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Filmmakers Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson Discuss Their Epic ‘Samsara’

The stunning landscape of Myanmar (Burma) is just one of the locations visited in 'Samsara'

Filmed in 70mm over a four-year period throughout 25 countries across 5 continents, Samsara combines powerful images and a dynamic music score to take audiences on a journey across the globe. Here, filmmakers Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson discuss why their high-definition exploration of the modern world was a project like no other.

1000 Hands Dance, Beijing China

How do you go about making a film on such a huge global scale; did you start off with a script?
MARK MAGIDSON: Scripted is a little strong. It’s conceived. ‘Samsara’ is a word that means birth, death and rebirth, or impermanence, so that’s the kind of imagery that directs the research, and the concept directs the research towards the imagery and locations. So that’s how you start. We had a structural element, which was the construction of the sand mandala, which we filmed in Ladakh, and that was the structural anchor, which ties it in with the themes of impermanence. Once we had that, we were feeling pretty good about filling in the rest of it.
RON FRICKE: We made sure the locations are going to yield a lot of data and imagery for us before we dragged all that gear there. The hardest part of making a film are how to open and close it, but once we had that… we’ve got the film, then we just had to follow the thread of the concept. When we got to certain locations, if things didn’t work out, there were other things. There were a lot of happy accidents on location where we found subjects that were just as good, or better. However, we did do a lot of research to move around the world. It wasn’t like we just packed up and said, let’s go.

Doll Factory in Japan, Tokyo

Does that come from the experience of your previous films?
MARK: It comes from feeling strongly enough about a subject. One example that comes to mind: we were in Ethiopia, in Addis Ababa, and we happened to be in the hotel book store, of all places, and we found this book on the tribes of the Omo Valley, that region in the southern part of Ethopia, just on the border with Kenya. It was a spectacular photographic journal, a really thick book, filled with amazing imagery of portraits of these various tribes. We wondered how we could get down there because it wasn’t very far. So we just changed our schedule and made it a priority. We were able to get down there pretty fast, and brought the crew down, and got all those portraits of people with the face paint and Kalashnikov rifles, which was all from there.

Mt Nemrut, Turkey

How difficult is it getting access and permission to film, given some of the places you shot?
MARK: There are two aspects. Getting access to the locations is difficult. It’s a process that you have to take it one at a time and just try to knock down barriers. More often than not we were successful, and a few times not. It’s really identifying material within the phonetic structure that is of a certain visual level.

Was there anywhere that posed a particular problem?
MARK: The one that got away was North Korea. We almost got in there to film these performances they do every summer, where people are dressed up like Busby Berkeley dancers. We got really close but couldn’t get over the hump. Pretty much everywhere else we could access.

Was shooting on 70mm film always your first choice, or did you look at other options such as IMAX, 3D or digital?
MARK: We looked at digital, at the 2K digital standard in 2007 and felt it wasn’t ready, and felt that it would be outdated, as digital always inevitably is, in short order, and we’d done three other films in 65mm, and said this is our only real option as it’s still the best way to do this.

Payatas, Manila

There’s a lot of time-lapse shots in the film; how did you achieve that with such large cameras?
RON: We had a MoCo system that we’ve been using over the years and created the software that gave us a pan, a tilt, a dolly and a lift. We’ve got it down so we can set it up really quick and programme it with all the short cuts built into it. It has a preview system. You give it the heads and the tails, how many seconds you want on the screen then watch it at 24[fps] as it moves the camera, then you shape it, turn it on and go away.
MARK: To shoot star fields, you’ve got to run it all night to get a ten-second take, whereas some of the other shots you can accomplish in 40 minutes.

When it came to editing the film, did you scan the images?
MARK: We did a telecine at very high quality for editing, which is a really nice way to edit. It was actually good enough that we could project it on a decent size screen and see it, without going through the scanning, the process we did later to output the film to the final version that is showing, which is a whole different, much higher tech, more expensive process than the telecine. It was scanned at 8K.

An active volcano

And there aren’t any digital camera that can match that?
RON: Not yet, but give it a year.
MARK: There’s tremendous resolution in the film stock and it ends up in the digital file when you scan it at 8K. The file for the film was 20Tb, so there was a lot of detail in there.
RON: And there is just detail in the 70mm neg that gets into the concept of the film and brings out the essence of these landscapes and portraits. There’s such a level of latitude, if you really know what that means, that reaches into the highlights and shadow detail. You’re always feeling safe and grounded. You know what this emulsion is going to do. You kind of walk around like this film emulsion. After being on the road for three years, doing it, we just turn into these mean, lean, photographic machines. It was just a short cut. You’d just look at the location and you’d know where to put that camera, what to shoot and what not to shoot. You were just after the essence of the place and not shooting a whole documentary about the place. It was about putting that together in a flow – a global flow.

A beautiful native of Bali

Can we talk about how you approached the editing and scoring of the music?
MARK: The editing was done silently. We had that imagery. We had that structure and that structural component, and you are really making the film with the reality of the imagery, which has an essence. It’s non-fiction and has an essence and energy within it, and you have to become very familiar with everything you’ve got, to make the film with. How to structure it and put it together, how the imagery wants to flow together and connect, and find those really cool connections that you couldn’t have written, where the imagery links up, or says something, or takes you through transitions that are really powerful and meaningful. That’s an exciting part of the process. You’re back from all the travel, you’re in a controlled environment. It’s a really nice place to be.

A stunning night time landscape

Most editors like to work to rhythm when cutting; did you set up a rhythm that would help the composers?
MARK: It’s the cutting rhythm, the composers had to come in and compose to the sequences – the three, four or five minute sequences. There’s all this technology in music, and they’ve got a four minute sequence of images, and they lay that on in ProTools, their music software, and they can see the length the music’s got to be and they’re composing music to that length. You then end up with a really nice piece of music that’s not edited to every cut in the film, it’s just a real piece of music. That’s a nice way to deal, where there’s also some space in there, where you don’t have a rhythm exactly to the edit. It just works as a piece of music. It works independently and comments on the edit. It allows the viewer to experience it with a little more space.

Samsara opens in UK cinemas on August 31. To find out more, visit www.barakasamsara.com

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