LOCARNO: Beginning in dense darkness, which magnifies slight sounds, Pascal Magontier’s “The Final Passage” is a seeming 28-minute traveling shot through the caverns and natural vaults of southern France’s extraordinary Chauvet-Pont d’Arc Cave.
Slinking through rocks gaps, down passageways, hovering past stalactites, over fossilized remains, the camera, at a roughly eye level, progressively reveals the centerpiece of the Cave: Dozens of paintings, some of the earliest ever discovered, of horses heads, mammoths, bears, cave lions, panthers, hyenas, two rhinoceroses butting horns, red ochre hand prints and dots, a partial Venus figure.
Werner Herzog pictured the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc in 2010’s docu-feature “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” Accompanied by graven organ music – think Cliff Martinez, but an original soundtrack from Damien Vandesande and Clément Aichelbaum – “The Final Passage” is the full picture of the cave and its paintings, among the oldest yet discovered – dating from as much as 35,0000 years ago – as they might have been seen by its last human visitor – hence the film’s title – before a landslide covered the entrance. As in a modern age, man wrapped up in art, here of bounteous animalscape murals, elements vital to its wellbeing or dangers – the multiple big cat depictions – to its survival. Maybe mankind hasn’t moved on that much.
“The Final Passage” world premiered at Switzerland’s Locarno. Variety talked to Martin Marquet, also a highly-regarded film publicist, who produced the film with Guy Perazio and Patricia Geneste.
One marvel of the “The Final Passage” is what it depicts: the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave. What is its importance in history and in the history of art?
Over 35,000 years, our ancestors painted and engraved images of their life onto the rocky surfaces of their natural environment such as caves. These figurative representations, known today as rock art, serve as the earliest form of communication, allowing humans to share their ideas and observations of the world and their existence within it. Chauvet was discovered 20 years ago, and for preservation purposes it’s closed to the public, although it’s an archeological site of world class heritage that needs to be shared as widely as possible. Using the most advanced and sophisticated technologies to serve a realistic experience of the cave art, we produced “The Final Passage” an immersive and exclusive cinematic experience of the Chauvet Cave.
”The Final Passage” seems a homage to cultural diversity, in time rather than geography, suggesting that mankind, even 36,000 years ago, created a complex civilization, turning, in terms of rock art on the animals whose hunting ensured survival. Could you comment?
Absolutely. I would say that through my personal experience exploring prehistoric rock art, I discovered a mental, spiritual and particularly powerful world of artistic expressions that I like to compare – or that revealed itself – as being like street art today. Rock art truly is our most ancient artistic legacy, and the film is most definitely an homage to all of us, as diverse as we are today in our cultures. The artistic concept of using our environment – a rocky surface or an urban wall as the canvas – is quite possibly humanity’s most noble and genius thinking which 35,000 years later is still remarkably valid, alive and dynamic in contemporary creativity. Rock art or street art, it’s the link that these arts share with their environment that lead to unique and emotionally charges perceptions of the world.
Another wonder is the shooting style that seems like a 26-minute traveling shot through a grotto cave. How was that achieved?
Considering the restrictions to access the original site, and given our ambitious aim to produce a cinematic experience of the cave that would be as realistic and immersive as possible, we had to follow an experimental approach in our filmmaking. The film was entirely built from a digital clone of the Chauvet cave, which consists is the composition of 3D laser scan data of the entire cavity and extremely high definition photography of the paintings. That first model was then enhanced with the development, programming and application of an original line of visual effects to allow us to virtually recreate every “living” aspect of the cave, such as the stalagmites, the crystals on the floors, the water drops, and so forth … so that the audience could visualize and sense the dark, mineral and humid atmosphere of an underground space where men intentionally painted episodes of their lives for us to discover today.
If “The Final Passage” is in a sense animation, how long did it take to make?
It was a big experiment, and a first of it’s kind production so it took about 8 months to complete everything, including developing our narrative concepts and the trajectory of a single sequence into the digital clone, working with raw laser scan and photography, programming and adjusting all the visual effects, creating original soundtrack, recording the voice over, and so forth.
How did you manage finance such an unusual film as “The Final Passage.”
The Chauvet cave is a property of the French Government, and being Franco-American I was able to work within the French production standards and benefit from the gracious support of the CNC who were very generous towards our innovative technological endeavor. The film was made in collaboration with Guy Perazio and his studio, Perazio Engineering, a France based engineering company specialized in 3D scanning, engineering and modeling technologies. They invested a lot in research and development and in making sure that our artistic vision was technically achievable. In Guy I found the perfect production partner. The rest was financed in private equity, and as with any other independent production with our blood sweat and tears….
The copy seen at Locarno was in 2D. What are the ideal circumstances in which “The Final Passage” should be shown?
Locarno was our dream venue to launch the film: a historical film festival also best known for showcasing cutting edge and avant-garde cinema, and they started doing so right when the war ended, almost 70 years ago. We screened “The Final Passage” on the Piazza Grande, which is the festival’s most popular and prestigious venue, a gigantic outdoor screen that can accommodate over 8,000 audience members … but the scale of the venue cannot sustain 3D projections. Thanks to Carlo Chatrian and Nadia Dresti though, we were offered the opportunity to world premiere the film in 2D in a perfectly democratic and popular fashion, which is what I think the Piazza Grande is a symbol of. So 36,000 years after the making of the Chauvet paintings, I feel the urge to communicate this incredible discovery and emotion that Chauvet is, and as universally as possible. 3D or 2D, the only ideal circumstances are quality theaters with quality screens and quality sound system. Other than that both experiences are spectacular.
How will you address the international distribution of “The Final Passage?” And will there be different international versions as in animation films in general?
Hopefully the film will be invited to screen at as many film festivals as possible – in 3D or in 2D – and we’re just getting started here in Locarno. A few very important cultural institutions were shown the film and are very excited by the opportunity of including the film in their museum programming, and the content of our film being so high definition – and considering today’s computer and android technologies – we’re surely able to produce and deliver an online version that will be as cinematic and almost as immersive as with the big screen experience. Now we’re just looking for the right digital partners who share our passion and excitement for those 28 minutes of pure discovery, amazement and emotion.