A World Beyond Words: Ron Fricke

Andrew takes a look at the 70mm work of cinematographer Ron Fricke

Ron Fricke

Ron Fricke may in face be the greatest cinematographer currently alive.  From his indelible camerawork on Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi to his own cinematic meditations on the world we live in, Fricke is both an ingenious technician and brilliant artist with a singular, transcendent vision.  Using his own personally engineered Todd-AO 70mm cameras, Fricke pioneered the use of time-lapse photography, high-speed photography, motion control and working with the most painstaking yet beautiful film formats in existence.  Fricke also contributed a handful of sequences for commercial directors including work on George Lucas' Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.  Unlike his contemporary Godfrey Reggio, Fricke's abstract, wordless Earth documentaries are less interested in informing viewers of the flaws of humankind than they are aiming to create an ethereal, evocative experience both physical and spiritual in expression.  Providing viewers with a travelogue of our planet and all the good and evil balancing it Fricke once said "I feel that my work has evolved through Koyaansqatsi, Chronos and Baraka.  Both technically and philosophically I am ready to delve even deeper into my favorite theme: humanity's relationship to the eternal".  With this, the Movie Sleuth takes you on a journey through the work of one of cinema's most original and haunting visionaries ready to show you our world as you've never seen it before.

Chronos (1985)

After working on the seminal wordless documentary Koyaanisqatsi, cinematographer Ron Fricke worked quickly to establish his own territory as a film director and documentary filmmaker.  In a distancing move and almost abbreviated answer to Reggio's effort, Fricke founded his own production company, Canticle Films, and thus devised a 45 minute IMAX travelogue entitled Chronos.  Deriving it's title from the Ancient Greek word meaning 'time', Chronos is an abstract documentary devoid of actors or dialogue, instead highlighting numerous landmarks on five different continents, from Egypt's pyramids to the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  Utilizing motion controlled 70mm cameras built by Fricke himself as well as time lapse and high speed photography, Chronos is something of a dress rehearsal for what would soon become Baraka.  Unlike the mildly nihilistic Koyaanisqatsi intent on pointing out mankind's downfall through technological innovation and our total dependency on such, Chronos instead aims to celebrate the wonders of our planet with some of man's greatest accomplishments.

Those familiar with Fricke's Baraka will immediately notice his wide panoramas of cities and landscapes.  Unique to Chronos is the use of slow speed photography to make point of view shots through streets, rivers and helicopter shots of skyscrapers race across the screen like a speed demon.  While the effect is used to exciting effect in Koyaanisqatsi, as with shots in the backseat of a car with multicolored lights blasting by at an impossibly fast rate, Chronos takes it a step further by fixing the camera on ferry boats or buses, almost like a Snorricam attached to a vehicle instead of a person.  In addition to designing a new kind of film camera, Chronos also broke new ground with respect to its soundtrack by Michael Stearns.  In the process of recording the film's ethereal, almost heavenly New Age score akin to the soothing sound of crashing waves, Stearns made innovative use of a unique musical instrument named the Blaster Beam, a 12 to 18 foot metal beam strung with numerous tensed wires attached.  Using a metal tube to run across the surface of the beam, the sound is almost like a cross between a bass, a guitar and synthesizer wrapped into one instrument.  It's a wholly breathtaking sound not unlike the music of Vangelis or Kitaro, perfect for Fricke's sweeping vision.

Overall Chronos is something of a trailer for what would become Baraka.  While winning the International Omni-Max Film Festival's top prize, Fricke's own admission regarding Baraka was to take the promise of technological innovation employed in Chronos and expand it to feature and narrative length.  Chronos, in contrast, is pure awe where Baraka would eventually highlight both the good and evil in the world, thus providing a more complicated yet complete worldview while abstaining from the informative nature of Koyaanisqatsi.  Still, those keen on Fricke's work, eager to see an artist finding his niche, will be elated and swept away by the overwhelming images on display in Chronos.  Almost like a miniature vacation, you will feel refreshed and rejuvenated by the travelogue of Fricke's design.

Baraka (1992)

After breaking new visual ground with his ornate, distant cinematography for his IMAX short Chronos, Ron Fricke decided it was time to stake out his own territory in the feature film world, expanding upon the wordless visual language established by Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi.  Using his own 70mm Todd-AO cameras, Fricke aimed to push the cinematographic approach as far as it could go at the time.  From painstakingly planned time-lapse photography with motion controlled camera movement designed specifically for Fricke's film as well as impeccable tracking shots and slow-motion photography, Fricke's work represented the zenith of high quality documentary filmmaking.  Where Reggio's Qatsi trilogy bore a distinctive thematic underpinning that shaped the way viewers interpreted those films, Fricke opted for a more abstract construct that was as open to interpretation as it was visually enthralling.  The result was Baraka, a transcendent cinematic experience like no other echoing the linguistics of Reggio at an even higher technical level as well as a far more ethereal and dreamy narrative level.

Filmed in 24 countries on 6 continents well over a year, Baraka was the first film in well over 20 years to be shot in Michael Todd's 70mm Todd-AO format.  Initially developed exclusively for Michael Todd's Around the World in 80 Days as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! before the process failed commercially, Baraka is like Todd's world travelogue with deliberate limitations placed on explication.  Essentially, Fricke's ravishing world tour was designed in such a way that every viewer went into Baraka with an open mind and emerged with their own unique reaction to the experience.  Although Reggio's Qatsi trilogy set the stage for the wordless documentary film accompanied by Philip Glass' minimalist score to evoke a specific mood, Fricke pushed for a myriad of unique compositions.  The most striking musical contribution comes from the band Dead Can Dance, used to stunningly somber effect in a montage of world poverty as an angelic chorus mourns over the soundtrack.  Baraka takes on an almost God-like detachment as his camera gazes upon wonders of the world, indigenous cultures, natural phenomenon and all the good and evil of mankind devoid of judgment placed upon the proceedings.  The experience of surrendering to Baraka is awesome in scope, galvanizing in presentation of man's virtues and sins and cleansing in spirit once the film has finished washing over you.  It's almost akin to swimming in a freshwater lake, leaving you exhilarated and refreshed with a new perspective of the world we live in.

In addition to being the first film in decades to employ the difficult process designed to capture Fricke's breathtaking odyssey, Baraka became a forefront in superlative technical quality for home video presentation in 2007 when the original 65mm negative was scanned into a new high-definition master at a resolution of approximately 8K.  Using newly developed telecine equipment designed specifically for Baraka, the process of transferring the material to digital data took well over three weeks followed by a 16 month mastering process and digital remaster of the original 6-track audio stems.  When finally released to the public, touted as the first true 8K resolution Blu-Ray ever made, Baraka represents the highest quality home video release ever produced.  To see it on a high definition television set is almost like being transported to all the locations visited by Fricke's camera.  Although devoid of conventional narrative structure, dialogue or particular thematic elements, watching Baraka is like meditation: calming, overwhelming and climbing towards a higher level of consciousness.  One can't help but come away from Baraka feeling as transformed by the magnificent sights and sounds of the world around us as never seen or felt before as we are enlightened.


Samsara (2011) 

Conceived 14 years after the inception of Baraka, Ron Fricke's ethereal 70mm wordless saga of world travelogue took on an edgier, darker tone than his prior two ventures towards cinematic enlightenment with his new film Samsara.  Based upon the Tibetan word meaning 'continuous flow', Samara refers to the recurring cycle of birth, life, death and reincarnation as well as one's actions and consequences in the past, present and future.  Much like Baraka, Fricke's enthralling vision presents the world we live in with all its good and evil, breathtakingly photographed with motion controlled time lapse 70mm cameras.  What separates Samsara from Baraka are the shocking moments peppered throughout the film.  Samsara also takes us to far more dangerous territories than Baraka did, making the experience a look at the more forbidden and deadlier realms of our planet.

Notable locations include purveying the damage in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Burma, the Panmunjeon separating North and South Korea, Philippine prisons, Egypt and numerous Middle Eastern countries, showing us landscapes we're likely to see only from the safety of theater and home viewing.  While some concepts and vistas seen in Chronos and Baraka are repeated here (albeit with greater technical prowess), Samsara finds itself more confidently broadcasting disturbing images absent from the aforementioned films.  Scenes of assembly line workers in a slaughterhouse making cuts to a pig carcass, while not unheard of, presents a somewhat more graphic scenario with respect to animal consumption.  Scenes of prisoners in cages staring into the camera, Asian strip clubs and a disfigured marine are among the darker, more confrontational images contained therein.  A bit tougher on viewers than usual, Samsara also has its own share of astonishing images including a human fetus in gestation and Tibetan monks preparing a Tanka depicting the realm of Samsara.  However abrasive or easy on the eyes the images are, all are lensed exquisitely and with the utmost care and precision.

New to Fricke's world of 70mm cinematography is the use of digital editing.  Where Chronos and Baraka were cut on film, Samsara's scenes were transferred to the Digital Cinema Package and edited on Final Cut.  Also new to Samsara was the method of presentation.  Instead of printing on 70mm film for authentic projection, Fricke supervised and approved 4K digital masters for theatrical exhibition, giving viewers an image close to what he envisioned but not of the full resolution of 70mm film.  In the end, the question becomes where Samsara stands in relation to Fricke's prior films, and I must conceded the technically superior Samsara pales in comparison to the overwhelming emotional heights reached by Baraka.  Where Samsara captured far more abrasive sights than its predecessor, the cumulative impact of Baraka far exceeds the new film, particularly with the montage occurring midway with music by Dead Can Dance.  Nothing in Samsara comes close to the ball that specific sequence in Baraka build within your throat with scenes of homeless people struggling for survival.  But it was still absolutely gorgeous to behold!


-Andrew Kotwicki

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