Filmed over five years across 25 countries, Samsara is a stunning, non-narrative visual meditation which seamlessly and fluidly transports the viewer to the varied worlds of sacred grounds, disaster zones, industrial complexes, and natural wonders. (Here’s our four-star review.) We recently caught up with director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson to chat, and the pair were passionate and forthcoming on various issues including the film’s lengthy production, and the ongoing development of digital technology.
How long have you guys worked together?
RF: We go back to 1984, so that’s 28 years now.
For those not familiar with the term, can you please introduce us to the meaning of the word Samsara, and how this fits with the film?
RF: It’s a Tibetan Sanskrit word. We really conceived the film first as a non-narrative guided meditation on the themes of birth, death and rebirth. The word Samsara is really about that cycle, but contains the concept of impermanence. In the film, we set that up with the sand painting, we create it at the opening and at the end they destroy it. It’s a perfect metaphor for impermanence.
How do you approach editing a film like this? Do you have a plan first? Or does it come together in the editing room?
MM: We had the idea that we’d do this project with no sound or music, just the images. We were after the flow. When you cut four, five, six images together in a cutting room, they begin to want to have a narrative. What we did was try to move it back and keep it in the middle and not get too complicated with what each of these subjects was about. We had little blocks and we’d put those together to find the form. But once we had the opening and the closing of the film we were there.
Samsara has been described as a documentary, a non-narrative meditation. But when I was watching I did pick up on lots of little mini-narratives…
RF: It’s the flow. It’s like doing a painting. You’re just open to it.
MM: And that’s the exciting thing, the connections in the editing process that you couldn’t have written ahead of time. The way imagery can connect together visually. That’s really rewarding to find those moments.
The film was shot in 26 countries. Did you see the travel the world yourself, or did you dispatch ADs and other cameramen around?
RF: No, Mark and I were on the road the whole time. Three and a half years.
MM: There’s not one frame of film that Ron didn’t shoot.
Did you encounter any difficulties on location? People wondering what you were up to?
RF: All the time! A lot of people say no, a lot of countries say no, and you just go through the gambit of how you’re feeling.
MM: We’ve been doing this a while. We’ve done a lot of location photography over the three films (Chronos, Baraka, which feature similar themes and visuals, and Samsara) so we know what to expect. It’s a process we’re pretty refined at, and our equipment package is very refined and efficient. We’re been down that road with access, but you do have these issues with the process, yes.
You’ve made your own cameras? Can you tell us a bit about that, and have you used them for Samsara?
RF: Yeah, we built and designed the rigs for Baraka and we updated and improved them, especially the software for Samsara. It’s a moco rig which allows you to tilt, pan and lift and you just program it to move the camera. And we got it down to program it, so it was just a shortcut; set it up in an hour, and we’d give it a head, and give it a tail, and tell it how many seconds. And then we’d watch it playback in real time. Then we’d shape it a bit, and then turn it on and take a break while it shoots over the next three hours. Or all night in some cases. It took eight hours to shoot starfields, and you’d get about 10 seconds of screen time.
Were you always satisfied with the results?
RF: We’ve done it so many times now we know what to expect. We’re a little more confident going out this time. Fearless! So we were able to do a lot of coverage.
MM: Usually when you’re running a time-lapse shot, the end coverage is more interesting than you thought it was going to be, mainly because there’s just so much going on for that 10-hour time frame, with the stars turning. It’s better when you look at it later.
You’re widely regarded as masters of time-lapse photography. It’s not just a fancy trick; what makes it so important and beautiful for you?
RF: There’s something interesting about that technique. It takes ordinary things and makes them look un-ordinary. That’s the cool thing about it. We tried to build sequences with it; not just individual shots, but a set of shots together.
Time-lapse photography is quite widespread these days. Do you think you see too much of it?
RF: It’s used in a lot of things. Commercials.
MM: Even mainstream movies are doing it. The bulk of Samsara is not in time-lapse, it’s regular frame-rates, but there are some very important shots that reveal unfamiliar views of familiar things, and you use it when there is something like that to reveal. Otherwise you use standard frame rates.
I believe it was the first feature film in 10 years to be shot on 65mm. Despite the cost, was it all or nothing?
MM: We looked at digital briefly, and we knew it was going to be a short look because it wasn’t ready for us. There’s a lot of appeal from a logistical standpoint. Had we used digital it would have been easier moving equipment around. It’s lighter. But it also has disadvantages; it’s outdated by something better in very short order. We started in 2007 and that was a 2k standard digital resolution. You don’t want to go to 25 countries for three years and bring back a format that’s going to be outdated. There’s just nothing like 65mm negative for the widescreen format, for the fidelity of the imagery, it’s just unsurpassed, even now.
How do you feel about the changing landscape from film to digital? Where do your allegiances lie? Most cinemas are showing digital now…
RF: That’s the good part. What they’re showing is not wiggling or scratched.
Does that take away from the impact?
MM: Nope. We’ve heard this discussion a lot. We’re doing our own thing. We’re using film for image capture and digital for output. Which version did you see? A DCP?
On 4k resolution.
MM: Well that’s good! Basically we’ve taken the best of this old technology, what’s best for image capture, the film stock, and output in digital which has so many advantages. Everybody gets to see a first generation print that’s not been damaged by the system of theatrical distribution, and it’s rock-steady, it doesn’t wiggle. It lets us do refining of the imagery in the digital intermediary process before it was output.
In what areas do you feel Samsara has built upon, and developed from, Baraka (1992)?
RF: Well, I think that the technology that we’ve brought is an update. The time-lapsability is at the next stage forward. It’s more urban, there’s more portraits in it. There’s some more disturbing images when that flow gets interrupted. When you see people in prison, and animals in cages, and walls around religion, and dolls that look like humans. That flow is broken.
I was particularly intrigued by the scene where the teacher has a nervous breakdown [he creates a papier mache head, puts it on his own, and destroys it while wearing it]. What inspired that scene?
RF: The guy’s a performer, and he’s doing a performance that’s about the shadow side in all of us. The parts that you don’t want people to see. It’s a piece we found on YouTube – a friend sent it to us. We put him in a suit, and put him behind a desk, and he did what he does!
MM: It was intense watching him. When you see somebody expressing that raw emotion, and you’re right there, it’s powerful.
The music is very important to the film, with Lisa Gerrard’s vocals particularly impressive. How did you get that right?
MM: We edited the film in silence first and then we scored it. We worked with Michael Stearns, who’d worked with us on Baraka, and Lisa contributed to that too but after the film was constructed. In the case of Samsara she was in right at the beginning, right at the ground level as a core composer and they came to Los Angeles and they lived there for six months just doing the film score, and it was an immersive experience. We had the segments and we gave them different segments to work on and it tied it all together. They would do little sketches and we’d comment on that and let them turn loose. We’d let them comment on the edit and bring their interpretation and their feeling. They’d get to know the film really well. They brought the whole experience to a level which we really couldn’t have fathomed. It was so great to have that creativity and musicianship from them to heighten the whole experience of the film.
In terms of home viewing and distribution, would you demand people go see this in the cinema?
MM: Well that’s a big question. There’s a kind of battle going on. The theatres want to bring a better experience to viewers and get them to go out and not stay at home. But the home systems are getting better and better and better. I think ultimately the people that benefit from that are the viewers; they’ve got all these theatres and these home entertainment systems striving to make a better and better product and improve everything, all the technology. So I think the beneficiary is the viewer. I think that back in the VHS days it was kinda horrific for us to think about somebody seeingBaraka on videotape but now there’s amazing monitors, and Blu-ray is wonderful, and sound systems are better and it’s just the reality. You have to think about home and theatre when you’re making a movie like this.
What kinds of effects are you hoping to produce in an audience with the film?
RF: We hope it’s a good one, an upper! [laughs] Well, to show that we’re all here, we’ve all been invited to this planet. Life’s the host and we’re all welcome here. Didn’t ask anybody to approve of the guest list. We’re all interconnected, really.
On a visual level, what other filmmakers impress and influence you?
RF: Oh, all these great films… David Lean, Fellini, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
MM: David Lean films is what I think of. One of the cameras we used for Baraka was actually used on Lawrence of Arabia. There’s not a lot of 70mm cameras floating around. That was a tidy old system back then, the Panavision.
Samsara really is visually overwhelming…
RF: We don’t have any characters or actors so the image is the main character. We need the fidelity that you get in 65mm to bring out the essence of those places and people.
What’s next for you?
RF: There’s another non-verbal epic out there, for sure! The world’s an incredible place full of incredible things.
Do you see yourself committing to another five-year project?
RF: Easily. Hopefully we won’t wait another 20 years but we’re not getting any younger, but we think there’s another big one to do.
For more info on Samsara and to find out where it’s playing, visit barakasamsara.com. Check out the trailer for the film below.
Written by Ashley Clark. Follow Ashley on Twitter @_Ash_Clark