Film Analysis: Can Visual Effects tell a story alone?
by Greg Penn
With the current release of the film Samsara, I’d like to talk about using time lapse as a narrative in films and television shows. Many of you are already familiar with what time lapses are and how to create one. But for those who are not, simply put a time lapse is a set of photos taken at regular intervals, that when stitched together create a movie showing time passing at high speed.
Most of you have seen those shots of clouds quickly forming and floating across the sky, or people going up escalators and moving at impossible speeds. What was once a tool of a high-end photographer or videographer, is now a hobby to millions of digital camera users. And these days this effect can be seen everywhere from Survivor to Breaking Bad. Even Youtube is filled with amateur video attempts, mostly sunsets and long drives, though most lack a narrative to these shots.
But while it is something that everyone can now accomplish, it still takes a masterful cinematographer to provide narrative to these images. To tell a story other than just the passage of time. To find emotion and understanding, by seeing a bigger picture that can’t be understood in real time.
Ron Fricke has been doing just this for over 30 years. He honed his skills as a cinematographer on the film Koyaanisqatsi (1982) by Godfrey Reggio, the last in a trilogy of award-winning films showcasing time lapse and slow motion images of global landscapes. The film uses the effect to visually discuss the themes of a “life out of balance” by showing cities and landscapes juxtaposed against our sometimes chaotic and hectic culture.
With his developed style, he began to direct documentaries that explored the fascinating world as seen through time lapses, and had breakout hits with Chronos (1985) and Baraka (1992). Shot around the globe these films captured amazing scenic landscapes and people in large-scale events over time. Chronos, wordlessly takes us through the history of the world while highlighting the various ways we mark the passage of time. Baraka, discusses the nature of humanity, progress and cultures. The newest film by Ron Fricke, Samsara, expands on the themes he started in previous films.
Samsara is beautifully shot in 70mm, mesmerizing in its use of time lapse images and hypnotic music to look into spirituality, humanity and nature in all its forms. All heavy themes for short films consisting of no actors or dialogue. How is it accomplished?
It takes several years to assemble footage for these films. Time lapse cinematographers spend days and nights in a single location, often adjusting the cameras position or setting, all to achieve the perfect sequence of images. Care is taken when choosing locations, to ensure the intended message or theme is conveyed. Whether it be a Chinese factory, a temple in Cambodia or the rush hour traffic of a subway station. These images are made indelible by seeing them in a new light of time.