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The Shape and Size and Speed of Water: How “Aquarela” Advances High Frame Rate Filmmaking

Shot at 96 frames-per-second at remote locations all across the globe, “Aquarela” is a monumental new documentary about the elemental power of ice and water from Russian experimental filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky.

Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela takes audiences on a cinematic journey through the transformative beauty and raw power of water. Captured at 96 frames-per-second, the film is a visceral wake-up call that humans are no match for the sheer force and capricious will of Earth’s most precious element. From the precarious frozen waters of Russia’s Lake Baikal to Miami in the throes of Hurricane Irma and Venezuela’s mighty Angel Falls, water is Aquarela’s main character, with Kossakovsky capturing its many personalities in startling cinematic clarity.

Kossakovsky did not just want to film water. He wanted to give water the chance to tell its own beautiful, mysterious, yet urgent story on an epic journey from ocean to sky. “With Aquarela, I wanted to film every possible emotion that can be experienced while interacting with water — beautiful emotions, along with unsettling emotions of ecstasy and inspiration, as well as destruction and human devastation,” he says.

To capture all those moods and forms, Kossakovsky filmed in 96 fps, discovering inventive new ways to shoot water in perilous conditions. But the technological ambitions and risk-taking of Aquarela were always focused on one thing: making an emotional connection — as icebergs seduce, monster waves claw the sky, a lake swallows cars, and a waterfall’s spectral mist expresses solace and potential. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, the film was shown in theaters at 48 fps, double the typical 24 fps, as projectors with the ability to project at 96 fps are extremely rare today, but when the time comes that the capacity is there, Aquarela will be one of the first films to be shown at that speed.

The desire to find a form that could mirror water is what led Kossakovsky to film Aquarela in a format that is, for all intents and purposes, still on the horizon. Though projection of 96 fps is still in the earliest, undeveloped stages, Kossakovsky hopes that projection technology will soon catch up to filmmakers who want to experiment with it.

Yet, audiences also may not be quite ready for such a visceral high frame rate filmmaking experience, even when projected at a relatively staid 48 fps. “In Aquarela’s central segment on a sailboat, the film sets us adrift to inspire awe, evoke terror, and — at 48 frames per second — induce vertigo,” writes Fatima Naqvi for Film Comment:

“On a peaceful day, a boat glides into view in long shot, its white sails mimicking the silhouettes of the surrounding icebergs. The winds shift, and two sailors try to steer the craft through the resulting squall. The audio records the woman’s grunts as she throws herself into her work, water crashing over her. The lack of dialogue and camera’s position make clear how serious the situation is. Aquarela’s crew, invisible but ensconced with the seafarers, brings us into this harrowing situation to make us ponder our total exposure. We don’t need to be told that the forces unleashed by global warming will find us when the ice has melted — and the film thankfully avoids all commentary, even refraining from explanatory intertitles. Although the film ends with a rainbow beneath the stunning waters of Angel Falls, we feel we have only narrowly escaped. And we shouldn’t deem ourselves too secure: after this film, terra firma no longer feels like a given. Reversing directionality (why is the rainbow below the water?) and pulling back to situate us vis-à-vis the world’s highest waterfall provide no solace or grounding.”

The standard movie to which our eyes are habituated is 24 fps. This speed is derived from the early days of cinematic experimentation, when people realized that if you fall below 16 fps, the illusion of motion ceases entirely. Even at 18 fps, motion is stilted enough to feel comical. At 24 fps, there is a closer semblance to natural motion — yet, with just enough flicker to feel a little fantastical, a show that belongs to the realm of magic rather than the completely real. However, the advent of digital technology, which theoretically can support frame rates up to the speed of light, has led some to question why 24 fps has remained the standard — and to wonder what the sharper, smoother, more life-like motion of higher frame rates might reveal. A few recent films, such as Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, have been shot at 48 fps to both excitement and controversy.

For Kossakovsky, the time to push frame rates forward has come. “I simply believe that it’s time to change,” he says. “We’ve had 100 years of 24 frames-per-second. In that time, we’ve been through many changes in cinema — color appeared, sound appeared, even 3D appeared, and now it’s time to change the frame rate. We have to go for 96 or even 120.”

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Aquarela, in particular, seemed to Kossakovsky to call out for a higher frame rate. Often operating the camera himself, along with cinematographer Ben Bernhard (Varicella, which was also captured at 48 fps), he was constantly searching for ways to show water from water’s POV.

“96 was so important for this project because water is continuous, and I feel you really cannot divide it into 24,” Kossakovsky explains. “At the same time, 96 allows you to see a single rain drop in a way you are not expecting. What was most essential to me about 96 is that it can change the perception. In 96 you can put the camera inches from a sheet of ice and move it very, very fast and you will not feely bumpy and you won’t see stroboscoping. Actually, you will feel like you are flying high above the ice. This is such a huge tool to trick your perception and change your idea of scale. This is the potential of 96.”

Forbes contributor David Alm calls Aquarela a “trans-global exploration of water in its most extreme manifestations,” writing:

“Kossakovsky and his co-cinematographer, Ben Bernhard, shot the film in 96 frames per second, a rate so high that even most technologically advanced theaters are unable to accommodate it. Where possible, it will screen at 48 frames per second, which is still double the rate we’re accustomed to, and gives the images a crispness that gives new meaning to the term ‘hi-def.’ Ice crystals, the lapidary underside of an iceberg, the torrential winds of Irma, the emergence of a rainbow over Angel Falls — all captured in such sharp relief as to place you in their midst. The effect is, by turns, soothing, stunning and utterly nerve-rattling.”

Citing the film’s opening sequence of a car zipping straight across the frozen surface of Siberia’s Lake Baikal before suddenly plunging under the ice, IndieWire’s Anne Thompson calls Aquarela “the most dangerous documentary ever made,” noting, “Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky captures the moment at the world’s oldest, largest, and deepest freshwater lake in an astonishing feat of fast-frame-rate cinema that showcases the power of water all over the globe. It also placed its director and crew into terrible danger.”

The 12-minute scene—in which one person, unable to reach the surface of the ice, ultimately died—is the most narrative-driven sequence in the film, which continues as an experiential assault on the senses, backed by a pounding rock score by Finnish cellist Eicca Toppinen. “It was a total accident,” Kossakovsky tells Matthew Thrift in an interview for the British Film Institute. “I was shooting something else, just the ice, and then I saw this car, which led to this horrible shot. The first 20 minutes uses more traditional storytelling devices, so I thought at least people would watch that. I knew that if they watched those 20 minutes, they wouldn’t leave. It was a trick, in a way, to keep people there, and then I decided to destroy the narrative.”

While shooting Aquarela, Kossakovsky woke up each day with the same thought, he told John Anderson in an interview for the New York Times: “O.K., nobody has died,” going on to explain, “You go to sleep, you don’t know if you’ll wake up. Maybe an iceberg will crush you. Or a shipping container — ships lose containers and you can’t see them until suddenly a wave comes, 35 meters high, and inside it you see a container flying. And just pray it will go left or right.”

For Kossakovsky, the filmmaking was its own awakening to a subject about which he has become extremely passionate. “When I was first approached about making a film about water, I actually refused,” he recalls. “I have seen several dozens of films about water in the last ten years. But they are mostly people just talking about water — the importance of water, politics of water, lack of water, climate change and water. But in these films you don’t really see water, you don’t really see her. So I said if we are going to do another film talking about water, then no, I am not interested in this. But if water will speak by herself for 90 minutes, if water will have a chance to be our main actor — this I will do.”

Kossakovsky discussed his experimental approach to documentary filmmaking in an interview with Alissa Wilkinson for Vox. “People think documentary is talking heads,” he said. “Of course, I could have filmed 10 faces talking, politicians, environmentalists, and climatologists, and ‘green’ people, talking: ‘Well, we need water, save water, global warming.’ Of course, I can do it [that way]. But does it work? It doesn’t work, right? Cinema is cinema.”

In POV magazine, film critic Pat Mullen writes that “the near-wordless odyssey of Aquarela is an intimidating and visually awesome cinematic achievement,” noting some of the film’s cinematic precursors:

Aquarela is a close relative to the Jennifer Baichwal, Nick de Pencier, and Ed Burtynsky trilogy of Manufactured Landscapes (2006), Watermark (2013), and Anthropocene (2018) with its captivating portrait of H20 falling somewhere between the latter docs. Striking cinematography, shot in a rare 96-frames per second frame rate, uses the aesthetic power of water to provoke, inspire, frighten, and motivate a viewer. The snazzy high frame rate exhibition, which this review considers, lets audiences experience the full force of chillingly dark waves that crash violently in the Atlantic Ocean and rip through Miami during the chaos of Hurricane Irma.”

In Kossakovsky’s much-shared list, “10 Rules for Documentary Filmmaking,” the first statute he offers is this: “Don’t film if you can live without filming.” This precept, to which he has held himself accountable, has drawn him to disparate subjects — but only subjects that ignite that kind of drive. That became true for Aquarela, though it was its own journey to get there.

Looking for more on Aquarela?

Read more: ‘Aquarela’: Inside the Most Dangerous Documentary Ever Made (IndieWire)

Read more: How Do You Film Water in Its Many Forms? Very, Very Carefully (New York Times)