Sights Unseen

Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, ASC, AMC, and his Texas-based camera team go looking for deeper meanings in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life chronicles the journey of the oldest son in a Midwestern family, from his childhood during the 1940s through his adult years. Jack is a lost soul, seeking answers to the meaning of life. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are cast in the roles of his mother and father, and Sean Penn portrays Jack as an adult.

It’s the second collaboration for Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, ASC, AMC, and Terrence Malick, following in the wake of their highly acclaimed 17th century drama The New World, which earned Lubezki a 2005 Oscar® nomination. He also earned nominations for A Little Princess (1995), Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Children of Men (2006).

“Terry mentioned a future project that was going to be very complicated while we were shooting The New World,” Lubezki recounts. “A few years later, he called and asked me to come to Austin, Texas, and meet with him and (production designer) Jack Fisk. Terry then gave me a 12- page outline and spoke about how natural lighting was used in a few pictures.”

Most of The Tree of Life was shot in a six-block area in Smithville, Texas, population 4,500. Other scenes, including underwater cinematography by Pete Romano, were filmed at practical locations around the state and in a national park in Utah.

Lubezki and Malick opted for a 35mm film capture for The Tree of Life, with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Early scenes include shots of children playing games, crawling around, fighting and doing all of the things kids do. They weren’t professional actors. The youngest was just a couple of days old. Lubezki describes working with the kids as a joyous part of the moviemaking experience. He compares it to a fishing expedition, where hours pass by and nothing happens, and suddenly you get a bite. You have to be ready to react and pull it out of the water.

As other crew members note, much of Malick’s filmmaking process adheres to this same dictum: unplanned moments, often spontaneously erupting in real life, are as prized for their artistic measure as the most carefully scripted scenes.

Shooting on film was essential to Malick, as it was for Lubezki and his team, which included 2nd Unit DP Peter Simonite (who captured one of the film’s signature images of the infant’s foot) and operator Jorg Widmer, ACs Eric Brown, Jeremy Rodgers and Patrick Coate, and gaffer Mark Manthey. The mostly Texas-based camera crew covered scenes with an Arricam LT outfitted with Master Primes, sometimes at T1.3, along with an ARRI 435 for handheld work. Lubezki estimates that he exposed more than one million feet of Kodak Vision 2 5217 (200T) and 5218 (500T) color negative stock, without the benefit of on-set video playback. He averaged about 14,000 feet of film per day, with Adam Clark (at Deluxe L.A.) timing dailies. [EFILM colorist Steve Scott is handling the DI.]

“Adam was watching our backs,” Lubezki says. “We wanted to see dailies of some of the more difficult shots. If the sun went down while we were shooting an exterior, we flagged it.”

There were a few small sets, but most interiors were filmed in real houses, including the one where the family lives. Fisk found the house while scouting on a sunny summer day.

“I told Jack that some of the rooms looked too dark,” Lubezki recalls. “He pointed to the trees and said, they are going to be completely bare with no leaves to block the sun when you begin shooting in winter. Jack planted a garden outside the house. You can see that garden changing with the seasons. He also planted a tree in the center of the garden.”

Lubezki says that Malick is very comfortable shooting without artificial light, and understands any inherent limitations.

“Instead of trying to modify what nature brought us, we embraced it,” he asserts. “We started shooting a scene in the house on a beautiful spring day when a bunch of white clouds blew across the sky and blocked the sun.  The camera was on a Steadicam and I was changing exposure with a wireless remote iris control as Terry chose angles of coverage.”

In the beginning, they tried using an HMI to augment light coming through a window, but it didn’t look the same as natural light. So the HMI was sent back to the rental facility.

“There’s also some terrific underwater cinematography by Pete Romano and the second unit crews did wonderful work at locations around the world,” Lubezki adds. “Paul Atkins [2nd unit DP] is a natural history cinematographer who is famous for shooting killer whales. He watched us work for several weeks to get a sense of what we were doing, and then went off with his crew.”

Lubezki says that Malick energized everyone on the set. There were no marks and the director listened to the actors to include their ideas about the script. Texas-based 1st AC Rodgers adds that he had always dreamed about working with both Lubezki and Malick. He knew that Malick lived in Austin and had heard rumors he would be shooting a film in Texas.

“I was blown away when I was invited to work on the crew,” Rogers shares. “Terry directed The Thin Red Line and Chivo shot Children of Men, both of which are films that inspired me to work in this industry. Chivo treats everyone on the crew as his equal. His confidence and humility made me want to work harder. He joked a lot, and the only time he raised his voice was when he was excited about a shot. He trusted the crew even when things were chaotic.”

Rogers says many moments remain vivid in his memory.

“One that sticks in my mind was when we were filming one of the boys on the porch playing his guitar. It was getting to be magic hour, so we were trying to set up the shot quickly. The boy began playing guitar with his back facing the camera while the sun was wrapping around his body. It [was so beautiful] it brought tears to my eyes.

“Another time we were getting ready for a morning scene outside between Jessica (Chastain) and Brad (Pitt),” he continues. “The actors were rehearsing their lines in full wardrobe and ready to roll, when Terry suddenly noticed a butterfly. It wasn’t uncommon for him to get excited over things like a bird perched on a tree branch and want to film them. So we followed the butterfly through three blocks of Smithville. Jessica gracefully stepped out into the middle of the street, backlit by the morning sun. She held her hand out and the butterfly came full circle and landed directly on it. It stayed there for some time. We were joking around afterwards that everyone is going to think it’s a CG effect, but rest assured, it’s a real butterfly, and Chivo got it all on film.”

Brown had collaborated with Lubezki on Ali in 2001, as well as on commercials. He offers a similar portrait of the cinematographer and director as master artisans.

“Chivo wants his crew to be active participants, and values your input,” he explains, adding that the timeless nature of Smithville provided an ideal primary location.

“There was no camera truck or generators. The gear was stored in a rented garage, and we didn’t even have a dolly,” the AC continues. “If Terry wanted the camera moving and it wasn’t on a Steadicam or handheld, we used a slider. If we were shooting a quiet, intimate scene, we would put the camera on a slider and set it up so we could move a few feet in each direction. It was completely freeform. Terry directed the action so the actors were coming towards or away from the camera, and the feeling of depth is organic. From the first week of shooting, we were communicating non-verbally, so it became a dance between the actors and us. Things would happen and we would react. If we were a little late, Terry said, ‘no problem.’ We did it again until he got exactly what he wanted.”

Brown says that watching Malick and Lubezki in action was like taking an advanced class in filmmaking, not just for the remarkable aesthetics at play, but also with practical filmmaking considerations. For example, with minors in the cast, scheduling was sometimes tricky.

“One day, we shot a scene with two of the boys,” Brown continues. “One was inside the house. The other boy was on the porch on the other side of a glass door. These are non-professional kids, and they were hanging out, just like real brothers would. I don’t think they were aware the camera was rolling, and Terry saw it as a magic moment. The boys were oblivious to the crew, and things like that happened because of the atmosphere that Terry and Chivo created.”

Film, film and more film is how loader Coate recalls The Tree of Life shoot, noting that he loaded cameras with 400-foot rolls of film as many as 40 times a day.

“After the first week,” he states, “we realized that the only way to provide what Chivo needed was to have every camera built and configured with the stocks he was using loaded in magazines. There were five camera bodies available with two of them ready to roll at all times. When they exposed the film in one camera, Jeremy [Rodgers], would be there with another camera ready to roll. All told, I probably loaded about 2,700 rolls of film.”

Coate says some scenes shot in Utah, on top of a canyon filled with stalagmite type rock formations, were particularly memorable.

“I loaded two camera carts with film and magazines and rolled it on the set,” he begins. “They started filming near the top, and then walked further into the canyon.  Soon they were 100 yards away, then 300 yards away. Eventually they were at the bottom of the gully. There was no way to take the cart there, and they wanted three cameras ready to roll. So, I put on some climbing gloves, my hiking boots and a backpack filled with magazines.  It was my favorite day, even though I spent the whole time running up and down a mountain!”

The Austin-based assistant cameraman has been working on film crews for eight years, but he says his experience on The Tree of Life was something new.  When the production was shooting in Houston, where Coate’s parents lived, he asked producer Sarah Green if his mother could visit the set. And Green said, “We’d love to meet her.”

“I told my mother where I’d be and what time my lunch break was,” Coate smiles. “I figured we’d get a sandwich and I would show her the camera truck and perhaps see the set while we weren’t filming. Instead, Sarah told me to come to a nearby restaurant when we broke for lunch.  When I got there, to my surprise, Mrs. Malick, Jorg, Sarah, and Chivo were all sitting with my mom. After lunch, they insisted that she come to the set and meet Terry. He was so gracious. He invited her to watch them film scenes with Sean Penn. That kind of stuff means so much for those of us at the lower end of the ladder.”

The praise for the collaborative spirit and workflow doesn’t stop there. Romano had already worked with Malick and Lubezki on The New World. For The Tree of Life, he used his own ARRI 435 camera, outfitted with Zeiss primes and an underwater housing.

“Terry described the emotions he wanted different shots to evoke, and simply cut me loose,” Romano says. “It was guerilla warfare cinematography that looks and feels natural.”

The veteran underwater shooter, whose credits include Oscar-nominated and winning films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Inception, recalls shooting in natural locations where Austin residents go to swim. He cites such ephemeral shots and scenes where Chastain, wearing a beautiful dress, rises from the bottom of a lake to the surface and one where a woman wearing a wedding gown can be seen underwater. There’s also a shot with a deck of cards floating on the water, as the king of spades floats in and out of the frame, and underwater night scenes where lightning creates a rippling effect on the surface of the lake and flashes of light bounce off trees. [Lightning Strikes was used to create that illusion.]

“We were shooting abstract scenes like no other director has ever asked me to do before,” Romano notes. “Terry was very specific about what he wanted. He wanted to see light playing on the surface of the water and reflections. There is a scene shot in a community pool with five young boys, mischievously jumping, going upside down and yanking at each other. Sometimes, I’d tilt the camera up to see their faces out of the water, and then come back down and focus on a mother and two children. One of the children was extremely young, sitting on her lap. We were in shallow water, interacting with the kids and looking up to the surface.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Romano says he executed water shots for Malick in the middle of a raging river and fighting a heavy current.

Lubezki observes that Malick was constantly figuring out how to make each shot in every scene better. Sometimes a slight change in a camera angle made a big difference.

“Terry gave us cues about the emotions he envisioned for each part of every scene,” the cinematographer concludes. “He wanted the best performances with naturalistic looks. We have more flexibility to do that today, because we have the best cameras, lenses and films in history. Film sees the world the way our eyes do. That’s an important part of rendering a naturalistic look.”

By Bob Fisher / photos by Merie Wallace