Painting in 3D with Werner Herzog

In advance of DOC NYC's gala screening of Werner Herzog's latest, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, here's a behind-the-scenes look at Herzog's and Creative Differences' fascinating foray into 3D filmmaking, as seen in realscreen's September/October issue.
October 28, 2010

On the occasion of the world premiere of legendary director Werner Herzog’s latest film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, at the Toronto International Film Festival, the unthinkable happened – a projector malfunction that pitched the screen into blackness minutes before the film’s epilogue.

For just under 90 minutes, the sold-out audience was enthralled by Herzog’s meditation on the spectacular cave paintings residing deep within France’s Chauvet Cave, which depicts these prehistoric works of art, the earliest cave paintings on record that stretch back 35,000 years, with the reverence they truly deserve. Adding an otherworldly impact to the proceedings was the fact that this was a Werner Herzog film made in 3D – the first feature doc to use the technology. Thus, this was no longer a mere film screening. This was an event.

‘I’ve staged operas and I’ve seen in the second act a soprano stop singing because she lost her voice,’ says Herzog with a laugh about the projector snafu, the day after the premiere from his Toronto hotel. ‘So what do you do in a case like this? I wasn’t nervous at all. If the projector hadn’t restarted I would’ve stepped up in front and told the audience the rest of the movie.’

Cave will be making its U.S. debut at a gala screening during the inaugural Doc NYC festival, on November 3, and in the interest of not spoiling the film for those who haven’t seen it, we won’t get into the reasons why such a scenario – Herzog acting out the film’s ending – would’ve been worth the price of admission alone. However, Toronto audiences didn’t get that opportunity, as the projector snapped back on in a few minutes and the audience was once again transported to the cave, and through the expressions of its prehistoric artists rendered in truly exquisite 3D, to a world beyond time.

It’s a world that Herzog has had a longstanding fascination with. At the age of 12, he saw a book in a shop window featuring the cave paintings of Lascaux; for over six months he saved the money he made as a ball boy on a tennis court in order to buy the book. Thus, when Creative Differences president and producer Erik Nelson, who’d also worked with Herzog on his two previous docs, Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World, presented him with an idea based on Judith Thurman’s New Yorker article about the Chauvet Cave (‘First Impressions’), the director didn’t need convincing to take it on.

‘I’ve never been out in search of a new subject,’ muses Herzog. ‘The films always stumble into me, and the characters end up finding me.’

The next step in the process was, of course, figuring out how to film it. Since its discovery in 1994, only a small number of scientists have been able to access the site, and only for small windows of time in spring and fall. Bringing a film crew into the cave to shoot would be practically impossible.

‘What changed things was we were able to secure a meeting with Frédéric Mitterrand, the French minister of culture, and he’s a big fan of Werner’s work,’ explains Phil Fairclough, EVP of production and development at Creative Differences and a coproducer of the film. ‘He was so enamored with the idea of Werner filming this cave, he said he’d do whatever he could to make it happen.’

Herzog offered to film inside the cave for France, as an employee. He’d ask for a modest sum – one Euro – and the footage would belong to France. It worked, and the planning began.

Partners, including History, Channel 4′s More4 and ARTE France, came on board, with History signing on to have the film as the first theatrical doc in its new History Films division. ‘Any chance to work with a world-class filmmaker like Werner Herzog on a subject that’s so core to history – the first artwork of humanity – is an opportunity you can’t refuse,’ enthuses Julian Hobbs, EP at History and the head of the new film arm. IFC is distributing Cave in the U.S.

The delivery of the historical content would be made all the more dynamic with the introduction of 3D. Fairclough says when it became apparent that the team would only have one shot at getting the film right, and that they would probably be the only crew allowed to film, the 3D option leapt out as a route they had to take.

Herzog, for his part, was skeptical about using 3D, and remains so, ‘in principle.’

‘You see, it wasn’t a choice of 3D for this film, it was imperative,’ he emphasizes. ‘The painters 32,000 years ago used the bulges of the rock for the bison and dramatic niches with the horses coming out of them. They understood the drama of the space and utilized it.’

Deciding to shoot in 3D was one thing; actually being able to effectively use 3D gear within the confines of the shooting requirements was quite another. As even human breath can contribute to humidity that could damage the paintings, only four people at a time were able to enter and work. Each person in the cave had to stay rooted to a 60-centimetre walkway. Lighting was also an issue; cool lights had to be used within the cave. Factor these elements together with the fact that 3D rigs are typically larger than normal camera rigs and it became obvious that even more ingenuity would be needed. Herzog counted on the tech smarts of his 3D systems designer, Kaspar Kallas, and DOP Peter Zeitlinger, who would combine their talents to create smaller, more cave-friendly 3D rigs on the spot.

All the state-of-the-art gear in the world is nothing in the hands of an easily-rattled director, especially given the conditions facing Herzog and crew. ‘I think we had a total of 10 filming days, which for a documentary is not many,’ says Fairclough. ‘We were rolling all the time. Werner is great at that – he’s very ‘run and gun.”

Even though he had little opportunity to get what he needed, Herzog says that he still took the time to revel in the beauty of the paintings. He says the instant of first seeing the paintings was ‘the moment of enchantment and awe.’

That beauty impacts even the scientists who gather at the cave’s base camp. One scientist in the film says he dreamed of lions for days after seeing the prehistoric renditions in the cave. And while Herzog says the experience will certainly stay with him, it probably won’t be one he’ll dream about.

‘I’m one of the rare cases of someone who doesn’t dream at night,’ he explains. ‘In a way I feel it’s a deficit when I wake up. I do dream, but maybe once or twice a year. I think the last time I dreamt was four years back or so.

‘I may be a filmmaker,’ he reasons, ‘because I cannot dream.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.