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Working Hollywood: Creating the universe for ‘The Tree of Life’

February 25, 2012 | 11:00 am

No human can travel back in time to witness the birth of the first stars, but watching director Terrence Malick's Oscar-nominated drama “The Tree of Life” is the next best thing. In one of the film's mesmerizing outer space sequences, orange, red and blue balls of fire and dust pulsate in the primordial darkness, transporting audiences into the violent, roiling cradle of the early universe.

But the startling deep space images didn’t come from a telescope. They came from billions of numbers crunched into images by computers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“We call ourselves, sometimes jokingly, the Silicon Prairie out here, because we do have really big computers,” said Donna Cox, director of the Advanced Visualization Laboratory at NCSA. Oklahoma-born Cox earned her bachelor’s B.A. and M.F.A. in computer graphics arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1985, she joined the art and design faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and got involved in the newly- created NCSA, where she began assembling what she calls a “renaissance team” of artists, scientists and technologists.

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NCSA has provided scientific visualizations for everything from IMAX films to educational television. But as their first feature film, “The Tree of Life” enabled Cox and her team to collaborate creatively with director Terrence Malick and visual effects supervisor Dan Glass.

“What Terry really wanted in the film was a strong sense of realism and mystery,” Cox said. “What the images convey are this birth and death in the universe and the majesty of flying through the galaxy and the emotion behind that. We were conveying in a very visceral and emotional way these large-scale events that parallel the life and death of our own families and our own lives.”

By the Numbers: To create the space sequences for “The Tree of Life,” Cox and her team started with billions of numbers that describe key characteristics of the universe, such the locations of stars and the shapes of galaxies. “All of that can be separated out from the numbers,” said Cox, whose department has spent 15 years figuring out how to do that using specialized computer software developed in house.

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Snap, Crackle, Pop: One NCSA sequence in “The Tree of Life” depicts some of the first stars in the early universe. “They call them Pop III stars,” Cox said. “And from that star that goes supernova, new life is formed in the nebula. And that was important to Terry Malick because that particular scene was all about birthing and very early coming of age. All of the stars that get born out of those supernovae have evolved into what we are today, and in fact we — even our planet and our physical bodies — are all made from this original stardust.”

Getting Dark: The second NCSA sequence in “The Tree of Life” took the audience on a flight through the Milky Way. “We had used the Milky Way in other movies and other projects,” Cox said. “We definitely worked at the basic color scheme that we had developed a long time ago, which shows the brightness of the stars and the deep richness of the dust and the star birthing regions, which are these subtle reddish areas. What Terry wanted was to enrich that hue, make it darker and more mysterious. So we darkened things a lot, and we gave various options on the look of the stars and their contrast and whether they were more on the bluish side or on the goldish side.”

A Really Big Canvas: Cox and her team get to exercise their creativity when it comes to choosing the color scheme for the images, the brightness of the stars, the density and placement of space dust and the perspective of the “virtual camera.” So, that’s not really the Milky Way? “We have artistic control about how bright to make the stars or how contrast-y or how dense to make the dust in certain areas. So there were very subtle changes in the Milky Way galaxy, and we could make those subtle changes without compromising science.”


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Photo: NCSA's highly detailed Milky Way galaxy model. Credit: Fox Searchlight