When you describe a film like Samsara, or its predecessors Baraka, Chronos, and the Qatsi trilogy, to someone who’s never seen one of them, it becomes difficult to relate how moving a film can be when it has no dialogue, characters, or discernible storyline. It’s not quite an art film (though that’s the term the creators tend to prefer when prompted), nor is it any form of experimental video. It’s much larger than any single idea can encapsulate, partly because these films try to capture the essence of existence, of life itself.
Samsara is the newest in a line of films from filmmakers Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson who, beginning with their first collaboration on Chronos, embarked on a journey to create films that essentially hold up a mirror to document our presence on this earth, in each and every corner of its myriad landscapes, unbounded by geography or culture.
It’s a film that can be viewed by anyone, speakers of any language, of any age, each of whom will take away something different from the experience. In showing us a vast array of peoples, places, and natural formations on our earth, Fricke and Magidson simultaneously convey the beauty and the destruction we’ve enacted on our surroundings. But it’s not through cajoling, and no imagery carries with it a loaded message. You simply see what they have seen and captured on stunning 70mm film, and you draw your own conclusions.
We spoke with Fricke and Magidson to find out how they filmed in dozens of locations, utilized the highest definition of filming equipment, and sculpted a vivid yet elusive narrative from what they captured.
The Creators Project: How do you decide the scope of your films? With as many as 25 different countries visited over five years, you probably have weeks, if not months, worth of footage. How do you try to distill that into something that’s an hour and a half long?
Ron Fricke: Well we have a really strong idea, or concept—you can call it a “scenario”—that we’re working with. It’s not a traditional film script, it’s a concept. It’s a non-verbal guided meditation based on the themes of birth, death, and re-birth. All of that is really about flow, on a global scale, and how people and places are interconnected. So we opened and closed the film with this Mandala—you see it being created and at the end of the film, it’s all swept away—and those are the bookends of the film. Once that was in place, once we had the opening and the closing, we could go in, find the subject matter and the content to fill in the rest of the film.
With a concept that spans birth, re-birth, the cycle of life, essentially you’re making a film about everything—the nature of human existence—which is a huge, huge concept. How do you give something as expansive as that a structure that will carry people through a non-verbal film?
Fricke:Well, it’s based, as I said, on the flow. We went out and shot for three and a half years and, once we felt we had enough imagery, we cut the film. In the edit, we did it without any sound or music, we cut little subject blocks [so] that we could find that flow. The imagery dictated to us how it wanted to go together and, when you’re in a cutting room, you know that five or six images later it starts to have its own narrative about that subject. What we tried to do was steer it away or in the middle, so that the concept of flow would come out as we connected all these subject blocks together. The concept is really based on impermanence.
A baptism. Still from SAMSARA. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Do you strive for some sort of objectivity? The way that you choose to pair one image with the next might impart some sort of point of view. Are you trying to establish a point of view? What are you hoping audiences will take away from it?
Magidson: Well I think it’s a fine line that you’re walking, trying to not make it an evaluation in a good or bad sort of way about the subject matter. I mean we are, on the one hand, choosing imagery and making decisions about what imagery is included in the film. For example, the bullet manufacturing you could say, well, is that a political image? Some people could say it is. Or you know, the gun manufacturing, that sequence. But it’s not Bowling for Columbine. It’s letting the essence of the imagery speak for itself more than trying to have a strong political point of view about it.
You said in previous interviews that you strive to capture the “essence of a place.” How do you determine the essence of a place? How long does it take for you to locate that essence?
Fricke: Well, we’re pretty good at working on locations now. We know what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. We’re not there shooting documentaries about the area. We’re looking just for a couple of images that will bring back that essence we’re talking about. I would say that some of it is luck. There are a lot of happy accidents that happen.
Magidson: You said at the beginning of the interview that we probably have weeks of footage. We really don’t, we only have several hours. It’s very targeted. It’s film, it kind of takes a longer time to set it up and shoot it. The cameras are heavier than digital cameras and Ron’s style is very selective, particularly now, after all these years. It’s a very refined approach and you don’t really roll the camera on stuff that you know isn’t going to make it in the film. We don’t up at these places without having researched them either. We don’t bring the crew out to locations we haven’t thoroughly vetted in advance, that we have access to, that we feel there’s a high-level of visual interest, and in that framework there are happy accidents that happen, too. But it’s pretty planned, location by location.
Malaysian dancers. Still from SAMSARA. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Can you tell me about a happy accident that happened while shooting Samsara?
Fricke: One good example is the geisha. On all the portraits, it was set up on a theme of a death mask—rebirth, staring back at us. All the direction on the portraits was just, “Look into the camera and don’t blink!” Because blinking portraits don’t work too well. It was the stare we were after to connect everyone together. No matter who you are, where you are, you see that soul. And so we hired this professional geisha and we had some lighting on her and lots of makeup. And while the camera was being pushed in to the sweet spot, suddenly I saw this big tear. And I was saying, “Wow, I don’t believe it!” and she didn’t blink. That’s how we got that shot.
A lot has changed in the world since your last film, Baraka, thanks to the internet and digital technology, how did that affect what you were doing with Samsara, did it change your approach at all?
Fricke: Well yeah, I would have to sum it up in one word here—Youtube. We’re able to do a lot of research that we weren’t able to do before on the internet. And friends were doing it for us, as well. We were able to find subjects that related to the concept in more generous form than we did before.
Martial arts academy. Still from SAMSARA. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Can you tell me about any sort of technical challenges that you encountered while making this film?
Fricke: Well, there’s a number of them on just different levels. One is just working with film nowadays. Just moving film in and out and across borders, it’s never been more difficult than it is now. But that’s the price you pay for shooting film—not just 70mm but any film—you’ve got the Xray concerns, all the security issues. We used to be able to just take it with us on flights on Baraka, but we weren’t able to do that on Samsara. We ship it DHL or FedEx and hand-carry it through the process of getting it on a plane and back through processing in Los Angeles. That’s a technical challenge. I mean, we had software issues with the motion control camera a little bit, there’s that stuff. Just the logistics of working with over 25 countries. You’re working with over 25 different kind of local production companies in all these different places. It’s just a tremendous amount of logistics and we had some help with it.
Can you tell me more about the motion control camera? That was used for the timelapse photography, right?
Fricke: Yeah, this was something that we really invented on Baraka, but we fine-tuned it, updated it, re-did the software. It’s essentially 40 feet of track I’ll lay that can do pan-tilt and lift a 12-foot jib arm in motion control. We wrote a software program that has all these shortcuts built into it. We know how it functions so we’re able to set it up quickly, get right at the heart of what we want to shoot without having a lot of technical stuff getting in our way. Basically, you just set up the head of the shot and the tail of the shot, and you tell it how many seconds you want it to run on the screen, you hit “preview” and watch it. If it’s running too fast or too slow, you just begin to shape it.
What kind of physical toll did this film take on you? I imagine all that travel and lugging around of those 70mm cameras, how heavy are those things?
Magidson: At this point, after all this experience, it’s a pretty refined set of tools. It was about 2,000 pounds in total, so that’s everything—three camera bodies, extra magazines, batteries are heavy (the LED acid batteries weigh 300 pounds, we have five of those). It’s all down to the bare minimum of what you need and nothing you don’t need.
Fricke: We can only stay out six-to-eight weeks shooting and that’s it, we’re just brain-dead and can’t get up in the morning after that. Or face another airport. So we had to come back after that time period. Then we would look at all the footage we shot and reorganize, get ready to go back out again.
Ron Fricke, left, and Mark Magidson, right, on location on Mt. Blanc. Still from SAMSARA. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Between all the films, how has your vision evolved? How have you changed as filmmakers? Obviously you’ve grown and matured, but when you finish a film like this do you feel changed?
Magidson: I feel relieved.
Fricke: Yeah, we feel relieved we got out of there alive.
Magidson: You know, I would say just for myself, I don’t know how Ron would answer it, I think as we’ve aged and gotten older and more experienced, we’re really about being out on missions, bringing back the right material on the film negative. On Baraka, we were a little more wide-eyed looking at the locations and feeling the locations. I wouldn’t say we didn’t have fun on this film, but it’s more down-to-business and you really want to bring back the footage. But certainly it’s a life-changing experience to be out there and see the world that way. You’re immersed in a lot of difficult environments and you feel a lot of compassion for the level of poverty you see around the world. That really does have an impact.
Fricke: Beautiful world, it’s full of wonderful things. A lot of disturbing images as well, but it’s all part of the flow.