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There’s a long and healthy tradition of non-verbal, observational films that mesmerize audiences with breathtaking cinematography and fascinating glimpses of the world around us that remind us how much we take that world for granted.

Seminal to the genre are three films – Baraka, Koyannisqatsi and Powaqqatsi – painstakingly put together documentaries that have no dialogue, no plot and little in the way of narrative, but leave a lasting impression. Godfrey Reggio is responsible for the latter two films and continues to make mind-blowing documentaries that deliver silent commentary on the world around us.

Screen Shot 2012-06-13 at 11.34.44 AMAdding to the canon is Timescapes, an impressive documentary by cinematographer Tom Lowe that consists entirely of timelapse and slow motion photography taken in America’s South West over a two year period. The film has a New Zealand connection – it is produced by Nigel Stanford, who was a shareholder in TradeMe and helped run the company with Sam Morgan.

Following the TradeMe sale, Nigel set up Rubber Monkey, the Wellington-based movie production company which has been involved in several local productions – most recently, the excellent documentary Shihad: Beautiful Machine which looks at the enduring hard rock band Shihad. This Idealog piece I did on Rubber Monkey a few years back gives you some background.

Nigel is also an accomplished music composer and Timescapes’ amazing imagery is accompanied beautifully by Nigel’s score.

Lowe takes advantage of the clarity of the night sky above the American desert to serve up some spectacular visuals of the cosmos, often framed by unusually-shaped wind-carved desert rock or giant trees. Like some of the films mentioned above, the film also takes in humanity’s impact on the landscape, with luxurious shots of satellite stations scanning the night sky, wind turbines, hot air balloons, a rock concert underway in the desert – and the beautiful closing shot of a young girl walking through a field of flowers.

The overriding theme, evoked by the timelapse is of motion, the cycle of nature, the transition from night to day and back again, shadow and light across the landscape. Everything is beautifully shot to emphasize the wonder of the landscape.

Timescapes looked great in high-definition on the Blu-ray edition I bought, but the film is notable also for being one of the first to be released to the public for download as a so-called “4K” production. 4K refers to the resolution of the image and is around four times the resolution of a 1080p HD flat screen TV. Unfortunately, you’ll need to see Timescapes in a theatre with a 4K projector to take advantage of the extremely high resolution – and few New Zealand cinemas are equipped with them. But this is the future of not only cinema, but home theatre and regular TV viewing as well – and given the advances in HD programming in the last few years and the rapidly declining cost of flatscreen TVs, the 4K world may be closer than you think. Multiple hi-def formats of the film are available for download.

Timescapes is hopefully the first of a series of films. Time-lapse photography seems to be experiencing a bit of a resurgence and the technology is better than ever allowing filmmakers to capture and edit truly stunning footage. Still, such filmmaking is incredibly time-consuming and difficult to get right as the producers note:

Production involved many hardships. Tom slept outdoors for 250 nights, sleeping on cots (without tents) under the stars next to his camera, while timelapse was being captured. During the middle of principle photography on ’TimeScapes’, Lowe won the Astronomy Photographer of the year award in 2011, with the image, ‘Blazing Bristlecone’ – featuring a 4,000-year-old bristlecone pine tree against the Milky Way. Unbeknownst to the judges, the photo was actually just one frame of a time-lapse movie, which is featured in ’TimeScapes’.

With so many productions these days that cram in so much in the way of plot, action and special effects to feed our attention-deficient brains, it is refreshing, relaxing even, to just sit back and just watch simple, powerful visuals accompanied by a decent score.

If you are interested in films like Timescapes and Baraka, check out this great blog maintained by a fan of such films.