“Voyage of Time”: A new course for natural history?

Like many science films, Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time is a rigorously fact-checked documentary made in collaboration with top scientific minds. Unlike most science films, those facts are meant to be ...
October 11, 2016

Like many science films, Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time is a rigorously fact-checked documentary made in collaboration with top scientific minds. Unlike most science films, those facts are meant to be experienced, as well as understood.

Much like the American director’s narrative films The Tree of Life, To The Wonder and Knight of Cups, Voyage of Time overlays the physical world with spiritual and philosophical musings to meditate on what we currently regard as the unknowable.

“It celebrates the mystery of science by asking questions that scientists ask of themselves,” explains producer Nicolas Gonda. “It infuses in the viewer a sense of curiosity and emotion that one might not normally experience looking at the crude facts of science.”

Voyage of Time had its world premiere in competition at the Venice Film Festival before moving on to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival. Its producers are framing its creative approach – and distribution strategy – as a new way forward for natural history films.

Malick has been talking about Voyage of Time for four decades, but only started working on the project in earnest in 2003 after receiving a grant from the National Geographic Society. He used time-lapse footage of seeds sprouting in his second film, Days of Heaven, and incorporated segments on the birth of the universe in Tree of Life, but a doc would be a different undertaking.

Over the next 12 years, producers Sarah Green and Gonda would get a crash course in the history of the universe. Armed with a list of a “dream team” of physicists, biologists and natural historians Malick wanted to work with, they began reaching out and found many were drawn to the director’s approach, including lead advisor Andrew Knoll, a natural history professor at Harvard University.

“Often we hear things like, ‘Public outreach doesn’t get you tenure in a university,’” says Gonda. “So spending the time and resources to visualize this science in such a beautiful way is looked at as extracurricular. It was a rare opportunity for the scientific advisors to collaborate on something like this.”

Voyage of Time Homo Erectus

IMAX, sales agent Wild Bunch and distributor Broad Green Pictures also came on board. Whether working with actors or editing, Malick likes to have room to experiment, improvise and make discoveries. For his producers, the challenge would be to create a scientifically sound documentary that also allowed the director room to be creative.

To oversee visual effects, the producers brought in supervisor Dan Glass (Batman Begins) who sketched out ideas for Malick. Historically accurate dinosaurs were created in CG, while rough scientific data on things such as celestial events from billions of years ago was fed into supercomputers on university campuses across the U.S. to create visualizations.

Glass would then enhance those images for the big screen, all the while conferring with the advisory team to ensure colors, bursts of light and movement were backed up by data.

Photography from the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s interplanetary space probes and the Solar Dynamic Observatory was also incorporated. Glass and Malick also built a “laboratory” in a garage in Austin to experiment with in-camera visuals. Dubbed Skunkworks, the lab included smoke machines, chemicals and a water tank that was lit from all sides. This process allowed Malick to improvise with effects the way he might with an actor on set.

“We did very low-tech stuff that was very inexpensive. It really helped to inform where to take the visual effects,” says Green. “It was like a playground with smoke, fire, explosions, chemicals and liquids.”

Footage from the “low-tech” shoots would then be given to Glass. “One of the mandates for those of us working in the visual effects realm was to never allow for a shot to be completely inorganic,” says Gonda. “From the dinosaurs to the astrophysical and microbial, you’ll always find one ingredient that is alive.”

Concurrently to the visual effects, Malick sent camera people to locations around the world, including Iceland, Hawaii, Australia, Kenya and Chile. Cinematographer Paul Atkins worked with Malick to create a visual look similar to the style the director had developed with his long-time DP, Emmanuel Lubezki.

Rather than shoot from a distance with a telephoto lens, Malick wanted everything shot in deep focus with wide-angle lenses that required crews to get so close to subjects that the soles of Atkins’ boots melted while filming molten lava with a 40mm lens.

Smaller camera rigs are making it easier for filmmakers to execute complex sequences; however, shooting with IMAX cameras made the underwater sequences on Voyage particularly challenging.

“A full load of 65mm film only allows for three minutes of shooting, after which you must surface, swim back to the boat, lift the 300 lb. rig out of the water, and re-load it,” Atkins says in the film’s press notes. “By the time you’re back in the water, your subject has long gone.”

“We’ve filmed every river and every mountain. The audience wants to see more.”

Camera crews spent weeks in the field, capturing “miles” of footage – of chimpanzees, for example – that Malick would then sift through to find moments. Malick also gave lo-fi Harinezumi digital cameras to people around the world to capture lo-fi, dream-like imagery of contemporary times that would remind viewers of “our place in the ebb-and flow” of the natural world.

“As far as your typical, blue-chip natural history documentary goes, that time is over,” says Sophokles Tasioulis of Berlin-based Sophisticated Films. “We’ve filmed every river and every mountain. The audience wants to see more. Either you introduce a bit of scripted drama or you bring in a filmmaker like Terrence Malick who takes a very different approach to documentary.”

A producer on the blue-chip BBC natural history docs Planet Earth and Deep Blue, Tasioulis brought expertise in financing and distributing big-event docs to the project.

On Oct. 7, IMAX opened the 45-minute Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience, narrated by Brad Pitt, in 13 institutional IMAX cinemas. Meanwhile, the 90 minute, 35mm feature cut narrated by Cate Blanchett, entitled Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey, will simultaneously start rolling out overseas in Australia, France, Japan and other markets.

In the IMAX cut, Pitt’s narration includes factual signposts whereas Blanchett’s voiceover in the theatrical cut walks a line between spiritual and earthly dimensions. (“Mother, where are you?” she says at the beginning of the film. “Am I not your child?”)

The dual release strategy is designed to play to market strengths. Theatrical docs do stronger business overseas whereas 70-80% of the IMAX box office is in North America.

“After a year, we’ll swap,” Tasioulis explains, adding that traditional distributors expressed concern that the two versions would cannibalize each other. Tasioulis maintains that based on his experiences with Planet Earth and Deep Blue, the opposite is true.

“We hope Voyage can show that clearly there is a market for documentaries and it can be a viable business on a big scale.”

However, challenges still remain in the financing phase. Although Malick had treatments, there were no scripts and that made potential investors nervous. Through its US$50 million Film Fund, IMAX intends to produce 10-12 documentaries (three have been greenlit, including Voyage). The company provides 50% of the financing, leaving producers to rustle up the rest.

“The world is changing. We’re looking to be a little less traditional,” says IMAX Entertainment CEO Greg Foster. “A way to do that is by working with filmmakers who are really unique and innovative and offering something that maybe traditional documentary filmmakers aren’t able to do.”

“I’m excited for people to see both versions of Voyage and think about their place in the world and their responsibility to it,” says Green. “I think what Terry has done is really engaging. I would be thrilled if some of the great filmmakers out there took up that baton and did their own take on a nature story. That would be really exciting.”

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.