Lights! Lumia Action! Camera!

Lumia’s presence in these more recent films begins to reflect a more comprehensive appreciation for its visual look as a sublime spiritual metaphor holding a part of the film in place to reinforce the main narrative. In these two films, Solaris and The Tree of Life, Lumia suggests the presence of a mysterious and other worldly look of some spiritual effigy, causing a certain amount of head scratching as critics try to make sense of it all.

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Solaris is a 2002 psychological-science fiction drama directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. Lumia effects were by Richard “dr.” Baily.

Over time, Lumia has migrated from the bright lights to the bits and bytes of digital image processing. In the movie Solaris, the swirling vaporous imagery was created by SPORE, a preparatory software program developed by Richard Baily who used particle system algorithms to generate the film’s Lumia as a wisp-like atmosphere that swirled above the planet Solaris in a galaxy far, far away.

The tagline of Solaris was, “We came to study Solaris, but it in turn, studied us.” Discovered in a distant star system, Solaris was a Gaia-like planet that emanated a psychic presence, having its own ‘life force.’ Planetary scientists discovered they could not land on the planet’s surface. Instead they built an orbiting space station allowing its on-board planet investigators to begin research into Solaris’s inner being. Bad move.

The visual effects star of the movie was Solaris’s Lumia-like planetary atmosphere that swirled above its surface. Utilizing a Lumia visual look to portray the mystic presence of the planet was developed by Richard Baily (1953 – 2006), who discussed his approach to enlisting the planet’s atmosphere as a central character in the film.

“Total mystic weirdness” is the way Baily describes the outer-space milieu of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris. “The director wanted his camera to pass through nebulous arcs and veils of light when it approached the mysterious planet’s turbulent cloud-like atmospheres. To create such abstract CG atmospherics, Baily applied his unique software called SPORE, which enabled him to animate swirling particle clouds in brilliant hues.

The planet appears in dozens of shots in Solaris. “Its atmosphere is a big thing,” says Baily. “To enshroud it, they needed an aurora borealis effect.” To do that, Baily engaged his SPORE software to deliver over 60,000 frames of atmospheric planet animation to the production of Solaris.

OK – a planet covered in a Lumia-like atmosphere, what did it all mean? It was obviously left for the critics to speculate on, and they did. One wrote of the Solaris look, “as a possible manifestation of a Hollywood version of the afterlife. Another considered the Lumia covered planet as a representation of consciousness itself. And dare we say it, perhaps it might have represented God Himself and the gateway to heaven, where you dwell forever in the presence of representations of your earthly happiness. But Lumia can do that to your imagination. Got to see it, to “see” it.

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The Tree of Life was written and directed by Terrence Malick and stared Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain. The film chronicles the origins and meaning of life by way of a middle-aged man’s childhood memories of his family living in 1950s Texas against the narrative backdrop of the origins of the universe and the inception and end of life on Earth. Pretty heavy stuff and scattered throughout the film is a Lumia cloud that makes periodic appearances as a portent to a transcendent life moment.

As for the Lumia look, famed special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull contributed to the visual effects work on The Tree of Life. Malick, a friend of Trumbull, approached him about the effects work and mentioned that he did not like the look of computer-generated imagery. Trumbull asked Malick, “Why not do it the old way? The way we did it in 2001.” For Tree of Life, no effort was spared in getting a perfected visual look, and none other than Thomas Wilfred’s original Lumia score Opus 161 was used to accompany “the divine light” which periodically appeared throughout the film. The composition is owned by Thomas Wilfred curator, Eugene Epstein, who allowed the Lumia composition to be filmed for the movie.

Much has been made of Malick’s spiritual vision in The Tree of Life, and this is quite accurate; as crtitics have noted, “it is a film that attempts, among other things, to invest the radiance of the holy, a concentrated visual power that connects to possible transcendence.” Malick, of course, has conceived this film in the service of narrative cinema.



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