I got a chance this morning to talk briefly with Samsara director Ron Fricke and his primary collaborator, producer/co-author Mark Magidson. With little time set aside for me, we agreed to stick to the technical, format aspects Samsara’s production and presentation.
Some background: Samsara is the first film since 1996 to be shot in the 70mm format, which, strictly speaking, actually uses 65mm in the camera. Traditionally, these films would be shown in 70mm prints, as well as conventional 35mm. However, Fricke and Magidson have decided against making 70mm prints, and are recommending 4K DCP (Digital Cinema Package) as the best way to see the film. For more on the technology, see When You Least Expect It: The Return of 70mm. For more on Samsara, see my review.
I started by asking them how the decision to shoot in 65mm effected the complex production. They told me that it made shooting the film in so many countries "a lot more difficult…Getting film in and out [of various countries] has never been so difficult."
You can well imagine. Airport security is much more intense now than it was when they completed their last film, Baraka, and cans of undeveloped film cannot be opened under regular light nor passed through an X-ray machine.
Could they have shot it digitally. "We started shooting in 2007. [Digital camera technology], which was 2K, really wasn’t ready then."
I asked if it would be possible now. "In another year or so, there could be [cameras with] 8K or 10k sensors. It’s not there yet, but it’s getting close."
They made the controversial decision to skip the expected 70mm prints "after seeing it projected in 4K. All the fidelity of the 65mm negative was there. It’s rock steady, and never gets scratched. There’s a dimension to it that’s unique."
And if 4K isn’t available? "The 35mm prints are pristine. It’s a toss-up between them and the 2K [DCP]." Having seen the film in 35mm, I can agree. I can’t recall seeing a better-looking 35mm print. Currently, in the Bay Area, Samsara plays only in 35mm, at the Embarcadero and Shattuck. They didn’t know about future bookings
Personally, I wish they had made one or two 70mm prints. The film will eventually play at the Castro, which can show 70mm, but not 4K DCP. Of course, I would like it even better if the Castro–or another local large-screen theater run by people who really care about cinema–had 4K digital equipment. But I understand why that isn’t happening. Converting a theater to digital projection is expensive enough without going to a premium technology. (And, of course, releasing an art film is expensive enough without making 70mm prints.)
By the way, another film shot in the 70mm format, The Master, opens later this month. This time, 70mm prints have been struck, and the Grand Lake will get one. I assume that this film will also be available in 4K DCP. I would love it if a Bay Area theater capable of showing both of these grand formats could do an open-to-the-public side-by-side comparison.