Method Studios' VFX for Voyage of Time doco are beautiful yet accurate

Creating artistic visual effects with scientific merit for Voyage of Time, a documentary based on the origin of time, was a monumental task for Method Studios. Creative supervisor Dan Glass explains.

Unprecedented precision, patience and diligence were required by Deluxe’s Method Studios to create the visual effects (VFX) required for epic origin of life documentary Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience.

Method Studios created some of its most complex and demanding VFX work for the 45-minute IMAX film - now playing in the US - which explores the eon from the Big Bang to present day. 

Narrated by Brad Pitt, it covers director Terrence Malick’s grand history of the Earth’s solar system, glimpses of the first unicellular life forms and reconstructions of extinct species.

Chief creative supervisor at Method Studios Dan Glass began working on the film more than 10 prior to its release, collaborating with Malick to create astrophysical simulations based on scientific data.

Listen to him explain a little more in the video above.

Artists teased out depth of field and dynamic range through compositing techniques and miniature photography, creating shorts ranging from 15 to 25 seconds long – about seven minutes of total content.

Dan talked to us about the tension between developing artistic and emotional concepts that were scientifically sound, working with particularly long shots that had to translate to IMAX format and accurately using colour.

Miriam Harris: What VFX work you are most proud of in the film?

Dan Glass: The project demanded an incredible variety of imagery and methodologies:  from the extremely analogue to complex CG creatures and simulations.

We also mixed approaches as much as possible so that the VFX and its techniques remain as indiscernible as possible, always pushing for a realism that would hold up against the native IMAX photography on the giant sized screen.

MH: How did you balance beautiful aesthetics with scientific accuracy? 

DG: Fortunately science and nature produce some beautiful visuals from the outset, so we tried to find interesting angles and compositions that would stay faithful to the scientific truth but, with delicate tuning, wake a sense of awe and wonder at the events of our past and future universe.

MH: How did you incorporate colour – was it used accurately? 

DG: There are certain places the film goes where colour and light are either conceptually fictitious or reference is simply unavailable.

For these areas we relied either on contemporary analogues where available or our imaginations where not.  All material was ultimately vetted through scientific advisors across the many fields covered.

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MH: What was it like to work with shot lengths that were longer than average?

DG: Not only were the long shot lengths challenging, but the need to prepare everything at 5.6K for the IMAX screen. There’s simply no place to hide at that scale and shot duration! Basically a lot of patience and extreme diligence.

MH: Talk us through the creative process for the astrophysical simulations.

DG: The astrophysical simulations all stemmed from very close collaborations with a number of scientists and their respective institutions around the world. 

In each case we searched through scores of existing simulations then worked with the researchers to put real world cameras into the action to best represent both a scientific truth and a visual splendour.

The visual effects artists at Method Studios then worked in Nuke to layer additional detail and photographic flare to the material.

MH: What was used in your miniature photography shots?  

DG: We involved pretty much everything including the kitchen sink (almost literally): flow tables, cloud tanks, road flares, smoke machines, painted orbs, super heated clay, petri dish experiments, ferro fluids…

MH: How did you successfully translate that to IMAX format? 

DG: With IMAX, you need always to be conscious of how close to the screen the viewer is, that the main area of attention is just below centre and that the pacing of movement needs to be scaled accordingly.

We spent a tremendous amount of time finessing extra details into the frame to suggest much higher orders of resolution than even we were working at.