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Voyage of Time: Awe- and Thought-Provoking Eye Candy
By Brad Frischkorn

Fans of space odysseys, evolutionary storytelling, and tons of cosmic eye-candy will all have something to drool—and stew about--in “Voyage of Time,” director Terence Malick’s latest cinematic offering, which is set for October 7 release in the United States.

Meant as a documentary, the film is billed as “a one-of-a-kind celebration of life and the grand history of the cosmos, transporting audiences into a vast, yet up-close-and-personal journey that spans the eons from the Big Bang to the dinosaur age to our present human world…and beyond.”

JPN spoke to Dan Glass, visual effects (VFX) supervisor and long-time colleague of Mr. Malick, about some of the challenges faced in putting the project together. The pair had collaborated off and on over a decade on the proper approach to take before arriving at a suitable concept.

“The two fundamental guiding aims the film are: first, to generate a sense of awe and wonder at the truly incredible expanse of the cosmos, and second, to raise questions among the viewers discover more about it and where, as humans, we came from, since the total picture is still far from complete,” he says.

The film’s commercial release follows press screenings held in the U.S. in late September. Two unique versions of the film are coming. For now, audiences will be able to view the 45-minute, Brad Pitt-narrated “Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience.”

Later, “Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey,” a 35-millimeter feature-length edition, will arrive. Actress Cate Blanchett will supply the guiding voice for that project.

IMAX Corporation and Broad Green Pictures are carrying the film, which is unfortunately not currently on the slate for a near-term release in Japan.

In either case, however, the work represents a departure for the twice Oscar-nominated Mr. Malick, who is known for “To the Wonder” (2012), “The Tree of Life” (2011), “The Thin Red Line” (1998), and “Badlands” (1973), all of which are dramas.

For his part, Mr. Glass also sports a long track record of visual effects stewardship, most recently in the commercial films such as “The Hateful Eight” (2015), “V for Vendetta” (2005), and “The Matrix Reloaded” (2003). He also collaborated on "The Tree of Life."

"Voyage of Time"’s team also includes Harvard professor of natural history and NASA consultant Dr. Andrew Knoll as lead scientific adviser. Mr. Knoll’s published work focuses on the early evolution of life and earth’s environmental history.

The film is “big and grand and overwhelming enough that you could conceivably ignore the chatter altogether and groove on the steady procession of mind-blowing imagery,” writes Metro’s Matt Prigge in a recent review. “He (Malick) does rush through history, and could stand to just hang back and let us trip out a touch more. But then it might not be a Terrence Malick movie.”

The film’s visual rush is largely accomplished through the use of both high definition digital film technology and a challenging camera techniques that seek to immerse the viewer as much as possible in the work, according to Mr. Glass, whose job was to examine the spread of data provided by the film’s science advisors, and then apply real world cameras to create a picturesque result.

For images of the sun, planets, stars, and other heavenly bodies, producers made liberal use of high-definition imagery taken by satellites, as well as NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, some of which are available for public download. Filmmakers were pleased to find that many of the most celebrated shots of the cosmos had recently been re-taken after the Hubble was upgraded with new sensors.

As for the moving pictures, the director’s approach allows for the different styles, techniques, and media produced from a plethora of digital, high-speed, and ultra high-definition cameras to be assembled. This creates a ‘patchwork effect’ that reinforces the impression of the both the diversity of the material gathering process and the 14 billion year-old age of the known universe as black holes, rock formations, and early life forms evolve.

All-told, the digital material averages around 5.6K pixels per frame; current commercial and surveillance-level video tops out at about 4.0K pixels per frame, meaning an extremely high level of picture quality.

The mission to create a heightened sense of immersion also posed special challenges. “With most nature documentaries, liberal use of long lenses from hidden or camouflaged locations is common practice in order to leave environments undisturbed,” says Mr. Glass. “The mandate with this film is to get as close as possible to the action with shorter focal length lenses.”

But such an approach does carry risks. Terrestrial shots for “Voyage of Time” were taken in a variety of locations around the globe, including active volcanoes in Hawaii. There, cameramen on location got so dangerously close to active lava flows that the soles of their shoes burned though from the intense heat.

The film is also able to take advantage of the latest in digital projection technology. In its most ambition R&D project ever, IMAX sank some $60 million to develop a new projector system, which replaces conventional prisms with micro mirrors and xenon bulbs with lasers. The combination produces unprecedented on-screen brightness, color, clarity, and contrast.

The new projectors are joined by a new 12-channel surround-sound system.

While the all the new tech is currently available in just a fraction of IMAX's 1,067 theaters worldwide, “seeing a blockbuster film in this format will be well worth the trip,” according to engadget contributor Andrew Tarantola.

“Celluloid film has survived for 100 years and offers an irreplaceable warmth to the cinematic experience, but what we’re dealing with is really a quantum leap in technology, says Mr. Glass. “We think this will help viewers to be impressed enough to ponder where the universe has come from, where it’s going, and what it all means for us, the ‘pinnacle’ of life on this planet.”

Close-up of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot

“The mandate with this film is to get as close as possible to the action." -- Dan Glass, visual effects supervisor

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