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Special Collector's Edition

1985 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 40 min. / Street Date April 27, 2004 / 19.98
Cinematography Ron Fricke
Special Effects Wayne V. McGee
Film Editor Ron Fricke, Alton Walpole
Original Music Michael Stearns
Written by Constantine Nicholas and Genevieve Nicholas
Produced by Preston M. Fleet, Ron Fricke, Jeffrey W. Kirsch, Mark Magidson
Directed by Ron Fricke

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Almost immediately after the surprise notoriety of Koyannisqatsi, cameraman-editor Ron Fricke embarked on an IMAX effort that took him around the world. Chronos is on of the first and one of the best-remembered of the early IMAX films.

IMAX is that large-format film process that has persisted as a special-venue attraction in special theaters equipped with gigantic movie screens and an audience seated in stadium seats canted at an extremely steep angle. Whereas much of the footage in Koyannisqatsi was off-the-shelf stock from the government or shot by the Energy stock footage library, everything in Chronos was new.

The unusually small crew (most of the creatives doubled as camera technicians trying to shake down their custom-built rigs) travelled around the globe, grabbing the expected expansive landscapes but also finding an eye for close-up beauty. The patterns of light moving across a sculpture or a wall of Egyptian hieroglyphics are just as interesting as cloud shadows moving across the Four Corners, with Monument Valley in the background. Each shot is so perfect, one can imagine the crew sitting on location for days waiting to "ambush" the best light and the best cloud patterns,

Chronos is a wordless thesis film composed only of images, and unlike the Godfrey Reggio films has no spiritual message. The theme of time is approached as the daily cycle of the sun's light (seen in time-lapse photography) plays across the surface of the Earth and across civilization's man-made wonders. It is contemplated in 'timeless' vistas of art like the Grand Canyon as well as in ancient ruins, pieces of old civilizations and time periods across Africa and Europe. Pyramids, Spanish castles and modern hotel architecture exist simultaneously under the light of the sun.

Naturally all of the landscapes and great buildings look amazing in the resolution of IMAX, which is 70 mm wide but three times as tall as a normal 70mm frame. But Chronos isn't content with straight imagery. The camera technicians and effects engineer Wayne McGee experimented to apply electronically-controlled time-lapse innovations to the process. Instead of shooting the normal 24 frames a second, ordinary time-lapse exposes frames at a much slower rate. When projected back at normal speed, several minutes' or hours' worth of time is compressed into a few seconds.

In Chronos other camera functions are controlled as well as the frame rate. Rates speed up and slow down as exposures are automatically compensated. Also, the exposure time of each frame is mechanically altered, resulting either in the usual jerky, sped-up-ants look (traffic on 5th Avenue in New York) or the softer blurs of moving objects seen elsewhere in the picture. Static objects remain solid, while anything that moves becomes a ghost-like blur.

McGee also applied motion control to many scenes. Motion Control was finally perfected for Star Wars about eight years earlier, to repeat camera dolly moves exactly so that objects and their matching mattes could be created for complicated moves. In Chronos the technology allows the moving IMAX camera to creep along its track and pan & tilt while exposure, frame rate and shutter speed are fluidly altered at preplanned rates.

At forty minutes, Chronos plays out well as a contemplative meditation with the simplest of themes - reality. The natural and man-made beauty on display is a good roundup of aesthetic wonders across the globe; some huge architectural interiors such as the grand building seen on the jacket cover are just as awe-inspiring as the remains of ancient civilizations or God's creations outdoors. Michael Stearns' stately modern music score is less striking but also far less repetitive than Philip Glass' work on the longer visual docus. It fits the visuals to a "T" without trying to overwhelm them.

R&B-Goldhil's DVD of Chronos is a beauty. It can't compare with a real IMAX screening with all that stereo sound happening around us, but this disc will dazzle on a large video screen. It's colorful and as sharp as a tack. The show is probably the modern equivalent of the 19th century Magic Lantern - as every shot comes up, we marvel at it as a new wonderment.

The relatively short program is augmented with a battery of educational extras starting with some short featurettes:

The Artists and Their Camera puts a commentary behind a slide show of 'round the world locations, showing the tiny crew coping with on-the-spot problems. The Beam is composer Michael Stearns' introduction to the strange musical instrument. In The Composer Stearns discusses the score, which preceded the editing of the film. It was recorded in IMAX discrete 6.0, a system used nowhere else (this disc has a choice of DTS, Dolby Digital and PCM Stereo with surround). The Production Manager Alton Walpole discusses the race to finish the film and shows us an actual film frame: 70mm, 15 perforations tall. It's like editing postcards. The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is a tour of the first IMAX theater in San Diego, which opened in 1973.

There's a series of text screens about all of the creative contributors, including philosophical statements from each. There's also a DVD-Rom feature that gives information on all the landscapes seen onscreen.

A commentary track has Stearns, Walpole and Ron Fricke talking about the film in intense detail. Exceptionally welcome is a subtitle track that briefly notifies us of each subject as it comes up. It's funny when the commentators disagree on where a shot was taken, when we can read the answer on screen. Their comments are pretty illuminating ... their biggest fears were camera jiggles, which in IMAX look like earthquakes.

A 'director's shot list' repeats the information in the Subtitle track, identifying all the locations seen in the film and their corresponding time code.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Chronos rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: a commentary and featurettes aplenty, see above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 31, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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