With blockbusters focusing on CG spectacle, and high-profile filmmakers rushing towards the latest digital innovations, one cinematic option often gets left behind: the grandeur of 70mm. Hollywood’s own high-resolution alternative to 35mm film, the format was used to shoot the likes of Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now filmmakers Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson have created a new film shot entirely on the format: Samsara.
A follow-up to 1992’s Baraka, the film eschews dialogue and traditional narrative techniques. Instead, it uses striking visuals and music to take viewers on an emotional exploration of the world around us — and of the oft-unseen cause and effect behind things we usually take for granted (see our review below). Shot over five years in 25 different countries, it’s a surprisingly affecting film — not just for the glorious images it presents, but for the darkness and hope it exudes as well.
I spoke with Fricke (director and cinematographer) and Magidson (producer) about the creative process behind Samsara, and the benefits of using 70mm in a digital world.
Samsara isn’t a film with a conventional narrative, but it conveys a very emotional story on a gut level. What’s the creative process behind building a project like this?
Ron Fricke: Well, maybe a way to answer that is how we edited the film. We did it without any music or sound effects this time. It was kind of like a zen thing we did, where we cut just to the image and let the image kind of really guide us on that concept of flow. And we build short blocks of subject matter, and then these blocks started to come together and form the overall arc of the film.
But once we had the opening and closing of the film, the sand mandala, we knew we were in good shape to follow the film’s really bigger theme or arc, which is impermanence. [In Buddhist tradition, a mandala is a geometric painting made of colored sand, which is assembled and then destroyed.]
Was that something you had in mind from the very beginning when you sat down, in the outline process?
RF: Yeah. The sand mandala was right there. It was something that we had written down and scripted.
Mark Magidson: It’s the perfect metaphor for impermanence. It drove the location research and so forth. That theme, you know, directed us as to where we were going to go and film.
"Digital's just constantly undergoing obsolescence every 12 months or something."
How early on in the shooting did you get those sections nailed down?
MM: I think that was pretty early on. You know, our very first shoot was New Orleans, the Katrina aftermath, which was a little more than a year after the event. I think then we went over there to India fairly early on, and like Ron said it really took a lot of pressure off having that. And having been through the Baraka experience where you’re basically making the film in the editing process a lot, you don’t have a detailed shooting script or layout of a scene-to-scene in the film at all, there’s nothing like that. It’s just trusting that you’re going to find a way to make it work though building these sequences up that are all movable, and finding the way that they can fit together in the edit. We were just really relaxed about it this time.
Given how intuitive the shooting process is, what is your approach in the editing room? How do you bridge the gap from raw footage to story?
MM: There’s a lot of little elements to it that are storytelling elements. There’s the sand painting which we’ve talked about. We introduce the "Thousand Hands" performance briefly towards the beginning; we pay it off at the end. There are musical moments that are introduced at the beginning that are kind of expanded and developed at the end. They’re really storytelling elements that maybe you see them in different ways in feature films, you know with dialogue or story components, but that’s what you do in a non-verbal film. To make it feel like you’ve been on a journey and that the journey concludes at the end of the film.
What were the logistics of shooting 70mm, going into all these different countries? How do you get your film processed — were you seeing footage right away?
MM: Yeah, there’s no rushes. [laughs] We’ve done this a while. You know, this is the third time we’ve shot 70mm film [Baraka and 1985’s Chronos also used the format]. I can say without hesitation that it’s never been more difficult moving film stock in and out, across borders, in and out of locations then it is now. It’s really hard to do it. Digital would be much easier. But digital just wasn’t ready for us in 2007 when we started. The digital standard was 2K at that time. You know, digital’s just constantly undergoing obsolescence every 12 months or something. I mean it is at a point now where it’s a level of quality that would really make you think twice before saying no, but here we are. We did it in 70mm. You have to bring back the imagery in a format that’s gonna really stand up over time, and there’s just nothing like 65mm negative to do that. [70mm projects shoot on 65mm-wide negative stock, while the finished product is traditionally projected on 70mm film.]
"You can see into people's eyeballs. You can see all the detail in there."
If you were starting a new project today, would you go with 65mm negative again or would you be open to a digital format?
RF: Well, we’re open to it. You know, maybe in another year there’ll be 8K or 10K sensors that’ll match the quality of 65. But as Mark said, you know, three, four years ago, it just wasn’t there.
MM: And the other thing, you know I’m kind of taking a side road to your question, but we finished in digital, which I think you know, but we started with film stock. But we scanned it at super high-res into a digital realm and outputted it as a DCP [Digital Cinema Package, the format given to theatres for digital exhibition] as our optimal preferred way of presenting the film, in 4K.
RF: And it’s as good or better than 70mm prints. I mean you can see into people’s eyeballs. You can see all the detail in there.
MM: And it’s because of the image capture on 65mm, that’s why it looks so great in this output. So it’s kind of a hybrid. It’s taking this 50-year-old camera system from Panavision and putting it through this process that’s cutting-edge, this digital scanning technology.
Are they any digital effects in the film, or is everything we’re seeing lens choice, frame rates, and in-camera effects?
RF: Well you know, we were able to tweak a few things. Remove a car here and there, and a power line...
MM: A bird or something.
RF: Yeah. It’s a wonderful tool to have.
MM: Those were shots we would have trashed in Baraka. We would have just left them on the cutting room floor, but we were able to save them by taking a bird out of a time-lapse, a pixelated bird or something. We did a little bit of that.
You used time-lapse photography to great effect in Baraka, and here you push things even further. Can you tell us a little about your rig?
RF: Well, it’s the Baraka rig, we just upgraded it. Especially the software program that we have on it. 40 feet of track to dolly, and we have a pan-tilt head, and a 12-foot jib arm for a lift. And we’ve got shortcuts built into the software program so we can set it up really quick and shape the move, and we have a preview function so we can watch it play back before we shoot. And we used it for all kinds of different film speeds, from 24 frames all the way down to 2, to 1 1/2 frames a second.
In the latter half of the movie you focus a lot on people, and there are a lot of images that feel consciously composed, rather than what you'd see in a documentary — a portrait of a family, all carrying guns, for example. Are these things you’re finding in the moment, or that you have planned ahead of time?
RF: Well the gun family is definitely on our shooting list, but you know, to be truthful, a lot of happy accidents happen when you’re out shooting. No matter what you plan, you do find other material.
MM: There’s kind of a strange phenomenon. You know, when you’re out there with your antenna up you kinda get a lot of lucky breaks it seems like. You’re out there committed to this process, in the search of amazing imagery, and it just seems like a lot of time things fall into place for you. And I felt that with Baraka, too. I think having that commitment, I don’t mean anything metaphysical or weird when I say it, just putting yourself in a position where you’re available to good things happening, and that happens.
You talked earlier about creating a journey for the viewer. As filmmakers, what do you hope people take away from Samsara?
RF: Well I hope they come away feeling good and see how they’re interconnected to this flow, and I think that’s what the sand dune represented. We introduced it right after you found the thousand-hands goddess after the sand mandala was painted, and it’s like we went one turn of the wheel. And we put her asleep in the beginning, and then when we find her in the end, we wake her up — and then she goes back into another dream.
MM: And I think that sand dune can mean a lot of things, I think it’s non-definitive. It’s not a message, it says the film is not a message. It’s ambiguous a little, intentionally.
RF: There’s lots of pathways out there to rebirth. Just pick one and go for it.
Samsara is currently playing in limited release, with nationwide expansion set to follow in the coming months.