Like its predecessors Chronos and Baraka, Samsara is a documentary with only its poetic connections between its images to create a thematic narrative. Capturing footage from a touted five continents, Samsara is an experience that doesn't educate viewers about the content on screen but instead opens their minds to a universality between subjects of many different backgrounds (National Geographic, this is not). Ron Fricke was cinematographer for the film, and its director. Mark Magidson produced, while they both edited and wrote Samsara.
Over the phone, I talked to Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson about making their film, the process of editing such a massive movie, the inevitably beautiful Blu-ray that will be made for Samsara, and more.
Samsara opens in Chicago on September 7.
When it comes to making these films, how much time is spent preparing as opposed to actual filming?
Mark Magidson: A lot of setting up, and a little bit of shooting it. It's really like aiming an arrow at a bullseye. Ron's approach is very formal; it's a very measured process. Very select. When making outlines for these films, which comes first, the specific images or the themes? How much of the material do you know you're going to shoot before you get to set?
Ron Fricke: We have a scenario, and a concept that we work out. In this case, we created it as a non-verbal meditation on the themes of life and death and rebirth. We really wanted to open and close the film with the sand mandala. It really encapsulates the concept of the film of things being fragile.
How much of this project is working with technical aspects, and how much is working with instincts?
Fricke: I would say it's 50/50. Once you getting a location, no matter how much research you have done, we don't drag all of that film gear anywhere. We know we're going to a target that yields a lot of information. Sometimes, things aren't the way you envision them. But a lot of happy accidents happen. You just feel it when you're there. That's the nature of cinematography, or photography - to make choices while you are doing it, once you are there in the moment. Do either of you have a particularly favorite shot in the film?
Magidson: I look at them not just as shots, but also the whole experiences we had in capturing them. The whole sequence in India as really a key structural element, and bringing them back was really satisfying. We had to fill in the rest. We had one shot of them wiping it away, and that was very satisfying. I think the balloon ride over Burma with the temples was a very memorable moment.
Ron, do you have a favorite shot?
Fricke: I can tell you one that wasn't so memorable. When we were in Bali, we were working in a crater where they were mining this sulfur. The smoke and steam you see in the background? It's sulfuric acid, and when the wind changed, it went right into our eyes and throats. You couldn't see or breathe, it was pretty horrific. And to think there are those miners who take trips all day long into those craters, without any protection. Do you have a lot of interactions with the people you film? Is it a non-verbal understanding of the presence of the camera? Do you have conversations with subjects?
Magidson: We're hanging around these locations for quite a while before we actually roll film. During that process, you're talking to people, or talking to people through a translator, who are curious about the equipment. There's a lot of relating to the subjects and the environment that they're in. People asked a lot of questions about what the film is about, and that's all part of the process. Were you educating them in the camera, or the magic of film?
Magidson: It's fun for people to look through the lens, and they look at the monitor. It's a lot of fun in that way. Were there people who were difficult subjects to capture on camera, or didn't want to be on camera?
Fricke: We didn't run into that much. You kind of know who is going to give the best look. That worked out very well.
Along with cinematography, editing is also a very crucial part to this project. Is editing more challenging than cinematography because you have to cut things that you so intensely labored for?
Fricke: It's a totally different process, but we chose to cut the film with no sound or music. We were working with the images as stepping blocks so we could just find what we really wanted to convey.
Magidson: It's really different from image capturing, it's a much more controlled environment, and much more comfortable, whether you're at home or in an office. But it's really challenging. You have to find the film within the reels. It took us a year.
How long were your initial cuts? How did you whittle it down?
Fricke: It started shorter. You're trying to build the film up.
Magidson: You have little sequences that are three minutes, and after those emerge, then putting them together, you can connect them in a lot of ways. But that's the process.
I imagine in this climate that 3D must be something on your table. Is that a concept you want to toy with?
Fricke: When you talk to people at 3D, it's such a mixed bag. People aren't sure when they like it, or if they like it, or what movie they liked it with. The idea is very intriguing especially for seeing the natural world.
Is there anything that you have seen in 3D that has blown you away, or made you rethink the possibilities of the format?
Fricke: I think just seeing the work that was done in Avatar, and how organic it was. Or, the lighting in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, where a different way is part of the concept, I think that opened some new doors. What did working on 'Samsara' teach you about life or filmmaking that other projects had not if anything?
Magidson: It's sort of an evolution. I don't know that we had any epiphanies. We're not as young as we once were, but it was evolution more than revolution. But you're impacted by times you're in and by being around so much in the world. It's very rewarding in a lot of ways. It's also great to get back home.
Would you two ever consider a narrative project? Fricke: We're working on a romantic comedy [laughs]. That'd be a first anyway. Mark, you did a beautiful transfer with the 'Baraka' Blu-ray. Will you be involved with the 'Samsara' Blu-ray transfer as well?
Magidson: We're already working on it, it's going to be phenomenal. I know that Baraka was considered to be a reference point for Blu-ray, but I think we're going to be even better with Samsara. A little bit. The end codes, the technical way of translating the 4K files to Blu-ray has actually improved. Our approach to this film was going out with a digital release from a 70 mm negative, in a digital environment, which was very influenced by the experience we had putting Baraka on Blu-ray. This time we're outputting it so a it's digital theatrical release.