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Making TV: The Buddha

David Grubin's documentary The Buddha visualizes the struggle to create a life of the mind. DP James Callanan put it on video.

By Michael Fickes

Director David Grubin (right) and DP James Callanan scout the Ganges while preparing a key shot for the title sequence.
Director David Grubin (right) and DP James Callanan scout the Ganges while preparing
a key shot for the title sequence.

In the countryside of modern India, many people live just as their ancestors lived 2,500 years ago.

That enabled award-winning director, writer and cinematographer David Grubin to infuse his latest documentary, The Buddha, with a sense of authenticity that can be difficult to create when history is reenacted.

The Buddha tells the story of Siddhartha, the Indian prince who gave up a life of wealth and ease and suffered terribly as he struggled to find a path to understanding and enlightenment. Ultimately, he became the creator of the world's fourth-largest religion. Richard Gere, who has practiced Buddhism for many years, narrates the production that airs Wednesday, April 7, at 8 pm ET on PBS.

Many live-action contemporary scenes shot for the program represent history, says James Callanan, the Director of Photography on the project. "Nothing in those scenes indicates the present. They would have looked the same 2,500 years ago."

  Head of the Buddha, Thailand.
  Head of the Buddha, Thailand.
Photo Credit: Luca Tettoni

The Buddha is Callanan's 17th film assignment from David Grubin. His work has appeared on PBS in The American Experience, the National Geographic specials "Lord of the Ants" and "Mysterious Human Heart," NOVA, Frontline, Dance in America and many others. He has won four Emmys, four Peabody awards, five Cine Gold Eagles, a Clio, a Grammy and many other awards.

Shooting History, Live
For The Budhha, Callanan used two different shooting styles when lensing people.

In crowds, he used a wide-angle Canon HJ 11 x 4.8 ENG-style zoom lens with a 2x extender and a handheld Panasonic AJ-HDC27HE HD camcorder. The goal of those scenes was cinÈma vÈritÈ — making the viewer feel as if he or she was right there.

For shots of small groups and individuals, Callanan employed a long Canon HJ 22 x 7.6 ENG-style zoom lens, again with the 2x extender. For these scenes, he mounted the camcorder on an O'Connor 2060 tripod, a Desi Jimmy Jib or a Key West Magic Dolly with skateboard wheels, regular tires and straight and semi-circular plastic tracks.

Callanan's live scenes in the countryside depict ancient-looking landscapes, crowds of pilgrims, small groups of people, individuals and works of art.

"We shot a yogi (a Buddhist monk) meditating by the Ganges River at sunset," says Callanan. "On another occasion we found an ascetic who lives next to funeral pyres where bodies are cremated. He lives off of the generosity of mourners and sleeps in a cutaway in the side of a cliff. We framed out a scene with the ascetic in front of a wall with Hindu icons. In the background, you could see a funeral pyre."

Asterisk Animation depicts the Buddha gaining enlightenment sitting under a fig tree.
Asterisk Animation depicts the Buddha gaining enlightenment sitting under a fig tree.

In other scenes, Callanan shot pilgrims at worship.

"We tried to make the scenes with the pilgrims (cinÈma) vÈritÈ," Callanan notes. "We used a handheld camera, normal lighting balance and wide-angle lenses. We moved through the crowd with the camera — the idea being to create the feeling that you are there in the crowd."

Sometimes Callanan wanted to create an aura of myth and mystery. In one of the title shots, for instance, a monk walks away from camera toward the mountains at sunrise. To add mystery, Callanan used a long lens that could frame out everything but the monk.

Other live-action footage includes interviews with historians, poets, Buddhist scholars, practicing Buddhist monastics and even the Dali Lama. The production also uses panoramic establishing shots of landscapes and people achieved with a wide-angle zoom lens.

Finally, archival footage offers a view of Buddhism in the 20th century. In some cases, you can see how closely Callanan's live shots mirror the historical record.

Animating History
A number of live historical scenes end with a transition shot, usually accomplished by a camera move, that introduces an animated sequence depicting experiences from the Buddha's life. New York City-based Asterisk Animation created the stylish cel animation that's a far cry from cartoon-like examples: They are artists' impressionistic renderings of religious experiences that are part of Buddhism.

As worked out by Grubin and Callanan, sometimes the first animated frames trace over the documentary footage. In other cases, the camera might push through a blanket of falling leaves, for example.

In one shot, a jib arm raises the camera over the scene of a lone woman carrying a child on her side. As she walks away from the camera along a narrow path she becomes an animated woman and child in the same pose.

They introduce an animated sequence that relates the story of the Buddha's birth. In the sequence, the queen of a small kingdom located in an agricultural valley in India near the border of Nepal dreams that a huge white elephant gives her a lotus blossom and then dives into her body through her side.

Asterisk Animation depicts the Buddha gaining enlightenment sitting under a fig tree.
Callanan uses a long lens to create an aura of mystery surrounding a monk at sunrise.

Upon awaking, the queen asked sages what the dream meant, and they predicted that she would have a child who would grow to become a great ruler or an enlightened holy man.

Indeed, she becomes pregnant and the child is born out of her side — in an animated image reminiscent of the woman carrying her child in the live transitional scene shot by Callanan.

The artist's rendering of the birth is done in soft colors, often white and off-white, and simple linear shapes. Soft music accompanies the visuals.

The style of animation changes when events call for it. In a climactic scene depicting the Buddha's achievement of enlightenment, the animation depicts an attack of spirits trying to frighten him away from the path. In this scene the music is loud, daunting and fully orchestrated. The angry red and black spirits flourish spears and gnash their teeth. It is frightening and human.

In the end, the message is that human beings are ruled by emotional desires that are both dangerous and enlightening. The Buddha's discovery was that it is possible to find peace by living an active, internal life of the mind and learning to battle dangerous desires while welcoming the enlightenment created by struggle.

In a way, the challenges facing the Buddha and the production team for The Buddha were exactly the opposite. The Buddha was challenged with creating a life in the mind independent of the external world. Grubin and Callanan, on the other hand, had to figure out how to externalize that interior life for television viewers.