If Werner Herzog’s next feature was a vintage sci-fi flick, the airship built by his protagonist, Dr. Graham Dorrington, would be a giant white fish that had come to invade the canopy of Guyana’s lush rainforest. But there’s nothing fictional about the science that brought the crew of The White Diamond - among them producer Annette Scheurich of Marco Polo Film – to Kaieteur National Park in July, 2004. For three years, the Mainz-based prodco investigated the potential riches of the jungle’s dense roof and invested about E90,000 (US$109,000) into building Dorrington’s helium-powered balloon. The resulting HD feature will debut on November 12 at the premiere of European DocuZone, a network of 182 digital cinemas across eight countries that’s dedicated to showcasing documentaries.
The film’s premise dates back to German filmmaker Dieter Plage, who approached Dorrington to design a ship that would allow him to film a jungle canopy from above for a Nat Geo/Survival Anglia documentary. Tragically, Plage died during production in April, 1993 after falling from the airship while trying to fix a jammed rudder. The concept lay dormant until Marco Polo resurrected it at the suggestion of wildlife filmmaker Rainer Bergomaz.
Initial research quickly revealed there was more to the story than the creatures who live 40 meters above ground. It was also about the science community’s interest in this leafy real estate as a source of new medicinal cures, and the history of the airship itself. ‘It was a difficult project to pitch, because it didn’t fit into any one category,’ explains Scheurich. ‘It’s something that stands alone in its own right, which is why we were extremely happy when Werner agreed to do it.’
The director’s son, Rudolph Herzog, is responsible for that lucky happenstance. A producer of the project, he and Scheurich also secured financing for the E1 million (US$1.2 million) doc from pubcasters NDR Naturfilm in Germany, NHK in Japan and the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ strand.
In Werner Herzog’s able hands, the film has become less of a NH doc and more of a human drama. ‘The engineer is an extraordinary character with an extraordinary drama behind him,’ explains the director, who notes that although filming from the airship was confined to the three hours between 6:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., when the winds were most calm, he was shooting for 10 hours each day. ‘One local person in particular will also be a leading character, and then all of a sudden this rooster emerges. The secret leading character is a red rooster.’
Even so, Herzog contends that just as Winged Migration pushed the frontier of natural history films from a technical standpoint, The White Diamond will offer a new approach to the genre. ‘[Natural history films] are wall-to-wall commentary, elevator music, and touching stories about a lion baby that survives because his dad brings a zebra for him,’ says Herzog. ‘This will bring other elements to that type of film. It will push it out of its stagnation.’ Though Herzog is tight-lipped about further details, he does note that music will play a prominent role. ‘It might end up a musical,’ he says of the final film.
Traditionally a man of celluloid, this was Herzog’s first foray into HD. He’s pleased with the final frames, but wasn’t converted. ‘When you work on celluloid, you’re much more focused. I always had to stop the cameras from just rolling, rolling, rolling,’ he explains. ‘It’s not a problem, it’s just an attitude.’
Technologically, Scheurich was impressed with the hardiness of the hd cameras, which included an HDW-F900 courtesy of nhk and MPF’s own HDW-700. As the film was shot during Guyana’s rainy season, humidity was an ongoing issue. ‘We had two hair dryers in the jungle, which is an absolute necessity,’ says Scheurich. ‘They’re the best for drying off lenses, cameras, shoes, and equipment – in that order.’ Additionally, the lenses (among them the 10.5 Kg Angenieux HD 9.7-116 and the 5mm- to 14mm-range of Zeiss HD Prime lenses) were warmed every morning in Pelicase boxes rigged with an electric heating system. In the evening, they were packed in gas-proof boxes with silica gel.
Though The White Diamond was still in the early stages of editing at press time, Herzog says the film, like all of his work, will take some liberties with the facts in order to come closer to presenting the truth – or, in his terms, the ‘ecstasy of truth.’ He notes, ‘I doubt that it’s non-fiction. It’s borderline. It’s not very clear, but it has never been clear. It’s very much in the style of my films.’