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HomeAwardsContender PortfoliosContender – Visual Effects Supervisor Dan Glass, The Tree of Life

Contender – Visual Effects Supervisor Dan Glass, The Tree of Life

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Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life. (Photo by Merie Wallace. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox).

The last time Below the Line caught up with Dan Glass, it was during his back-to-back “superhero” phase of supervising visual effects in Batman Begins and V for Vendetta (the former won a BAFTA nomination in the VFX category, while masks from the latter are currently on prominent display in various “Occupy” encampments).

A quick half-decade later, he’s not only an exec VP at Method Studios, but is in the nomination hunt once again for his work on filmmaker Terrence Malik’s The Tree of Life, the tale of a 1950s’-era family headed by Brad Pitt, a dad overwhelmed by the traditional “superhero” roles fathers were cast into, but has enough in the way of “foes” dealing with everyday life.

And while there were, as Glass notes, some “pretty minimal” digital considerations in what he terms the “contemporary” phase of the storytelling – the material set in the ’50s (and modern sequences with Sean Penn as one of the grown sons) – which involved removing rigging and watching for any visual anachronisms, that work isn’t what’s generating the buzz.

Instead, it’s the other phases or “realms,” as Glass calls them, that occasioned such startling imagery and an array of techniques – the “astrophysical,” the “microbial” and the “natural.” Each of these comes during a sequence that takes some of the motifs from the legendary “infinity” sequence in Kubrick’s 2001, and far outdoes them.

Below: Dan Glass and Douglas Trumbull discuss the VFX in The Tree of Life

It’s a section of the film that has alternately enthralled and frustrated critics, encompassing nothing less than the creation of the universe – from light to galaxies to cells to complex life – all the way back to the film’s “present moment.” It’s there either to show how one family – like all families – is an endpoint, a result of all the universe’s majesty (without even knowing it), or it’s there to show how the most overwhelming problems in lives – and lives themselves – are simply nano-grams in a much larger tapestry. Or both.

And the connection to 2001 may not be accidental: Glass had the help of Douglas Trumbull, Kubrick’s storied “special photographic effects supervisor” for that film, a title which he reprises here.

Glass gushes that Trumbull’s work was “fantastic,” allowing for a mix of techniques in an Austin-based “skunk works,” where Malick – himself Texas-based – could be kept apprised of the more “mechanical” effects he gravitated toward; using paint in other liquids (or liquid nitrogen) to replicate unfolding cosmic processes.

Those were mixed in with the more digital techniques they were already using, including using existing interstellar images from NASA, obtained at the highest possible resolution, and further augmented in postproduction.

It was a multi-year process for Glass, much like Malick’s usual filmmaking style. “There was a period of two years getting inside his head,” Glass adds about the director, so that everyone – including the VFX crew – was working on a more intuitive level, allowing the story to emerge from that.

But the journey up beyond the treetops works on a shorter timeline: He’s already at work on his next project, the currently-in-production Cloud Atlas for director Tom Tykwer.

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