SFP: 'Tree of Life'
Jun 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Blair Jackson
SOUND DESIGN FOR TERRENCE MALICK'S COSMIC FAMILY DRAMA
Pity the poor journalist who has to write an article about a Terrence Malick film before it’s released. The notoriously publicity-shy director isn’t talking, the official synopsis is tantalizing but sketchy, the actors are purposefully vague in interviews and the one authorized trailer is frustratingly enigmatic. When we reach supervising sound editor/sound designer/mixer Craig Berkey and co-supervising sound editor/sound designer Erik Aadahl in late April to talk about The Tree of Life, they’re both extremely careful not to reveal any plot points. So we sort of talk around the story and instead get into some of the particulars of how the film’s soundtrack was put together and Malick’s always intriguing work methods.
Generally speaking, the film is about 11-year-old Jack O’Brien, eldest of three boys in a family in the Midwest in the 1950s. O’Brien’s father, played by Brad Pitt, is domineering and “oppressive” (in Pitt’s words); the mother (Jessica Chastain) is kind, “grace incarnate,” Pitt says. The push-and-pull of those two opposite parental personalities, along with certain events, shape young O’Brien’s psyche in profound ways, and the film also depicts the child as an emotionally scarred adult (Sean Penn). But, as is typical with Malick’s films, there is much more going on here than meets the eye. Indeed, as Pitt mentions, the film also contains a “micro-story of the cosmos, from the beginning of the cosmos to the death of the cosmos.” There is a long passage near the beginning that—through stunning images, music and some FX—presents a history of the universe, from the Big Bang through the development of life on Earth. All of Malick’s previous films are filled with radiant and sometimes ominous images of nature and outdoor expanses, which he lingers upon like a plein air painter at an easel. This one takes it further, to the edges of the galaxy, (perhaps) to show the mystical interconnectedness of all things great and small in the universe, and our place within that infinitely complex web. As Aadahl notes, “Everyone who sees this film is going to have a different interpretation.”
The cosmic evolution sequence was one of the most challenging in the film for Berkey and Aadahl, and also among the first they worked on three years ago. (Malick is famous for working at his own unhurried pace.) “There are a lot of images there that were shot without sound, so it was a big challenge to do that creatively,” Berkey says during a break from working on X-Men: First Class. “It’s not ‘you see a waterfall, you hear a waterfall.’ Things wash from one image to the other. There are underwater shots, shots from space, places where it isn’t really possible to record. In that sequence, there’s a big hand-off between music and FX going on that’s really interesting.
“All the sounds we used were natural, but there are some creatures in there that obviously don’t exist today that we had to come up with some sounds for.” CGI dinosaurs in a Terrence Malick film? Yes! “They had a natural-history research department that would give us information about the structure of the skull and maybe the makeup of the skin and coloring—a lot of information we could use to relate it to some animal today to get a starting point. What kind of birds would be in that kind of forest scene at that time? We had to find different types of birds these creatures related to so we worked with some library sounds for that and then changed them to try to relate them to the size of the creature or make it sound a little more interesting or just different than the modern version.” Or as Aadahl puts it, “We got to reverse-engineer these species.”
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