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Image from: Life of Pi (2012)
Interview with Samsara Producer Mark Magidson
Posted January 7, 2013 07:34 PM by Webmaster
Mark Magidson may be credited as producer on the non-verbal 70mm documentary
Samsara—which is out on Blu-ray this week—but "co-creator" might be more accurate.
After Chronos and Baraka, this is his third film collaborating with director Ron
Fricke, and together they've created their own distinct documentarian aesthetic—part wordless
travelogue, part guided meditation, part Buddhistic reflection on life, death, and rebirth. Blu-ray.com staff writer Casey Broadwater recently had a chance to chat with Mr. Magidson about
the 5-year process of making the film, the challenges of shooting in 70mm, and the technical
aspects of a remarkable Blu-ray release. Read on for a full transcript of their conversation:
My analogy for Baraka and Samsara is that they're a lot like the Golden
Records aboard the Voyager spacecraft that launched in the '70s—the films are records of
human existence and I like to imagine some alien race finding them in the distant future and
puzzling over these strange earth creatures. But each film gives a distinct impression of
humanity. Where Baraka is all wonder and amazement and glory, Samsara
feels more dynamic to me, with more friction between the good and bad aspects of human nature.
Can you talk about how you and director Ron Fricke approached the two films differently,
I think that our written treatment for Baraka, if you were to sum it up, was
"humanity's relation to the eternal." It was a little bit more about spirituality, I guess you could
say, and we get into that with Samsara to some extent, but I think it's much more of a
snapshot of the world in a symbolic way. You know, when you make a 100-minute film, and
even though we went to a lot of locations, the world's just so vast. We're only showing
elements that are symbolic of other elements...of like subject matter. Like filming the Katrina
footage; it was symbolic of these sorts of elements of impermanence.
And that's really the theme of Samsara—impermanence. It's very much about a
contemporary snapshot of the world as if feels to us. Obviously, we're interpreting it by what we
find visually compelling and visually interesting. This is a criteria for the film because film is a
visual medium and we're looking for material that's highly visual in nature and that represents
the state of the world as we see it as filmmakers now.
One example of that, and one of the differences between Samsara and Baraka,
is when we filmed in Egypt, in Cairo. When we filmed in Baraka, we shot the antiquities
—the pyramids—in a way that isolated them from the surrounding areas, from the city of Cairo,
as if it didn't exist, as if it were just about the antiquities. In Samsara, we shot
with the apartment buildings and satellite dishes in the foreground...
Yes, there's that city-scape...
Right, so it's a very different kind of vibe you get from the imagery, I think. So, that's one of the
differences between the films.
It does feel very modern. I mean, you have the scenes in the strip club, the meat
processing plants, and the sex doll factory, especially. How did you get access to film in places
like that? It seems that most of those were in Asia. I can't imagine American companies would
be cool with that.
Yeah, you're right. It's hard to access food processing, for example. I found the sex doll thing on
the internet. We did a lot of research on the internet, which we didn't have as a resource for
Baraka. On the other hand, with the internet, people are used to seeing a lot of
amazing imagery, so there's a higher bar for this film. We touch on a lot of themes—sexuality, war, conflict—but we're trying to keep it down the
It's not pointed...
Yeah, it's not a manifesto. That's not what we're looking for in this kind of film. We're not
wanting to interrupt the flow with an intellectual point of view that causes the viewer to start
saying, "Well, gee, I agree" or "I disagree with the filmmakers on this." We want to leave space
for you to sink into it, to let it wash over you, to let people feel what they feel, what those
images bring up for them. We're guiding it down that middle road, touching on those themes,
and not trying to get too deep into a point of view, which takes away from the experience we're
trying to create.
Speaking of the internet, how did that play into how you did the location scouting for the
It certainly, in a lot of cases, provided subject matter. Like, the prison sequence in the
Philippines was found on the internet; a lot of people have seen them performing the Michael
Jackson "Thriller" song. It's got 20 or 30 million hits. There were a lot of places we located on
the internet, so that was a major resource, along with a lot of other things.
Are there any places you couldn't get access to that you wanted to include?
We were really trying to get into North Korea. There's a performance they do, a mass
performance—like 100,000 people in a stadium with costumes and flashcards in
synchronization. It's surreal-looking. We almost had it. We tried for two years, but we just
couldn't land it. (Laughs) For a lot of reasons. We were actually in Beijing and were almost going
to get on a plane and go when they pulled the plug on us. Honestly, we got almost everything
else—a lot of hard locations. A lot of credit goes to our local production people in every country.
In China, we were able to get these large-scale food manufacturing facilities—very hard
locations to access in this country.
I guess you can save North Korea for the next film.
I was really impressed by the Hurricane Katrina footage. How long after Katrina did you
actually film that?
Well, that was our very first shoot on Samsara. It was fifteen months later, not quite a
year and a half. It was in the ninth ward. It was still there; the buildings had not been leveled
yet, and they were shortly after we left. We were just lucky to get in there and grab that stuff
before they wiped it away.
Another amazing location is the shoot at Mecca—the angles, the sped-up footage, the
sheer mass of all this humanity gathered in one place. What was the process like of filming
We had amazing access. It took about a year to work that out—it was very, very difficult—and
we got on top of a new forty-story hotel. There was this hotel being put up for high-rollers—a
very expensive hotel right over the Kaaba—and it was under construction, so the glass wasn't in
yet. The floors were finished, but the walls—you could fall over the edge. We could go up to
different levels, so it was just an amazing spot to see the three million pilgrims in the mosque.
I lived in Japan for awhile, so I was familiar with the robotics professor, Hiroshi Ishiguro...
It was great seeing his robot doppelgänger in the film. It might not be the most visually
spectacular sequence in the film, but it might be one of my favorite scenes, because you just
have the two of them staring into the camera—the robots eyes are twitching—and it's just this
total "the future is here right now" moment. Was there this conscious choice to give
Samsara a more urgent, "this is where we're headed" vibe?
To some extent. This is an intuitive process. As filmmakers, Ron and I, we're going to these
locations and trying to get a sense of "is there something here, is there an inner essence of this
particular subject matter that really reveals something about our own existence?" And that's
kind of the criteria. It's hard to put it into words, and we've been working together for a long,
long time, so we sort of have this understanding about it.
I think that structurally—and I'm digressing slightly—we have this bookend of the sand
mandala, its creation and destruction, as the key structural element of Samsara. And
then we have these other components that work their way into it.
But that was one where, he was willing to sit for the portrait—the professor—and he travels a
lot, so we were lucky to get him in town. We actually had to put the robot on idle because it
looks so realistic that you can get right up to it, inches away, and it looks like a person. When
they don't run a program—when they just have it on and it's not loaded—it does that twitching
thing. It's on idle. And that's the only way you can really tell it's a robot, because it's cycling and
its eyes are doing this repetitive thing.
Along the same lines, going back and forth between the modern and the futuristic and the
primitive, I really liked the scene with the—I dunno—businessman slash performance artist, at
Yes, right. That was another YouTube find. Actually, Michael Stearns—one of the composers—
turned us onto that. That was in France, this contemporary artist. It's kind of like what our
butoh dance was in Baraka. The butoh performance is a contemporary art form. This is
something that this guy, Olivier de Sagazan, developed, and he describes it as being about the
side of us that we don't want to reveal to others, revealing the shadow side that everybody has.
He's letting that out during that performance. And people would ask if that was a performance
we designed, and it's certainly not—it's something he does that we just filmed. We put him
behind a desk to have it flow into the movie, but other than that, that's exactly what he does.
He's also a sculptor and painter—it's all kind of death-oriented. (Laughs) Very dark subject
I loved it. It was so striking. It hits you hard at that moment in the film.
You have no idea what he's about to do.
The film opens, and there's a lot of pretty pictures, and then the film really takes a turn at that
In regard to the editing, it feels like you guys really honed your non-narrative sense of
storytelling with Samsara—it flows well from one unspoken concept to the next. Did
this come mostly out of the editing process, or did you have a loose arc in mind for the film
The arc was based on the sand mandala, but that's really minimal, in terms of the structure of a
film, when you read a traditional script. What we have is nothing like that. What happened with
this film that we didn't have with Baraka is that we had a much more elaborate
treatment for Baraka that was written, just because we thought that that's what we
should have. And then, it ends up changing just based on the reality of the imagery that you
come back with. The film's made with the imagery you bring back, not with what you wrote,
and it has to deliver—I don't want to say a message, because it's not a message—but
deliver a feeling, or a set of feelings that you envisioned. How you get there is subject to the
With this film, we were a lot more relaxed and didn't worry about it as much. We knew we had
the sand mandala as a book end, and then we edited the sequences of like subject matter—the
organic images, Yosemite, Mont Blanc, the glaciers, Mono Lake, that was all one kind of
category, and another was the tribal images—and we did that in blocks. With the non-linear
editing systems you're able to just fill it out and try them in different orders. We did it all
silently. We didn't do any music until we finished the edit. So, it was a little harsh. You're in
there, and you're not hearing anything, but it makes it really tight, because you're really
judging the edit and the flow strictly visually. The music just makes everything work better.
When you break it down into blocks, it's a little more manageable, but how those blocks go
together is very challenging. To create a whole, it's hard to do that. But having been through it,
I think it was a little more relaxed this time.
Writing for Blu-ray.com, I think the readers of our site would be very interested in the
technical side of things.
Can you walk us through Samsara's post-production workflow? The steps between
having the footage in the can and this Blu-ray release?
So, we acquired in 65mm film negative, as we did with Baraka. We looked at digital.
You really take on a lot of headaches shooting in film these days. Particularly going in and out of
25 different countries in a post-9/11 world, you're dealing with customs and X-ray machines,
and lots of problems that were harder than when we made Baraka. With
Baraka, we could take the film stock with us, on the plane, and just hand check it. We
weren't able to do that this time, so we had to ship it by FedEx, in and out. So, it's very difficult.
That said, when we started Samsara there was a 2K standard with the Sony 950
camera system—since then there have been the Red cameras—and you can't go out to so
many locations and come back with material in a format that's eventually going to be outdated.
It also feels like, even with 4K, 5K, and even 8K sensors in the pipeline, there's something
about a large 70mm negative that you can't really reproduce with a smaller digital sensor. The
look is just different. There's something about the depth and dimensionality of the image, and I
wonder if we'll ever see a large-format equivalent for a digital sensor.
I would never say never, because it's just amazing what these sensors are able to do. It just
wasn't ready for us at that time. And honestly, if we were to go out and start this film now,
we'd really have to think hard about not going with digital, having seen how difficult it is to
shoot film. That said, our workflow was different than with Baraka, where we did prints
off our negative—printed everything—and projected it and looked at our footage on a screen
with what's called a one-light print. I don't know if this is stuff you're familiar with; it's not a
totally tweaked, color-timed print, but it tells you what you've got.
On this film, we took a completely different approach. We captured in 65mm, we never printed
anything, and we took the original negative to a telecine process, which converts it into
a digital environment that you can then edit with. And we edited it in a nice, really high-fidelity
video format—Apple ProRes—that's a little higher, probably, than Blu-ray. And what a great way
to edit! Then, when we had our final cut—taken from about 18 hours of film—we put the 100-
minute final cut through a high-res scanning at 8K, one frame at a time. That's a fairly costly
process, but we only scanned the final cut, those 100 minutes. So, it was manageable
that way. You take it into this super-huge digital file that was 120 terabytes of the visuals in 8K.
Then, it gets reduced down to 4K, where we mastered it, in a D.I. process—a digital
intermediate. We did that at Colorworks. So, this was a combination. We had really good
partners. We worked with Photo-Chem on the film side—on the 65mm side and the scanning—
and we worked with Colorworks on the D.I. We were able to view everything off of a Sony 4K
and work in 4K to finalize the output. It's a really beautiful way to do it.
Even 70mm prints go through a generation loss, because you make what's called an I.P. from
the original negative, and from the I.P. you make a printing negative called an I.N., or
internegative, and you make prints from that. So, you're actually a couple of generations away
from the original negative when you make 70mm prints. In this process, we don't have to lose
any generations; we go right from the negative to the 8K scan. Arguably, our output...I like it
better than a 70mm print, honestly. Some people would say you shouldn't say that. (Laughs)
But I consider ourselves film guys, because we shoot in 70mm—we've done three films in 70—
and I don't think I'm not a film purist. But there are so many advantages to this combination of
technologies, now, that work for our kind of filmmaking.
Speaking of being a purist, how much digital tweaking was necessary? Did you ever have to
go in and remove things from certain shots?
We did a little bit of that. I think we took a bird out of the time-lapse sequence of those statues
in Turkey. We just painted it out of the frame. Really minor stuff. I think a couple of car lights in
the night shots at Mono Lake. Very minor.
I know you and Ron Fricke have been working together for quite a long time; how would
you describe your working relationship?
I think we understand what the end product's going to be. We understand that the level of...I
don't want to say this about our own work, because it sounds weird. How do I say it without
saying it? We try to work at a very high level. I think we understand that to make a film work
for 100 minutes without dialogue or the traditional story structure, you really have to have
amazing locations, amazing imagery, and you have to put it together in a way that's dynamic,
along with the music. I think we've just gotten better at doing that.
You guys were really the big pioneers in some of this time-lapse and sped-up stuff, and I'm
always amazed by...like, there's the one scene where you're going through the Shibuya
Crossing in Tokyo. Was the camera mounted to a push-cart there?
Yeah, we were actually in a suitcase, with a hole cut out of it. That's pretty rare for us. We used
to do more of that kind of, you know, guerrilla filmmaking, but we don't do it so much anymore.
But we did it then; it's hard to get permits for Tokyo in the street and on the subway.
I was wondering how you got the subway stuff.
We just bought a cheap suitcase with wheels and we built a platform in it out of wood where
the camera sat, and just kind of wheeled it around and got a few shots out of it. We got those
burka girls, in the Paris subway—those girls in the burka standing in front of the underwear
models—that was also a shot from that camera.
What a find.
Sometimes you get lucky.
So, you said you have 18-hours of footage, is anything going to happen with some of the
leftover material? What do you guys do with that?
A lot of it is similar stuff. The same subject matter. Almost every subject we shot is in the
movie. We've got a lot more of the sand mandala—several more phases of the mandala being
created, for example—but we can only use what we can use. There are more aerials over the
temples in Burma, which are just spectacular. That kind of thing.
The lighting when you guys were going over that temple—were you guys in a hot air
balloon? The lighting in that scene is just gorgeous.
Yeah, that was a hot air balloon. That was one of those moments that makes up for all the bad
moments. (Laughs) That was one of those moments where we just had a perfect day—not a
cloud in the sky—and we were the first ones out, right at the crack of dawn. The winds were
good, and we just got a great ride over that.
Were there any situations where you were there in this gorgeous location, and you
thought, "There's no way we're actually going to be able to capture the beauty of what we're
seeing right now in person on film?"
It's hard to say. That was one moment—in the hot air balloon—but, you know, I think we got it.
(Laughs) My kids thought it was fake. They said, "Is that a real place, or is that CGI?"
If you had to pick one location from your travels to live out the rest of your days, where do
you think you would go?
Oh gosh. I have a hard time answering that. There are so many, I couldn't truthfully give you
one. You mentioned living in Japan; I really loved Tokyo. I wouldn't want to live there my whole
life, but I love going there. I really love being in other parts of the world too. Namibia was a very
impressive country—amazing scenery and geography. Each place has different things to offer.
Thanks so much for your time. Anything thing else you'd like to share, or final thoughts?
The only thing I would say is that we didn't really touch on the music, which is such a huge part
of the experience...
And I would just say I think we've got amazing music in this film, and the composers created a
masterpiece with the score. Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard, and Marcello de Francisci. Ron and I
consider that to be half of the viewing experience—the music. It's got all of these different
elements in it that carry you through the film.
And they put that together completely after you had edited the whole thing, right?
Correct. They came in afterwards, and we sat and went through the film in silence many times,
and they took it sequence by sequence and knitted it all together.
Well, thanks so much again; it was a pleasure talking with you.
Terrific interview - I had so hoped to being able to watch it on the big screen, but for the time being, that seems out of the question. I have very high expectations for the BD, which should be a worthy alternative.
I'm really looking forward to watching this one! No chance for me to watch it in Theaters (OK, of course there is but I would have to travel to UK, Germany, Ireland or France to do so), so I'm anxiously awaiting the blu-ray.
Thanks a lot for the informative interview! I wish this had been released in IMAX! It was only in theaters for two days over here.
I can't wait to get the Blu-ray, and this will have been the most I paid for any single Blu-ray disc. It's worth it.
I have this wishlisted, and watched "Baraka" with eyes and mouth both wide open. Perhaps as per his comments about North Korea the next film (if there is one!) can be about, say, things that are hidden away?