Anyone who thinks there’s nothing new to be found in movie theaters during the late summer may want to reconsider when they see Samsara, the new movie from filmmakers Ron Fricke (on left) and Mark Magidson, whose continued experiments in creating visual and musical meditations have taken them across the globe to capture sights and sequences very few people ever have a chance to experience.
Fricke first began experimenting working in the nonverbal medium with Godfrey Reggio on the 1982 art film Koyaanisquatsi: Life Out of Balance in which Fricke’s distinctive time-lapse photography really turned a lot of heads. From there, Fricke joined up with Magidson to make the 45-minute IMAX film Chronos and its 1992 feature length follow-up Baraka, both times travelling across the globe with a 70mm camera to capture amazing images and assembling them into semi-narrative experiences. Both films won many technical awards at the festivals where they were shown.
It’s been twenty years since Baraka and while Fricke filled some of that time as director of photography for George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith and Francis Ford Coppola’s doomed Megalopolis, he and Magidson reunited in 2006 to begin planning out their interpretation of the Samsara–birth, death and rebirth.
It took five years and they ended up visiting 25 countries to pull together 99 minutes of images that are cinema at its purest, combined with a gorgeous score featuring contemporary and traditional music from all over the world, once again composed by Michael Stearns and Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance, who this time is joined by Marcello De Francisci. (Put it this way. If you like the work of Terrence Malick, especially some of the visuals in The Tree of Life, you’re likely to enjoy the experience of watching Samsara.)
ComingSoon.net had a chance to speak to Fricke and Magidson bright and early one morning last week, discussing the differences between making Baraka and Samsara and how technology changed every step of the process.
ComingSoon.net: It must be wild promoting this movie twenty years after “Baraka” as I’m sure a lot has changed.
Mark Magidson: Actually, with “Baraka” we did not do that much promotion in those days. I think honestly that this kind of media is better for us. Back then, it was just mainstream media and with an independent film, you had a hard time getting any kind of support on it, so in a lot of ways, the whole horizontal move of media is so much better for us with internet and everything.
CS: You started making “Samsara” five years ago so with all that time since doing “Baraka,” how do you even begin on this one? Is there a lot of sitting around trying to figure out what you want to film or is it more organic then that?
CS: Ron, when you’re travelling around the world for other movies and commercials, do you just take notes of stuff you want to come back and film for your own films?
CS: But the title of “Samsara” came up first before anything else?
CS: Which was one of the resources you didn’t have 20 years ago.
CS: When do you know you have enough footage or everything you need and start editing it together? Or are you always adding more as you go along?
CS: What were some of the surprises? Things you found while you were out in the field while shooting things you knew would be in the movie that ended up being something
Fricke: Well one was this portrait of this…
Magidson: Marcos Luna, we called him “Tattoo Daddy.”
Fricke: But he wasn’t “Tattoo Daddy” when we got to the location. It was just going to be another one of these “Stare into the camera, don’t blink” portraits, until his wife brought this little baby out and he went gaga for it, and we said, “Oh my God, it’s now Tattoo Daddy” and that was just great. It was just him. We did everything we could to get it quick and not disturb it.
CS: How hard is it to “get it quick” when you’re using these 70mm cameras and how big are your crews? What’s the biggest crew you used and what’s the smallest in doing this?
CS: But you always have just one camera you use for everything?
CS: Can you rent cameras when you get to these countries?
CS: I was curious about the time-lapse stuff because you’ve done a lot of that over the course of your movies. How long a period do you normally shoot for?
CS: Do you just find a good place to set the camera up and then have people guarding it over that time?
CS: I want to ask about the changes in technology since your last movie. We’re in an interesting time where 70mm is getting a lot of attention because Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie “The Master” is being projected 70mm and there’s a new doc this week called Side to Side, which is about digital vs. film. There’s an interesting conversation going on right now. You guys have been using the same cameras but how have the technological changes made it easier to make this guy, besides having the internet for research. How have you used technology in finishing this movie compared to “Baraka”?
Fricke: Well, I think the biggest thing was the new film stocks we used and then having Panavision’s back-up with those cameras. Their optics were really good and thenMark can explainbut we had the best of both worlds here, not only with film but digital.
Magidson: Well, our output is digital even though we image-captured on film in 65mm negative. We’re not outputting this film to film, we’re outputting to DCP, a digital output, so that’s our preferred way of showing the film and that really has to do with the combination of the old 60-year-old film technology, combined with this high-tech cutting edge super high resolution scanning at 8K that we did on the film that would turn the visual file into a size of over 20 terabytes of a digital file which was then reduced down to a conventional resolution that you could output to Blu-ray eventually or 4K DCP but the amount of detail it retains is just phenomenal, so we took the film into a digital environment but you get all the quality of the large negatives embedded into the file. We’re doing a combination of what we think is the best of both technologies, the best way to image capture and then the best way to output. Once we get into the digital environment, we’re able to refine the imagery, we’re able to save shots that we’d have to otherwise trash really for various reasons. It’s a different process then with “Baraka.” We never cut our negative as we did with “Baraka” to make the film elements. We scanned our negative and once we got it into the digital environment, that’s what we’ve been working with.
For editing, we did a Telecine to an Apple Pro Res and we edited it in Final Cut. They’re really a beautiful way to edit and a very good quality work copy for editing purposes. It’s good enough that you can screen it on a decent size screen and it looks pretty good so you get a good hit off of it while you’re assembling the film.
CS: Was “Baraka” always screened in 70mm so were there a lot more projectors that it wasn’t a problem getting the movie screened?
CS: When you started making this five years ago, digital cameras weren’t anywhere at where they are now. That doc I mentioned talks about the evolution of those cameras to a resolution that’s insane, so have you started playing with them at all?
CS: So if you did another movie, would that be a consideration or would you use those as a back-up to the film cameras?
CS: I’d also think it’s hard to get the cameras maintained.
CS: One of the scenes in the movie which is really quite amazing is the bird’s eye view of the Kaaba in Mecca, which is something that we’ve never seen in a film before quite in that way.
Fricke: That’s because that location didn’t exist before. It was a 40-story new building that was right next to the mosque, so we were able to get up on the roof and almost didn’t get it because our fixer fixed it with the building security but not with the owner. The owner showed up right in the middle of the shoot, it was during Ramadan and there were so many pilgrims around there, it was amazing. When they arrived on the roof they said, “You guys gotta get out of here, you don’t have permission to be up here.” We had a little talk and it was the sheik of the family and I said, “Look, it’s the most beautiful thing and the world should see this.” There was just this long pause and he just stared at us and said, “You’re welcome. Come back after we finish praying.” So we got it.
CS: I wasn’t sure, because it looks like a helicopter shot and I just don’t see any way to get a helicopter to hover above that sacred place.
CS: The other thing I wanted to ask about the guy who was doing performance art that seemed almost like performance art. Who is that guy?
CS: It’s really amazing as you watch this movie to try to figure out where things were shot and there’s really only so much information you can find in the production notes.
CS: It reminded me of the guy ripping his own face off in “Poltergeist” and it gets more and more intense. Just the whole movie in general really runs the gamut of emotions between those first few minutes and the end even with things like the guy being buried in a coffin shaped like a gun.
CS: Did you guys know how he died? Natural causes?
CS: When I talk to people about this movie, I mention that it’s by the filmmakers of “Baraka” and I’d say 3 out of the 5 people respond “Yeah, I saw that when I was stoned.” You spend so much time making these movies and I wonder how you feel about them becoming known as stoner movies. It is a different type of meditation so I assume it’s viable.
CS: Having seen “Samsara” unstoned, it really had a similar effect on me, where I was in one state as it began and then it drew me in and I felt like I left the movie having experienced something life-changing.
Magidson: Yeah, and we’re walking the fine line between trying to not judge the subject matter as good or bad or have a strong political view with it. We’re walking that line. There’s some of that but once you get into that place where you’re trying to tell the audience something or give them an opinion, you create an intellectual thought process within the viewer that we’re trying to stay away from in this kind of filmmaking.
Fricke: It’s not that easy when you’re in the cutting room and you start cutting images together, about three or four images in a string and it suddenly wants to say something about the subject you’re working with so like Mark said, we just try to keep it in the middle and then we form little blocks of content and then we set them aside until we had enough. We did all of this without music or sound effects. We just let the image guide the flow and then we started stringing the blocks together.
CS: I’m glad you mentioned one of the things I wanted to ask about, which is the music, because that’s a huge part of the film.
CS: I found it interesting how certain music was used with certain images in ways that might not be expected, so you do all your editing before it goes out to the three composers?
CS: You never change any of their musical cues in terms of putting it over other visuals?
CS: I was thinking there were a couple places where the music was just unexpected for the visuals and that’s why I wondered if that was their interpretation or that was a specific direction you gave them?
CS: How long does it take to get the music where you want it?
As we wrapped up and said our goodbyes, saying that we hope it wouldn’t be another 20 years before we have a chance to talk to the duo, Fricke closed by saying that they weren’t getting any younger and it would be likely that they would do something new sooner rather than later.
Samsara opens in New York at the Landmark Sunshine and in Seattle on Friday, August 24, and in Los Angeles on August 31.