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Timelines on ‘Voyage of Time’: Editing Terrence Malick’s History of the Universe

"This is Terry’s ode to the Earth," says co-editor Keith Fraase.

Fans of director Terrence Malick adore his approach to filmmaking, which is often characterized by timeless and painterly cinematic compositions. The good news for moviegoers is that Malick has been in the most prolific period of his directing career. What could be the pinnacle in cinema as poetry is Malick’s recent documentary Voyage of Time, which is no less than a chronicle of the history of the universe as seen through Malick’s eyes. Even more intriguing, the film is being released in two versions: a 90-minute feature (Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey) narrated by Cate Blanchett and a 45-minute IMAX film (Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience) narrated by Brad Pitt.

This era of increased output has been good not only for fans of Malick’s work but also for Keith Fraase, co-editor of Voyage of Time. Fraase joined Malick’s filmmaking team during postproduction on The Tree of Life. Although he was a veteran editor, having cut many commercials and short films, his work with Malick marked his first experience on a full-length feature.

Fraase and I recently discussed what was involved in bringing Voyage of Time to the screen.

Eight Years in the Making

“I began working with Terry back in 2008 on The Tree of Life,” Fraase says. “Voyage of Time had been conceived as a companion piece to The Tree of Life, to be released simultaneously, but plans changed and the release of Voyage was delayed. Some of the ideas and thematic elements that were discussed for Voyage ended up as the ‘creation sequence’ in Tree, but reworked to fit the tone and style of that film. Over the years, Voyage became something that Terry and I would edit in between post on his other narrative films. It was our passion project.”

Malick’s cutting rooms are equipped with Avid Media Composer systems connected to Avid shared storage. Typically his films are edited by multiple editors. (Voyage of Time was co-edited by Fraase and Rehman Nizar Ali.) As well as the editors, members of the research team needed access to film footage, so as many as eight Media Composer systems were deployed during post.

Fraase explains, “There is almost always more than one editor on Terry’s films. At the start of post, we’d divvy up the film by section and work on it until we reached a rough assembly. Once the film was assembled in full, each editor would usually trade off sections or scenes in the hope of achieving some new perspective on the cut. It was always about focusing on experimentation or discovering different approaches to the edit.

“With Voyage, there was so much footage to work with, some of which Terry had filmed back in the 1970s. This was a project he’d had in his mind for decades,” Fraase continues. “In preparation, he traveled all over the world and had amassed years of research on natural phenomena and the locations where he could film them. During filming, the crew would go to locations with particular goals in mind, like capturing mud pots in Iceland or cuttlefish in Palau. But Terry was always on the lookout for the unexpected. Because of this, much of the footage that ended up in the final films was unplanned.”

Voyage of Time presented an interesting challenge regarding voiceover narration. “For Voyage, there were hours and hours of footage to cut with, but we also did a lot of experiments with sound,” Fraase continues. He says that the feature film’s script was adapted from the 45-page treatment originally written for the IMAX version, but that script “was more about feelings and tone than outlining specific beats or scenes. It was more poetry than prose, much of which was later repurposed and recorded as voiceover. Terry has a very specific way of working with voiceover. The actors record pages and pages of it, all beautifully written, but we never know what is going to work until it’s recorded, brought into the Avid and put up against picture. Typically we’ll edit together sequences of voiceover independent of any footage. Then we move these sequences up and down the timeline until we find a combination of image and voiceover that produces meaning greater than the sum of the parts. Terry’s most interested in the unexpected, the unplanned.”

The Art of Picture and Sound Composition

Keith Fraase

When moviegoers think of a Terrence Malick film, imagery naturally comes to mind. Multiple visual effects houses worked on Voyage of Time under the supervision of Dan Glass (Jupiter Ascending, Cloud Atlas, The Master). Different artists worked on different sections of the film.

“Throughout postproduction, we sought guidance from scientific specialists whenever we could. They would help us translate certain thematic elements into specific, illustratable moments,” Fraase explains. “We’d then bring these ideas to the different VFX shops to expand on them. They mocked up the various ‘pre-vis’ shots that we’d test in our edit—many of which were abandoned along the way. We had to drop so many wonderful images and moments after they’d been painstakingly created because it was impossible to know what would work best until it was placed in the edit.

“For VFX, Terry wanted to rely on practical film elements as much as possible. Even the shots that were largely CGI had to have some foundation in the real. We had an ongoing series of what we called ‘skunkworks shoots’ on the weekends, where the crew would film experiments with elements like smoke, flares, dyes in water and so on. These were all layered into more complex visual effects shots.”

Although principal photography took place on film, the finished product went through a digital intermediate (DI) finishing process. IMAX visual effects elements were scanned at 11K resolution and the regular live-action footage at 8K resolution.

The musical score for Voyage of Time also benefited from creative experimentation. Fraase continues, “Terry has an extensive classical music library, which was all loaded into the Avid so we could test a variety of pieces against the edit. This started with some obvious choices for a temp score, like [Gustav] Holst’s ‘The Planets’ and [Joseph] Haydn’s ‘The Creation,’ but we tried others, like a Keith Jarrett piano piece. Then one of our composers [Hanan Townshend, To The Wonder, Knight of Cups] experimented further by taking some of the classical pieces we’d been using and slowing them way, way down. The sound of stringed instruments being slowed results in an almost drone-like texture. For some of the original compositions, Terry was most interested in melodies and chords that never resolve completely. The idea being that, by never resolving, the music was mimicking creation: constantly struggling and striving for completion. We ultimately used a collection of all these techniques in the final mix. The idea was that this eclectic approach would provide for a soundtrack that was always changing.”

Voyage of Time is a visual symphony best enjoyed by sitting back and letting its sounds and pictures envelop you. Fraase notes, “Terry has a deep knowledge of art and science, and he wanted everyone involved in the project to be fascinated and love it as much as he does. This is Terry’s ode to the Earth.”