Conversations about Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life have tended to focus on the big ideas the philosopher-director tackles — and, considering the film’s subject matter, that’s perfectly understandable. In prizing content above style, though, it’s easy to forget the breathtakingly (and sometimes painfully) beautiful images that fill each and every one of Malick’s movies. But you know who hasn’t? Malick himself, who’s written a set of instructions for projectionists to ensure that audiences see the film precisely as he intended. He seems particularly interested in the images’ brightness, which makes a lot of sense.
The San Diego Reader (which didn’t publish his letter word-for-word) sums up Malick’s instructions:
1. Project the film in it’s [sic] proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio. 2. The correct fader setting on Dolby and DTS systems is 7. Malick asks that faders be kept at 7.5 or even 7.7, system permitting. 3. The film has no opening credits, and the booth operator is asked to make sure the “lights down cue is well before the opening frame of reel 1.” 4. With all the recent talk of “darkier, lousier” images, operators are asked that lamps are at “proper standard (5400 Kelvin)” and that the “foot Lambert level is at Standard 14.”
For the record, a friend who has worked as a projectionist tells us that Malick’s note isn’t entirely an anomaly — directors do sometimes leave instructions like these. He remembers, in particular, a letter from David Lynch accompanying prints of Mulholland Drive that addressed sound levels.