Godfrey Reggio on ‘Visitors,’ Making a Special Effects-Driven Documentary and Slow Motion Versus Time-Lapse


If Godfrey Reggio’s films were already pushing the line on what constitutes documentary, his latest is the most difficult to defend to purists yet. Titled Visitors, the film is not only a narrative- and argument-free work comprised of people’s (and a gorilla’s) faces in slow motion and landscapes depicted with time-lapse photography, it also utilizes a lot of post-production special effects that alter those natural images completely.Is this even nonfiction? There are cyborgs on screen. There are computer-generated shots of the moon, as we look upon Earth from the orbiting satellite. We expect docs teetering towards the avant-garde from the director of the Qatsi trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi), but this entirely black and white feature is an especially experimental endeavor. And depending on how you wish to view it, the result works or doesn’t. Just like any piece of art.

Earlier this month, I talked to Reggio about Visitors ahead of its home video release. Like all of his works, this one is best seen theatrically. It was shot in 4K and should be viewed in that higher quality projection format. But Blu-ray shall suffice if that’s your best option now (unfortunately, Visitors didn’t have a wide release). We talked about how much more pre- and post-production work was involved with this film compared to his others, the process of directing all the people who appear in the film and whether he has a preference for slow motion or time-lapse. He also teased his next project, which like Visitors and his other features will also feature a score by Philip Glass. Speaking of whom, somehow Glass’s involvement on Visitors never came up in the time we had to chat. Apologies to everyone who hasn’t gotten enough of how that relationship works after 35 years.

Nonfics: I remember at one time this film was called The Holy See. Did the change in title have to do with any change in the direction of where the film went over the years, or is it otherwise the same project?

Godfrey Reggio: That was a working title. I found it a bit too esoteric and felt it could be confused with the Vatican in Rome. I meant it as Holy Moly, Holy Smoke, Holy Cow, Holy See, in that sense. This film is all about seeing.

But it didn’t change. The “VISITORS” [sign] was shot in the very first outing of shooting on a building, because I realized that could also be a very good title for the film. What I like about “Visitors” is that it’s a ubiquitous term; it’s in every culture from orality to civilization. The very word “visitor” means “those that come to see.” I felt that would be appropriate, and it’s a big enough word that you can put any meaning you wish on it, which is fine with me.

It has a science fiction connotation that seems to fit the film.

It could be that. We’re living a kind of fiction of science now, from my point of view. It could be certainly seen that way, but it’s such an elastic word, you can take it any way you wish to, really. It will be different for each person, because in this film the audience completes the subject. It’s a demanding and challenging exercise for those who see the film. In other words, when you go to films you go in with expectations of being told a story, and in this case it’s more something to behold than to be told.

In some cases it can be like a deprogramming experience. All of us are on speed in rush hour outrunning the future. For some, this can be painfully slow, and for those who get stuck in the beginning saying, “Well, what does it mean?” If they keep looking for the meaning, they’ll miss the whole film. It’s vacating the mind by using that term “stop making sense.” Let the visual speak to you, rather than you try to figure out what it means. It is demanding a thing for an audience.

Visitors Girl and Cyborg

On the Blu-ray, you’re in one making-of feature talking about how you don’t like to talk about what a film like this is “about.” But in another feature you go into the details about the three characters and the perspective from the moon. Is there more meaning to this film than you let on?

I try to be responsive to what’s in the film. We have three principal characters — gorillas, humans and cyborgs — and the moon is a metaphor or a megaphor, as it were, because it has no atmosphere and when we film in the real world in Visitors it’s done in either black and white or infrared, and of course there is no atmosphere in infrared; the blue becomes black in the sky. It was only to respond to why I had those characters in the film.

What it means, and again I don’t want to step back from it, is if there are 50 people in the audience then there could be 50 vastly different points of view. The beauty of art, if I can be so bold, is that it has a different message for each person who sees it. It’s not propaganda, it’s not advertising, where there’s one way to read it. There is a multiplicity of ways depending on who’s viewing or seeing it.

Compared to the Qatsi films, this one feels a lot more pre-planned. Was your intention to do something really different from those films?

Definitely. I didn’t want to repeat the Qatsis. From my point of view, landscape is character, and for those films their principal voices are in the landscapes. While there are people in the other films, they’re more a part of the wallpaper of life. In this film, it’s very focused on individuals, on people either involved in a medium or just posing for a portrait. Or, in the case of the gorilla, it’s based on the idea that we haven’t seen ourselves until we’ve seen through the eyes of another animal.

All of that was meticulously planned. Take the gorilla, for example. If we had shot the gorilla in Uganda or shot the gorilla, as we did, in the Bronx Zoo, then we would be looking at a gorilla. But if you take out the background and put her in the “blackground,” then the gorilla is looking at you. It changes the whole dynamic. To achieve that took three months of rotoscoping each hair on the gorilla so it appeared that it was in a blackground. It took a lot of focus and intentionality to pull this off.

Visitors Gorilla

At the same time, there was a lot of post-production involved here compared to your other projects. Was this new for you to work with so many computer effects and color correction and all that?

There’s an enormous effect in each shot, but it’s all done in a manner so it’s hidden in plain sight. In other words, steadying the shot or making sure that everything is rock-steady, a lot of that has to happen in post after the shots are made and bringing the blacks almost to a silver black. The reason the blackground is, as it were, an image in the film, because it’s everywhere, is that on a two-dimensional sphere — which is what cinema is except for the three-dimensional forms they have now — when something is flat, the depth can be very shallow unless the blacks are deeply black, and then it gives the illusion of depth on a two-dimensional medium.

Also, black and black and white has less distraction to the eye. Color moves the eye all over the frame to bring some hegemony to what the image is saying, precognitive in the mind when we see something in color the eye goes to those different colors, whereas if it’s in black and white the eye stays focused.

As an artist, do you feel these effects and tools you used on Visitors are advancing cinematography?

Well, we did it because we thought it would make it stronger. We used as a modus operandi for the photography, and for its completion in post, the perfected image to make it as un-distracting as possible. At least for the kind of photography we were doing, that couldn’t be achieved completely in camera. It had to be worked on in post in order to give it that feeling. If one is a purist, they can have their own thought. To me, it’s the outcome. Like if one paints, one usually has to paint over what one starts to paint. We did a lot of overpainting, as it were. It’s like a photographic painting.

Visitors Hand

I’ve always loved the slow motion shots of individuals in the Qatsi films, as well as their few stationary portraits. Now with Visitors you’ve focused more on individuals. Can you tell me about your interest in faces and how that led to this film?

From my point of view, the most interesting thing that any other human being can look at is the face of another person. The face reveals deeply what’s inside of the person, and we can’t see ourselves except through the eyes of other people. I’m going to repeat something that’s ridiculous, but our eyes are pointed out, not in. It’s those around us that see us more completely than we see ourselves, for obviously reasons.

The premise of the film is this reciprocal gaze. Not only are we gazing at the screen, but in the very overt sense the screen is gazing back at you. What I learned as a young monk, when I was a Christian Brother, is that if I wished to see that which was most familiar, most ordinary, most normal, for the first time, I had to stare at it until it became unusual. That’s always stayed with me. I’ve used that for the portraits in Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi. It’s an opportunity to be face to face with another being in a manner that can trigger something within yourself. In this case, hopefully to trigger the aesthetic triplets of sensation, emotion and perception.

Of course, that’ll be different for each person. In that sense, it’s an art piece. It’s cinematic poetry, because it doesn’t use narrative speech, which comes out of literature, and uses visual composition, which is what I think visual poetry is about.

Visitors Trio Heads

This film is about as far as you can get from a talking-head style documentary, but I think the way we look at faces here can show viewers how to better appreciate talking head interviews, because they’re as much about the interviewees’ faces as what they’re saying…

I don’t know how to classify the films I do, so I call them cine-monads. A monad is something beyond traditional definition. We know it’s an entity, but we don’t know anything more. So it doesn’t fit into the traditional category of theatrical film, which tells you a story, or the common tradition of doc, which is talking heads or using the images to illustrate a point of view. This doesn’t do that at all. In that sense it becomes hard to classify.

So, in the case of all the other films I’ve done, they’re completely un-categorizable in terms of where you put them in the store, on the list; some go in music, some go in independent, some go in documentary, some go into avant-garde. There are a zillion categories when you don’t know what to call it. That’s basically true for all the films. I consider the films a document, definitely. To me, they are essentially a documentary.

This one has more fictional elements than the others, though.

Fiction allows us to be more articulate about the truth than what we consider the truth to be. That’s the power of literature in many cases. It’s more true than real, and I feel that can be the case for these films.

What kind of direction did you give to the people who appear in the film?

All of those people are what would be called in the business “extras.” Wallpaper. An extra doesn’t act; an extra just walks or fills in the background. I wanted these people to do zero acting. Having said that, they knew they were being filmed. I asked them to do what they ordinarily would do anyway. In this case either play a game or watch TV, or in the case of the first portrait, just sit for a portrait.

Let’s take the kids who are watching TV or the younger adults who are gaming or in a sports bar, as soon as that TV comes on it’s like a tractor beam. It pulls one right out of their conscious state into a non-self-conscious state, where in the case of children and other people’s automaticity emotive states appear like hurricanes flashing through the face. We were filming them through a two-way mirror, and everybody knew that, but again as soon as that TV goes on we go to another place. I didn’t tell anyone to do that, do this, think this, think that. I just put them in a situation where I knew exactly what they normally do. We filmed a lot of those people and then chose the ones that worked the best.

So they’re looking at a mirror?

No, they’re looking at the screen, but through a two-way mirror, much like a teleprompter that you have on TV. You’re looking at the screen. The TV is below them but they’re looking at a mirror that reflects the TV, but the camera is directly behind the mirror looking straight into their face.

Visitors 1

The portraits reminded me somewhat of Wim Wenders’ portraits in Pina. Have you ever thought about shooting in 3D for that added depth and texture for faces like that?

I haven’t, myself. Not that it’s not interesting. I just am more interested in the flat medium and what it can do. I’d rather work on how to give that dimensionality than go through the gizmo of 3D. I’m not putting it up or down. It’s just not for me right now.

You might think this a stupid question, but I thought it’d be fun to ask: Which would you prefer if you could use one one: slow motion or time lapse cinematography?

Oh, gee whiz. I’d have to answer it this way: what arm would I rather have, my right or my left? I’m ambidextrous and wouldn’t be able to lose either one of them. It’s my ambidextrous vocabulary for cinema. It’s like speech. Both of those, because the films are about perception, when you either speed up something or slow it down, then you change the way we normally see things. This is the intention of all the films, how to see that which is normal in an un-normal way. Those two techniques allow that to happen. And of course black and white infrared is another technique that allows this film to go forward as well.

If I had to choose, I think one can endure slow motion longer than time-lapse. In Koyaanisqatsi there is a 21-minute polyrhythmic structure of 13 rhythms going at once, and at the end of that I remember when I first showed the film in Santa Fe a person had a pacemaker and it flipped. We had to take him out of the auditorium and put him in an ambulance to the hospital. It’s intense.

It’s intense for traffic, but I was trying to think of whether slow or fast motion gave us more of a sense of the truth of a scene or object.

That would depend on the subject matter. Traffic clearly, because we can see it in another way, the density of it, the enormous materiality of it, acceleration. Looking at people, individuals, slow motion allows you to see things the eye can’t see. There’s more material to look at. It would depend on the subject as to which medium would work the best. Certainly if you shot clouds in slow motion it would be hardly viewable.

Exactly. Well, thank you for talking to us and good luck with the film. I can’t wait to see what you do next.

Me too. I’m all pumped up. I’m in the middle of it now. I’m doing a fairy tale for children. A neo fairy tale.

Visitors is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and HD VOD via Cinedigm.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.