The time-lapse photography techniques pioneered by Ron Fricke are perhaps the most remarkable and immediately striking aspect of Godfrey Reggio’s cult film, Koyaanisqatsi (1983), from the clouds flowing like waterfalls over mountains in the American mid-West, to the grids of motorways and the conveyor-belt imagery of humans caught-up in the neon-lit rush of New York city. Fricke’s debut film as a director himself, Chronos would explore these images and techniques further, taking them beyond America to some of the most famous locations on earth and filming them all in time-lapse with a huge 70mm camera for IMAX presentation. The result is every bit as striking as you might expect.
While Fricke’s cinematography has no small part to play in the success of Koyaanisqatsi however, there was a much grander concept and a strong narrative purpose placed on the film by the director Godfrey Reggio, in its choice of images and their juxtaposition, as well as a complementary score from composer Philip Glass. Sound and image in Koyaanisqatsi would combine then to make the viewer reflect on modern life, which the filmmakers wanted to show as being out of balance with nature and headed for destruction. Developed as an IMAX presentation, Chronos has no such grand message for the viewer. It’s primarily a photographer’s film.
Although it may lack any strong concept or narrative purpose, the same sense of grandeur is still there in Fricke’s photography for Chronos, but most of it comes from the director’s choice of subjects – The Sphinx, The Pyramids, Stonehenge, Mont St. Michel, St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, Nôtre Dame in Paris, The Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Pompeii, The Acropolis and The Louvre. They are all remarkably well-served by Fricke’s sense of composition, his use of movement and his sense of time and space. Captured using time-lapse photography, these subjects are, quite literally, seen in an entirely new light, cut by sunbeams and set against the backdrop of skies of rolling clouds.
There is no doubting the brilliance of the photography, the awe-inspiring nature of the subjects filmed, nor the innovation and experimentation that went into technical and logistical aspect of such an endeavour. In a time before post-production digital manipulation and computer assistance made this kind of work much easier, Fricke and his crew had to design and improvise their own mechanical constructs to shoot the time-lapse scenes, using multiple exposures and double passes, doing all the work in the camera on the expensive 15 perforation 70mm film stock. It’s an impressive achievement, one that allowed for no mistakes or re-shoots, practically everything that was filmed making it into the final film. Michael Stearns’s music score is just as experimental, using a personally customised instrument called a ‘Beam’. The compositions fit the film perfectly, but they are typically floating, ambient sounds, reminiscent of Vangelis’s work on Blade Runner, and have none of the unique narrative voice of Glass’s work that accompanies Fricke’s photography on Koyaanisqatsi.
In the end then, Chronos is impressive more for its achievement as a piece of remarkable and innovative cinematography than as a piece of cinema, overshadowed as it is by the both Koyaanisqatsi and by Fricke’s work on his next film, Baraka, where he would more successfully tie the spiritual power of the worldwide locations with the people who live there into a stronger piece of cinema.
Chronos is released in the UK by Second Sight. A previous edition of this film, now out of print, has been released in the US, in 4:3 format with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. This is an entirely new edition, with new print making the film available for the first time with the original 6.0 surround score. The DVD is in PAL format and is not region encoded.
Chronos is presented in 1.75:1 anamorphic. I would imagine that as an IMAX film, the film would have been shot with a 4:3 presentation in mind, but I can’t be sure if it wasn’t also composed with a wider aspect ratio in mind. There certainly doesn’t seem to be anything missing from the widescreen framing of the film here. The picture looks quite impressive in terms of sharpness, detail and colour, but it certainly doesn’t have the degree of clarity and detail you would expect from a 70mm image. I would imagine that the transfer here is therefore taken from a 35mm print of the original. There is some flicker in the image - most of this can be accounted for in the nature of the time-lapse cinematography with its shifting levels of light, but there are some minor shimmering of compression artefacts also visible. Edge-enhancement is also evident throughout.
The original soundtrack of Chronos was composed for dbx six channel surround sound for its original IMAX presentation, and that has been retained here in the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. The sound is clear and enveloping, but again perhaps doesn’t have the full strength of impact it ought to have. An alternative Dolby Digital 2.0 mix is also included.
There is no dialogue or narrative in the film, but very helpfully, optional subtitles can be selected which pop up to list the location of each shot in the film.
A Commentary is delivered by director Ron Fricke, composer Michael Stearns, and Production Manager Anton Walpole. Much of the commentary is informative about the techniques employed to capture each of the shots, without being over-technical, and there are a few anecdotes provided to give some impression of the difficulties faced in making the film. This is better served however by the Behind The Scenes featurette (31:00), which shows stills of the crew on location, gives some indication of how the score was composed and edited down, with more detail on how the production was achieved in spite of incredible difficulties filming worldwide. As mentioned above, Location Subtitles are included and are a wonderful feature to include for such a film.
On the commentary for Chronos Ron Fricke talks about the rather naïve approach the filmmakers took towards making his debut feature, describing it as “just shooting a whole bunch of footage” that was later given form by editing it to Michael Stearns’ score. That description is no doubt rather self-effacing and deprecating, giving little credit to the striking images and innovative techniques employed in the film, but there is some truth to the fact that there is little more to the film beyond the surface beauty of the photography. Seen in that context alone, Chronos is an excellent film – and well presented here on DVD by Second Sight – but it lacks the brilliance that Fricke would bring to his subsequent full-length feature film, Baraka.