Mark Magidson Talks About ‘Samsara’

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A little known fact about Mark Magidson, the producer of ‘Samsara’ (2012), and Ron Fricke, the director of ‘Samsara’, is that they were the first to build their own IMAX camera and perfect a motion control time-lapse system that ran by a computer. In the early 80’s, Magidson met Fricke through a mutual friend and found that Fricke was attempting to build his own 70mm IMAX camera. With a mechanical background and a deep love for films, Magidson decided to join Fricke in his endeavor and they managed to build the camera that they shot ‘Chronos’ (1983) on. The film was, in a sense, a test of time-lapse techniques and abilities that have continued to evolve over making ‘Baraka’ and now ‘Samsara’. “Time-lapse has a way of revealing unfamiliar views of the familiar” says Magidson.

“You have to shoot some of those shots over 10 hours of real-time and they’re only on the screen for 12 seconds,” which is why they engineered each camera movement for Samsara utilizing a custom designed computer program to create the seamless non-linear camera moves seen in the films. The technology is meant to enhance the emotional impact of the scenes. “It isn’t meant to have the audience’s intellect over-engage in the viewing experience, so people can come away feeling different things.”

Staying away from a traditional documentary structure by creating their films without dialogue using only music and image, Magidson and Fricke looked to explore the themes of interconnection and the endless cycles of life in Samsara.  Developing these themes, Magidson and Fricke spent months researching subject matter and locations that were “highly visual”. This process continued throughout the production period, which spanned almost 5 years. The Internet proved to be most useful, along with videos on YouTube that pertained to their themes, like the Thousand Hands performance that was shot in Beijing and the prison dance in the Philippines.[And] “that’s kind of what we’re looking for.” Inspired by the David Lean films and admiring of other projects such as the ‘Planet Earth’ series, “I know what it’s like to go out into the world and find exotic imagery like that,” says Magidson with respect in his eyes.

Gathering up imagery that fit within certain categories, such as  performance pieces, images of nature, manufacturing, and portraits and with a crew of only of 4-5 people. Some shots needed special arrangements.  They filmed from a hot air balloon over the temples of Burma and a gyro-stabilized camera in a helicopter over cities. Once they felt like they had enough, the editing of their material began, which also entailed some pick-up shots to help with transitioning the flow of the film. When everything was fully edited (by Magidson and Fricke), then came the challenge of adding music to the film.

Having loved Michael Sterns’s compositions because of how “very spacious” they sounded, they first included him in Chronos, almost 30 years prior. Knowing Lisa Gerrard as a great vocalist and composer, Magidson was impressed with her contributions to Baraka, her first experience with music for film, which she developed in more mainstream films like Gladiator.  She returned to work on Samsara, bringing Marcello de Francisi on board. “It’s the music, I think, that allows you to sink into the experience,” Magidson recalled fondly. “You want to have people come away feeling a sense of connection to the life experience and to life going on around the world at this point in time”.

Having intended ‘Chronos’, ‘Baraka’, and ‘Samsara’ to stand alone, they each have a lot in common in terms of the filmmaking process and technology required, but they’re meant to be guided meditation-type experiences. Magidson says that there’s too much space and time between them to be thought of as a sequel, from one to another, “but the themes of interconnection are constant.”

When asked whether or not there are any plans in making another film, Magidson laughed, “You don’t just rush into the next one. I know Ron would like to do another non-verbal film, but I need some space… To spend four and a half years of your life on doing something, you really want it to be a big experience [for the audience]; that’s one of the hopes of a film like this.”

And with a smile, he added, “There are so many things out in the world; you’re only using a fraction of what’s out there, it’s just endless.” Having been released in theaters, ‘Samsara’ continues to travel around the world, connecting and refreshing thousands of lives. “I feel like ‘Samsara’ is the best film we’ve made.” At last, he simply recommends that everyone who watches Samara to “just relax and turn your brain off.”