was negative fill, provided by a bead board or other black surface. This was often used to eliminate a “light sandwich” of two similar sources on either side of an actor, and it also added a sense of depth.      

Lubezki admits that some simple lights were used on night interiors, “but we never put a single light stand inside the house.” A single lightbox with Photoflood bulbs was rigged overhead for evening dinner scenes, supplementing a practical. Night interiors in the boys’ room were lit with a mobile light with a hand dimmer, a 2K with a Chimera that was held by Lubezki or Widmer, “whoever wasn’t shooting,” says the cinematographer. “We didn’t want to tell the kids where to go; we wanted them to tell us where to go, so we followed them with the light. I don’t think the audience can tell the light is moving.”      

One scene in the bedroom was played with real flashlights that were held by Lubezki or Malick. In another scene, Lubezki gave one of the boys a practical desk lamp to play with in frame.      

In a remarkable dusk exterior sequence, Jack walks around his neighborhood, peering into the houses and catching glimpses of families. This scene was shot over several evenings during a 15-to-20-minute window when the deep blue sky was still luminous enough to register. The house interiors were lit with practicals on dimmers.      

According to Lubezki, Malick originally intended to color time the live-action portion of the picture photochemically, but this plan changed when the print dailies came back with less detail than the filmmakers wanted. “The dailies were very well-printed,” says the cinematographer, “but they didn’t capture the wide latitude of the negative. We lost detail in the whites, for example. I’ve been printing film for a long, long time, and I can tell you that today’s print stocks are too contrasty. That’s because they’re not made to print film anymore; they’re made for the DI process.”      

Lubezki subsequently worked with colorist Steve Scott and his team at EFilm to create a look-up table that would enable him to retain the detail of the negative by making the values fit in the tonal range of the prints and also the DCP (which was prepared at LaserPacific). Comparing the print and DCP, Lubezki notes, “You could almost say they are two slightly different versions of the movie.” The DCP is “more sparkly,” whereas the prints (from 4K filmouts) have “better blacks.”      

Looking back, Lubezki reflects that he could not have worked on The Tree of Life without the deep trust he had in Malick. He remembers the director telling him early on to “work on the edge of catastrophe — my words, not his — on the edge of exposure, of framing. He told me to experiment and try anything. And he said, ‘I will never use any shot that will humiliate you or make you feel bad. You can come to the editing any time you want, and you can take anything you want out of the movie.’ In that moment, I felt I could truly try anything — I could shoot without lights, I could make mistakes — and I would have Terry’s support. He is a true artist and a true collaborator.”




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