We've set up shop in a conference room above Third Avenue in Manhattan, a Canon 5D trained on Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson. I find myself apologizing awkwardly for the setup, several times. There's a long boardroom table in the middle and a customary junket breakfast spread to the right. It's about as plain as meeting rooms come, save for a few movie posters lining the walls, advertising films distributed by the indie film company that owns the space. Hardly ideal for our purposes, but here were are, all clumped into a single corner, with the director and producer of Samsara flanking a cardboard poster for their movie, leaned atop a stand. It's not the welcome befitting the creators of a big, beautiful sweeping cinematic masterpiece. But they're tired -- too tired to care about such things, perhaps. They dismiss such apologies, clip their lavaliere microphones on over their shirts and sit down.
Fricke motions to the single SLR seated atop a tripod, explaining that he used the same model on a recent commercial shoot. "We have a solid background grounded in shooting in film, and that just stays with you," he adds. "When I'm shooting like with a 5D, like what you're using now to shoot this interview, I'm working with it like it's a 65 camera. It's my frame of reference, my background. I'm just wired that way." The world of filmmaking has changed dramatically in the two decades since the duo first unleashed Baraka on the world, a non-narrative journey across 25 countries that became the high-water mark for the genre and a staple in critics' lists and film school syllabi.
When the team began photography on Samsara back in 2007, it considered abandoning its film roots for the world of digital. "Four or five years ago when we started," Fricke, the film's director, explains, "we looked hard at what was out there in digital. It just wasn't ready for the road. There weren't any real 4- or 5k cameras ready. It was kind of nice because we were like, 'Great! Let's shoot it in 65[mm],' which is still the standard. It's really the image capture that gives you the most dynamic range. Since that's our content, the image -- we're not working with actors and dialogue -- that's what we were after. It was really to get at the essence inside these images, and 70 is the way to go."
In 2012, however, the beauty of celluloid may well present more problems than it's worth, according to the duo. "It's at a level that you'd really have to think hard about not doing it now going out in digital," says Fricke. "There's a lot of issues shooting film, getting film stock in and out -- we went to 25 countries, there's a big price to pay shooting in film because you have to deal with exposed film / unexposed getting it in, you can't take it with you. Like when we made Baraka 20 years ago, we could carry it with us or check it in, they wouldn't X-ray it, and it just doesn't work like that anymore. So it's very challenging." Magidson adds, simply, "The issues with film are only getting harder, not easier."
For one thing, there's the weight concern. I mention the word "crew," and Fricke answers, quickly, "What crew?" The room erupts in laughter. The team on any given shoot is around three to four people -- the same often required for a far more humble Engadget Show shoot, such as this. "They're 70mm cameras, and they are heavy," says Magidson, "but it's pretty manageable. And we've been doing it for a while, so we've got it down. It's a very efficient road package that has all this capability, but it's also very refined at this point. You just don't want to be running around with anything you don't need because you have a price to pay for every piece of equipment you carry. You don't want to be taking the stuff you don't want, don't use." Film also doesn't afford the same ability to just shoot and shoot that filmmakers enjoy with digital. "[Film is] a little more formal," explain Magidson, "and you're not just firing away at everything. It's much more measured. It's like trying to hit a bull's-eye with an arrow rather than shooting stuff with a machine gun, you know? It's expensive to shoot, to roll the camera, because you've got film stock and processing and all that."
Should the duo ever embark on a follow-up, however, there seems a fairly good chance that it will be shot digitally. "There's new imagers coming out," says Fricke. "They're going to be 8k, 10k imagers coming in a year or so. So, I think they're here."
And while digital capture wasn't quite up to Fricke and Magidson's high visual standards while filming Samsara, the duo did utilize a computer for the editing process. But, as with the shooting, they maintained the sort of filmmaking principles their works had adhered to well before a new technological option was on the table. "We just scanned out negatives in this deep-digital intermediate process, and never cut it, just scanned the film reels," Magidson tells me. He adds, "There's only one dissolve in our film. It's all cut-to-cut-to-cut. It's an approach to editing that Ron really likes. Ron doesn't like dissolves. We got one in there, but that's it. It's really about the film. We don't need to utilize all the capabilities of these editing software programs. We're not taking them to any kind of limit with what we're doing. We're just cutting. And yeah, it's a great tool."
Editing in digital affords Fricke and Magidson the ability to make subtle changes -- removing things like cars and birds from the frame during the film's time-lapse segments, for one thing. "When you're out shooting a nice shot for a 12-, 14-hour star field segment, and you end up with like 15 seconds of footage over the night and a car drives through a scene, you don't want to dump that it if you don't have to. We are able to fix that." Fricke adds, "I remember the shot we did in Burma from the hot air balloon over Bagan. You're up in the balloon, and it's phenomenal. Shooting away, and you don't see these details, but when we're cutting it, suddenly there are electrical poles and lights and things that. 'God, it'd be nice if we could take a few of those out of there.'" You also don't want to dump an otherwise fantastic shoot due to a shaky camera. "We used gyro on all the aerials which is unbelievably wonderful," says Magidson, "but on the Myanmar, on the Burma stuff we used a hot air balloon so it was a little bumpier, but we were able to stabilize [in post] it a bit."
But while the pair aren't nearly as firmly traditional when it comes to the analog and digital divide as many diehard would hope (even going so far as doing a good deal of location scouting on YouTube), the appreciation of technology has its limits. It's all a matter of context, really -- the right tools for the right jobs. Certainly, there's no need to shoot an interview with two filmmakers destined for the web using the same devices as an epic like Samsara -- nor is the same screen required for the consumption of both. "The content really comes alive on a big screen in 7.1 surround, not on a computer, not on an iPhone," says Fricke. Magidson agrees without hesitation, "It is about the emotional impact of the imagery. The technology is not an end in itself. It's really to deliver a brilliance and a vibrancy and an emotional immediacy that you feel from that kind of imagery."
This interview was first aired as part of the latest Engadget Show.