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The Secret Experiments Inside “The Tree of Life”

The amazing visions of “The Tree of Life” are not necessarily from the mind of Terrence Malick.

Tree of Life poster Malick

Where do these visions come from? Not necessarily from the mind of Terrence Malick.

New York filmmaker Scott Nyerges has screened his hand-crafted experimental films at prestigious festivals like Rotterdam, Tribeca and Edinburgh, but mostly to relatively small, self-selecting audiences of avant-garde enthusiasts. “Experimental filmmakers have a tacit understanding,” Nyerges muses, “that if you’re going to do this you’re not going to see your name in lights.” And yet, a small but potent sample of his work is being shown in theaters across the country, embedded within the already-famous sequence depicting the origins of the universe and life on earth in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

Nyerges was first contacted by Malick’s production company in 2009 about possible involvement in the film.  Ultimately it resulted in the production licensing 12 seconds of Nyerges’ 2008 short Autumnal, which can be viewed, along with several other films, on Nyerges’ website.

Curiously, “Autumnal” and Nyerges are not listed in the credits of the film on IMDb, though he was compensated by the production for his footage. But he recognizes a still image used in the film’s poster as a digitally enhanced rendering of his work:

Tree of Life Malick

Regardless of whether or how the footage from Autumnal made it into the final cut, there is undoubtedly a strong aesthetic resonance between Nyerges’ work and moments in Malick’s evolutionary sequence. And it is fascinating that Malick’s production company reached out to an experimental filmmaker in the first place, in what was probably not an isolated instance. “They were interested in avant-garde filmmakers who use abstract imagery,” Nyerges recalls.

Nyerges is puzzled that amidst all the hype surrounding The Tree of Life, more attention hasn’t been given to artists whose work clearly feeds into Malick’s vision. “In the media coverage on this film no one’s really mentioned that they used the work of experimental filmmakers in these sequences.” But for Nyerges, the overlooked, perpetually co-opted status of the avant-garde is nothing new. “This kind of filmmaking has influenced everything from commercials to music videos to movies. And now you can buy iMovie, punch a button and get an effect that took avant garde filmmakers years to develop.”

Nyerges began his involvement in experimental cinema at the University of Colorado, studying under the legendary filmmaker Stan Brakhage (whom Nyerges fondly remembers as “a beatnik Santa Claus in a black suit and beard”) and adopting Brakhage’s technique of painting on film. He went on to graduate study at the University of Texas in Austin, which he describes as a “video-based program” where he had to adapt his analog filmmaking to digital techniques. He developed a process of painting directly onto frames of 35mm film using acrylics and inks, then scanning the frames into a computer as a series of still images that he can manipulate in Final Cut Pro. He also employs a technique videotaping inks dissolving in acetates or other solvents onto celluloid.

Polar (2007, Scott Nyerges):

In addition to Brakhage, Nyerges admires the work of Maya Deren, Bruce Baillie (whom he admires for his “stream of consciousness that unfolds in a series of images”), Bruce Conner, Peter Hutton, and Craig Baldwin (“Spectres of the Spectrum is a lot of fun”).

And what does Nyerges think of The Tree of Life? He praises it as “an ambitious, lyrical, visually beautiful work. I give Malick credit for doing something very brave – essentially dropping a 20-minute experimental film in the middle of the narrative. The techniques and tropes he incorporates call to mind the work of Jordan Belson, the cinematography of Koyaanisqatsi and the telescopic images of the Hubble Telescope. And I confess to the thrill of watching and waiting to see if… yes! no! wait… yes!… I could spot my small contribution to this film.”

Despite not having his name in lights, at least he was rewarded in a more practical manner that’s rare for experimental artists. “It wasn’t much, but I got paid more money for licensing that one clip than I’ve ever been paid for ten years of filmmaking. This is not a field to get into if you want to be rich.”

Kevin B. Lee is the editor of Keyframe at Fandor. His email is kevin *at* fandor *dot* com.


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  • Steven Boone says:

    Good looking out for the unsung visionaries, Kevin.

    When I worked in the graphics department at Excite.com years ago, we used to get data CD’s loaded with stock animations that we would edit and upload as downloadable screensavers. They all had designer and animator credits, but were just anonymous loops by the time they went online.

    I remember a lot of them were pretty mesmerizing patterns out of nature and the cosmos. Funny, in light of the kneejerk complaints about the Creation sequence in ToL being glorified screensavers.

    Malick is teaching us to appreciate everything anew: faces, nature, light, and, even if the credits fail to reflect it, the non-narrative glories of experimental filmmakers. I’d rather see this stuff snuck into a great commercial film than a soulless commercial… commercial.

  • Thomas Shea says:

    May your 15 minutes of fame grow to hours and days even months and years. Beautiful work!

  • Cindy Keefer says:

    Clarification of your statement “Nyerges was first contacted by Malick’s production company in 2009” – Scott Nyerges was specifically recommended to Malick by Center for Visual Music (CVM), Los Angeles, an archive hired to consult Malick regarding the experimental abstract sequences. CVM recommended several artists’ work to Malick, including Nyerges. Thus, that is how Malick’s production company found Nyerges.

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