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SBIFF ’12: ‘Samsara’ Producer Mark Magidson Talks Logistical Agony, Visual Ecstasy & Nuances of Non-Verbal Storytelling

SBIFF '12: 'Samsara' Producer Mark Magidson Talks Logistical Agony, Visual Ecstasy & Nuances of Non-Verbal Storytelling

Samsara,” the latest film from “Baraka” and “Chronos” filmmakers Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson had its U.S. premiere last week at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (it previously screened at TIFF last year). The companion piece to 1992’s “Baraka,” which has since become a cult hit for its stunning visuals and philosophical, non-verbal storytelling, follows much in the same vein. The title, “Samsara,” is the Tibetan word for “the ever turning wheel of life,” and deals with concepts of birth, rebirth and death on a scale that is both global and intimate. The film was shot on location all over the world on 70 mm film, utilizing Fricke’s signature time lapse photography, and continuing to push the technological boundaries by incorporating computerized camera movement. We had a chance to sit down with “Samsara” and “Baraka” producer Mark Magidson the morning after the movie unspooled to a packed house at Santa Barbara’s 2,000 seat Arlington Theater, specially equipped with a 4K projector to provide the most crisp, luminescent image possible with the 70mm cinematography. Magidson discussed all aspects of the filmmaking process with “Samsara,” from the storytelling to the logistical aspects of the challenging shoot, and whether there’s another installment in this series of unique non-verbal documentaries.

Magidson spoke about the innovations in their specific filmmaking process, saying, “…the time lapse approach to it is something that has been done before, but I think we’ve also taken it to different places with the motion control that gives you more options creatively…We’re trying to push the bar up; this is the first time we actually used a jib arm in time lapse for example. We did pan, tilt and dollying in time lapse in ‘Baraka,’ we started it in ‘Chronos’ in a much more crude way, just from the technology that we had. For ‘Samsara,’ we’ve got some lift shots where the camera is lifting in time lapse.” As for their inspiration in storytelling, he said, “I think it’s not really inspired by one particular thing, but the totality of just the film experiences you’ve had, and almost more importantly, just the gut feeling of what’s working in the film.”

Like “Baraka,” “Samsara” features numerous arresting film portraits of various subjects captured in slow motion, from a geisha to a Filipino inmate, to African tribespeople, Chinese factory workers and more. These portraits are juxtaposed with the rapid time-lapse photography and offer a welcome reprieve and moment of intimacy to the viewer. Magidson spoke about their place in the film and how they chose these subjects during the arduous shoot, saying, “The portraits really give it the strength and depth but they’re hard to find, really great portraits, you’d think they’re everywhere and they sort of are everywhere, but they’re hard to find, they’re hard to find the right subjects, it’s very elusive. But, when you’re out for awhile, like we are, you get them, and come home with them, and you can find them anywhere, and sometimes when you’re looking for them, you don’t do well. So it’s something you just sort of come across.”

Director Ron Fricke is also the cinematographer on these shoots, and while Magidson is the producer, he and Fricke are also credited as writers of the concept and treatment. The around-the-world-shoot only had a 4-person crew, so we asked Magidson to describe the division of labor. He told us during the shoot itself, “[Fricke] and I are basically determining where we’re going and what the subject matter is, but when it comes down to choosing the dolly shot or a dolly in or a side dolly or what lens works, Ron’s really doing that. You make suggestions or you have ideas, and talk about it, but he’s really framing the shots, choosing the lens, choosing the set up.”

As for the editing process, Magidson described how they were able to edit the massive amounts of footage collected over the four year shoot, saying, “The film is made up of sequences…what takes time is trying to figure out how those sequences fit together, to tell a story that begins and ends, feels like you’ve been through something and feels like you know the film is ending even if you haven’t seen it before. So that it has a structure that we’re accustomed to seeing from a traditional story standpoint. It’s something that you hopefully are feeling this arc of this, I hate to use the term story exactly, but it’s a structure. I worked on part of it on my own, and he would work on parts on his own. And then we’d try to figure out how they fit together, and move them around, and we tried it a lot of different ways. A lot of the sequences, you aren’t planning them when you’re filming and you’re gathering data, and choosing subject matter that is pertinent to the concept, but there’s just no way to know how some of the cuts are going to end up working until you get to the reality of putting it together. The film’s really put together in the editing room. For example, the cut from the Himba woman with the baby on her back, and there’s a push into her eyes, and then it cuts to this L.A. freeway. There’s no way you storyboard something like that. That comes at the end, after you’ve put everything together and then make more dramatic transitions like that that feel like they work. You can’t write that.” The film does have a very cyclical feel to it, laid out in the beginning, that reflects the overall message that the film communicates without words. Magidson said about the intro, “We didn’t know we were going to have a prologue when we set out to make the film, it just felt like it needed that to sort of set that out, introduce the main themes of the film and set it out there with a few shots, a few sequences.”

The footage featured in the project is truly remarkable not only for it’s beauty, but for the sheer amount of effort required to capture what they did on film. Magidson described the logistical challenges of making a movie like this. “The night shots are really high-risk shots, because the camera’s running all night long. The computer moves it [the camera], it eases in and eases out. The camera moves start and they slowly build up to speed and they slowly degrade and stop, so it’s all done with this computer program that programs in the increment that the camera moves in these different axes — pan, tilt and dolly, or jib, or we can do all four axes at a time. There’s little sort of idiosyncracies to that, like the jib arm, because we’re carrying portable equipment that’s light, it’s not like what you’d have on a studio shoot,” he explained. “We’ve got to put it on an airplane and get it around the world and not have it cost a fortune. For example, we wouldn’t want to do a jib shot if it’s windy outside because it’s going to blow around and shake the camera, so we did those on interiors. It’s all about this craft– what are the tools and what can it do? The night shots are one minute exposures per frame, so you don’t get a lot of material overnight, and because we’re trying to raise the bar with locations, a lot of times we’re carrying the equipment into these really difficult places that are hard to get to, that are hikes, and people are carrying stuff and it’s an hour/hour-and-a-half in with equipment and an hour-and-a-half out out. The shots of the trees in the salt pan, the time lapse night shot of those twisted trees, that was in Namibia, and that was a big hike in, a big move of equipment to get that shot, it’s the focal point of several days work to get one 12 second take, you’re not wanting to screw that thing up. Those are very valuable pieces of film, very hard to get. Very precious. But you work hard for it and that’s what it is.”

Magidson compared the shoot to their previous effort, “Baraka” and the differences in the difficulty it is in actually making a film like this. While they were granted unprecedented access to many locations (footage of worshippers at Mecca is truly awe-inspiring and Magidson declined to share his “trade secret” for how they received access during the Q&A following the screening), they were also denied. Yet, while there are some things that have improved over the years, still “it’s a lot harder to make these kinds of films, this film was a lot harder in many ways to make than ‘Baraka,’ in some ways it was easier…access is a lot harder now. Everybody’s much more concerned about how it’s going to appear, is it going to be flattering. You get a lot of no’s, we got more no’s than we did in ‘Baraka’…we wouldn’t be able to film a bullet factory in the U.S. or a chicken factory.” Another obstacle was transporting the 70mm film around the globe, not to mention equipment. However, Magidson is able to look back and appreciate the effort spent in order to avoid digital, saying, “It’s harder, just getting film in and out, you can’t take it with you. Digital would have been nice in a way, but it just wasn’t, and I’m glad we didn’t do it, These films have a long shelf life and they don’t neccessarily start off with a bang, it’s not a film that you put it in theaters and it’s not a star-driven film that a lot of people want to come to on opening weekend, it’s gotta go for a long time. And you don’t want to have gone to the effort of going to this many locations and come back with the film in a format that is going to become dated easily. So it really wasn’t much of a choice, we really had to do this the way we did it, and it’s easy to look back and not have the regrets. I would hate to have shot it on 2k digitial format, and now everybody’s going to 8k. And it would have been, oh gee great, why’d you shoot it in 2k? And you just don’t want to be there, that’s the issue with digital technology, it keeps getting renewed.”

As for the future for Magidson, he’s still working on getting “Samsara” into theaters, and hasn’t quite focused on the next one just yet. “These kinds of films take a lot out of you and they take a lot of your life force and so that’s why there’s such a big gap in films, this film took four-and-a-half years, and you dont know if it’s all going to work out either, so I need a clean break,” he said. “When I did ‘Baraka,’ I thought that was it, because it was three years, and that’s a long time, and then but here we are, it took 17 years for me to be up for it again.” Hopefully there won’t be another 17 year gap for another collaboration with Fricke and Magidson, but if there is, the films are worth the wait.

“Samsara” is still awaiting theatrical distribution, and “Baraka” is available on Blu-Ray.

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