Wim Wenders on 'Pina' and Why 3D is the Future of Documentary

From 2011, Christopher Campbell interviewed Wim Wenders in promotion of his Oscar-nominated 3D documentary 'Pina'

Pina Wim Wenders
IFC Films

This interview with Wim Wenders about his 3D documentary Pina was originally published on the Documentary Channel Doc Blog on December 22, 2011.


Wim WendersPina is a revelation, a magnificent dance film shot in 3D in order to appropriately capture and pay homage to the work of the late Pina Bausch (read my review here). Wenders and Bausch had originally planned to collaborate on a documentary based on some of her pieces before she suddenly died in 2009, and he nearly gave up in her absence. Fortunately, he kept going and gave the world one of the best films, let alone best documentaries, of the year.

This week I talked with the filmmaker, known best for fiction films Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas, as well as his Oscar-nominated documentary, Buena Vista Social Club, about the process of his marvelous new 3D doc, why the newly affordable 3D format is the future of documentary if not all cinema, and what nonfiction subject he’s tackling with 3D next.

Why did you choose to shoot Pina in 3D?

We wouldn’t have done it any other way. For twenty years Pina Bausch and I were thinking of how to do a film about her work. We wanted to do it for that long. I would have done it twenty years ago if I had known how. As much as there was a desire to do it, I was at a loss for what my craft and my cameras could do in relation to Pina’s work on stage. I always felt that there was something essential missing. There was an invisible wall that I couldn’t break through with my cameras and my craft. And so I was stalling for time. I always told Pina, “I don’t know how to do it yet. Can you give me a little more time?”

That “little more time” lasted for twenty years, and we would never have made this film. There was always something missing until one day, four years ago, in 2007, I saw my first digital 3D film [Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington’s U2 3D]. And that was the immediate answer to twenty years of hesitation and questioning because it was obvious all of a sudden what was missing was space and access to space, and that is the very element of dance. Finally, my cameras could be in there. Before I was always looking into the aquarium at the goldfish and could only shoot them from outside. Now I could be with them, finally, in there in the same water, the same space.

Is it necessary to see Pina in 3D? Will it still be worthwhile to view it in 2D?

From the very beginning when we announced this 3D documentary about dance, a lot of people asked, “Oh, can we see it normally then?” We shot most of the film way before Avatar came out, so it was still sort of an adventurous form. By now at least it’s much more established, even though for a lot of the arthouse theaters and the kind of markets that are available for documentaries it’s still exotic. So we went a great length to also produce a valid and good 2D master and print.

Of course, the film has been out in Germany since February, so it’s out already on DVD. Most of the DVDs are sold in 2D. The Blu-ray 3D version, as beautiful as it is, is still a minority thing. It is altogether a different experience. It’s not as immersive, and you are outside the physicality. In the beginning, I thought I was going to make a different cut in 2D, but in the end, it seemed that was not improving the possibility of a 2D version so it is the same cut. But there is a different experience. I hope that as many people can see it in 3D as possible. But then again, because in small cities it’s not available and on home video, it is not at all, we did our best to make the 2D version of it just as good.

Also, since most people in America don’t normally see documentaries in theaters, the 3D experience is a good way to get them into the cinemas. 

I think it is an excellent tool for documentaries, for the future, and even now. In the beginning obviously, when we started, it was a little extravagant because of cost. But when we finished, in the last days of shooting, when we had little money left, we did the last shots with two Canon 5D cameras. And that worked well. And I did shoot with my students in 3D, and everybody made either a ten-minute documentary or a fictional film. So it is affordable now.

Apart from that, I think it’s a fabulous tool for documentaries because you get so much closer to your subject, and the audience is so much more in the presence of the person that the film is about and the world that you take them into. It’s more there. You can transport your audience to the universe of the film. I really think it’s a much better medium for the documentary in the long run than for the narrative form.

James Cameron recently told me something similar, that 3D is almost a better fit for documentary than fiction. 

He’s totally right. Because in the narrative form, it still has to be proven a little. Of course, there have been some films that proved it, and Avatar proved it in the first place. And Scorsese proved it. But it’s not clear that the narrative really is enhanced by the 3D, while in the documentary it is obvious. Like in the future, films about nature or discovery films, I think they should just try to shoot in 3D. Other forms of movies will certainly learn to use the language.

But they have to be conceived like this. A documentary from the beginning has to be conceived in 3D. There has to be an affinity between the subject and your technology or else it’s no use. If you just think, “Oh, there’s 3D, let’s use it,” that’s not going to improve the film at all. You have to think of it in 3D from the beginning, and then I think it has an immense value, it’s a really huge leap for filmmaking overall. I’m totally sure.

Do you wish you had had 3D for any of your past documentary work?

I don’t know that it would have contributed much to Buena Vista Social Club. The music was so much the core of the film. And we shot so much in the studio. I don’t think it would have been a better film in 3D. With this, I was so lucky to have found in the beginning a subject that wanted to appear in three dimensions. The bodies of these dancers wanted to appear round and voluptuous and not just as shapes. I was introduced to 3D through a subject that really needed it, and that was a privilege. The next film, or the next documentary I do, I definitely want to continue in 3D. But I really have to ask myself the question, is the subject needing the space and volume? – more than anything it’s volume. Is it enhancing what I want to tell of my subject?

As someone who works with both narrative and documentary cinema, you must already believe in choosing the most appropriate medium with which to tell a story. So now choosing to present in 2D or 3D is another level on top of this, correct? 

Yes. It is really amazing how much it is enhancing the possibilities and how much it is enhancing the ways to conceive of film, narrative, or documentary. In a strange way, this whole 3D thing sort of started on the wrong foot. It got out of bed on the wrong foot. Because for a number of years people were only thinking in terms of big-budget action and effects-driven language. Then slowly they came to realize that wasn’t the entire picture. 3D has a lot more possibilities, and you don’t have to take it to distant planets. It is certainly applicable to our planet in many ways. And I think we are still at the very beginning, just scratching the surface of what the technology and medium can really do as far as film language.

dance trick

One part of the film that made me think of the difference between the 2D and 3D forms is when a female dancer is in a position where it looks like she has the muscular arms of a man. In 3D, the trick is somewhat ruined by the perception of their bodies and the space between them. But in 2D versions of this shot, the illusion works because of the flatness bringing the forms together. Were you conscious of this distinction while shooting it, or after?

In 2D, the film was a little bit more surprising. The body is just a shape. You sense the man standing behind her even less. So in 2D, there is more of a surprise. The entire reception of the film is different in 2D and 3D. I guess it’s even useful if someone wanted to compare the experience. You can learn a lot about perception and about how differently a film in 3D would have to be planned and has to be seen. I myself found it extremely interesting to spend some time with my 2D version. We spent a few weeks on it after having worked for a year and a half with 3D. I almost learned more about 3D in these weeks where it was all of a sudden taken away from me. And afterward, I was really determined not to go back to 2D and just continue in the 3D form. It was really lacking in something that I had gotten used to and gotten the taste for and had conceived new work with. It was like going back to something ancient when we worked on the 2D version of the film for the prints and the color correction.

How did you conceive the way to present the archive footage used in the film? Did you ever think of converting it to 3D? Scorsese does this with documentary material in Hugo, but you cleverly include the 2D footage within the 3D space.

It was the very first time it was done. Of course, there would have been the option to turn the archival material into 3D. But it can be in bad taste. If you want to incorporate the two-dimensional archive material into the 3D world you have to give it its own space. We decided to have it like a screening room, and we watch the film. There’s depth, and the archival material is on the screen so it definitely has its place within the spatial architecture of the film. Sometimes we just added a curtain in front or tried to do something that would define it as what it is, and that would make it enjoyable as a document of such.

Tell me about the choice, then, to include the dancer portraits and interviews in 3D. I’ve heard this was your favorite part of the film to shoot in the format. 

It’s funny because it was the least complex and the least complicated, and we did it more towards the end. By then we had done huge, complex, one-hour crane shots with a hundred different moves, and other technically complicated shots. Then I wanted to have each and every one of these dancers as a silent portrait in front of the camera, and we did this and it was really the easiest thing we had done. There was just a person in front of the camera. The crew was not there. I wanted these people to feel alone with the camera. That was very exciting, and I had goose pimples when I sat behind the camera and they couldn’t see me but I could see them on my little monitor.

I realized to pose in front of the camera in 3D is an unknown thing in movies. We didn’t have the slightest idea from all the movies we’d seen, for years, the presence of a person in front of the camera when there’s no story and no action and no plot. For me, it was the most exciting thing because all of a sudden I realized how much volume the body had. How round the shoulders were, and the face became a landscape all its own. The person is there in a way that is different than ever in the history of cinema. That for me was the purest proof of what this documentary had for the future of filmmaking. Nothing but a person in front of a camera in a little room.

We planned these things silently. Even in the editing process for about a year there was not a single word spoken, and I really intended for it to be a film with no language. In the end, I felt that it needed a little bit of context, so I added these little elements of conversation I had with them about their relationship to Pina and about their work. I added these as a sort of inner voice. You could listen to their thoughts. It’s not introduced as interviews. It’s more like listening to what they’re thinking.

And did each dancer get to pick which performance would follow their portrait, to represent themselves?

That was the main process of the film once we decided to make it without Pina, and we had to find a way to replace the absence of Pina. The concept of the film [she and I] wanted to do together was very, very different. We planned a very different film. So I had to come up with something that would fill that hole, that would allow us to take a peek into Pina’s universe. All we could use from the initial plan was the four pieces that we had filmed. But these pieces alone could never be a movie so we had to develop a way to talk about Pina in different ways. Then we found this way in which I asked these dancers about Pina, about how she worked on them and what she had seen in them that they didn’t even know themselves.

We used the same rule of the game of Pina’s own work and method for which she had developed a thesis. This was to ask these questions about Pina, but they could only respond by dancing. That’s how Pina had worked with them their entire career. That was her method. She would ask them questions and they were not allowed to answer in words, only dance. So we slowly did that over a period of several months, developed all the answers that they were giving me, and the aspects of Pina that they showed me. Each had a different answer to “Who was Pina?”; “How was it to work with her?”; “What did she invent?”; and “What did she see in you that even surprised yourself?”

I understand that you were not interested in dance until you saw Pina’s work. I hadn’t thought much about dance either before seeing Pina. Now I’m not sure if it was just her work or the film that has changed my mind. Perhaps both. 

I really wanted to make this film for people like myself before I saw my first Pina, who think they have nothing to do with dance and say, “This is not for me.” That’s my target audience really. The 3D makes it easier for them to get into that world. They’re pulled into it because of the physicality of 3D and the enormous presence of these people on the camera. It does really does have a pull. And it helps you go in and appreciate Pina’s universe.

Since your first experience with digital 3D was through a concert film, would you be interested in doing one of those now? Do you want to make more 3D documentaries in general?

I have actually already started a long-term project, another documentary in 3D. It will take several years, but it’s going to be about architecture. I have always wanted to do a film about architecture, and I have a lot of architect friends. But that is another subject I never really knew how to approach with film. I realized through Pina that architecture is something that could have a real affinity to this medium. We started shooting already, but it’s at the very, very beginning. That’s going to be my next documentary project in 3D, but I would definitely also do a narrative film in the future in 3D as well.

Architecture is an interesting subject to tackle with 3D next. Between your film and Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and even concert films, it seems 3D is a great tool for documenting different areas of the arts. 

Most architects build this stuff and they already have 3D representation. They can enter a building before they even build it. But I think especially with modern architecture, to make a film that really deals with the sense of place and how it changes the way people use buildings and are shaped by cities and buildings, that could not really have been done before. To feel what the room does to you, that is something that you could describe almost better in words than in a two-dimensional film. It is really about a sense of place. That’s a feeling that many architects share with filmmakers and that’s a common thing the two professions have. I’m really excited to have this tool now that gives this sense of place, and so I am quite excited about my architecture project.

This interview is re-printed with the permission of Participant Channel, Inc. © Participant Channel, Inc. 2014.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.