With High Definition becoming the norm in living rooms around the world, the television documentary business is becoming more relevant than ever. Now that televised images look better than real life, documentarians like Peter von Puttkamer are the tour guides of the 21st century. In his latest effort, “Peyote to LSD: A Psychedelic Odyssey”, set to air April 19 on The History Channel, von Puttkamer takes viewers on a long, strange trip chronicling the history of hallucinogens. Prior to airing, von Puttkamer answered some of MM’s questions, giving us his take on the HD revolution, Final Cut Pro and the ethics of hallucinogens.
Andrew Gnerre (MM): How did the idea for this project come about?
Peter von Puttkamer (PVP): I’ve been making documentaries for over 25 years. One of my early award-winning docs was “The Spirit of the Mask” in 1990. It was about masks and spirituality, the first nations and the Native American people of the Pacific Northwest and what we could all learn from their concept of nature and the universe. I asked famed author and ethno-botanist Wade Davis to come on board as a host and we would collaborate on the writing.
Wade and I became friends and would go on to collaborate on other projects. Now a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Wade had written a book called One River about the amazing life of his mentor and Harvard professor Richard Evans Schultes, the greatest botanist explorer of the 20th century. Among the 2,000 new plants, medicines and poisons he would discover in a lifetime traveling the Americas and living with native peoples were hallucinogens. A serious academic, Schultes would unwittingly become one of the fathers of the psychedelic era. So this story of hallucinogens from jungle shamans to the hippie generation was one that appealed to me.
I pitched it to The History Channel and they liked it and we developed it with them. Shooting began in January of 2006.
I loved working on this show, which looks at the whole subject of hallucinogens in a very alternative way: Through travel, adventure and the lives of Native peoples. It reveals the untold story of the psychedelic era.
MM: In the film, you document some native hallucinogenic rituals taking place today. What was it like filming these otherworldly ceremonies? Were you invited to partake?
PVP: Fortunately, I came to this project after many years of producing films for and about Native Indian communities in North America and around the world. One is not invited lightly to film or reveal any aspects of the real ceremonies—the ones not put on for tourists. So using my contacts here and in Mexico and Wade’s—particularly in South America—we were able to gain access to ceremonies rarely, if ever, seen on film before.
In working with indigenous peoples my purpose has always been to help, work collaboratively and get a good message out. In this case hallucinogens, as used by native peoples for centuries, are not recreational drugs but tools for Shamans to access disease in the human body, whether spiritually, mentally or physically. Native American communities where peyote is used have much lower rates of alcoholism and drug issues. Peyote is referred to as medicine; young children are invited to take part. It is not harmful, but the opposite; it helps prepare young people for a spiritual life and an understanding of their culture and their universe.
As a Harvard-trained ethno-botanist, Wade always takes part in hallucinogenic ceremonies as a regular part of his work. As a director and second cameraman, I decided it was best not to partake in this as I had a show to produce, direct and shoot!
MM: From my understanding, you used Final Cut Pro to edit the project. Do you normally use that program? What kind of benefits do you feel it has for the kind of documentaries that you usually make, or for any project in general?
PVP: “Peyote to LSD: A Psychedelic Odyssey” was my first Final Cut project. I was raised on film editing, then 3/4″ video, 1/2″ video, D-Vision, Discreet Logic Edit, some Avid (which my editor used, but I never took too) and finally, in 2006, Final Cut. I like its ease of use, inbox FX, third-party add-ons (like Magic Bullet) and just generally the open architecture. Price is a factor too; there isn’t a better bang for the professional editing buck then Final Cut.
I was traveling a lot between Los Angeles and Vancouver and I needed a system I could use “offline” on a laptop so, along with two terabyte FireWire drives, I did it. Plus I had another drive to shuttle files back and forth to my editor in Los Angeles, Donald J. Paonessa.
The time-consuming part was adding special visual effects through Magic Bullet Editor software, so mainly “aging” our VariCam HD footage to look more like old film (scratches, dust, flicker, gate-wave, etc.) then green-screening HDCAM interviews and adapting 16mm hand-wound Bolex footage, some HDV and a bunch of archival/news-reel stock footage on 4:3 Betacam.
Final Cut is a great tool for the documentary producer on the go. Now I have a new Final Cut Pro 6.0 HD Kona card online system and I intend to assemble all my future docs with this system. I work with Panasonic HDX-900 cameras and the interface between Panasonic and Final Cut Pro is the best; it’s definitely the wave of the present and future. Final Cut Pro is keeping up with the technology at a much faster rate than Avid. Maybe it’s the open architecture of the system, but it’s keeping pace with HD and new tapeless media.
MM: As a documentary moviemaker who travels to many wondrous, vibrant locales, I would imagine that you are very pleased with the HD revolution as it allows your depiction of these places to look that much better. How has the new technology affected your craft?
PVP: I love HD and, as a proud owner of that awesome HDX-900 camera, I only shoot HD projects now; even for SD you can down-convert and images look better than, say, if you had shot them with a Digital Betacam at 16×9. We have a choice of 11 HD formats now plus different frame rates, and the 720/60p creates awesome slow motion. No need to spring for a VariCam now; the HDX-900 meets or exceeds it and still allows you to do things like true slo-mo in post. It has a film-like quality that the Sony cameras don’t, even though they claim higher resolution and processing rates.
HD has allowed me to think bigger in pitching shows to broadcasters. They know they’re going to get a viewer-grabbing piece that brings people in through strong visuals and 3D-like clarity in these locations.
It’s really made watching TV fun again, and what I’m finding is that people who would never have watched Discovery Channel or History HD—guys in sports bars—are tuning to shows like ours, because it comes in on their cable HD package along with the sports channels! HD is amazing and could help balance low-end reality shows by giving broadcasters a reason to fund quality documentary production and keep these shows with high production value and story telling on the air.
MM: After some of your past projects have had you searching for Bigfoot and the Lost City, traipsing through haunted houses, joining Joe Cocker in the studio and traveling the world to film people hallucinating, what could possibly be next for you?
PVP: Well some are top-secret of course, until they’re fully-funded, but we do have fascinating shows in development with Animal Planet International, as well as Discovery Science Channel. Let’s just say they’re wildlife- and adventure-inspired, as well as shows with strong environmental themes that will excite and make you just a little nervous about the future of our planet.
Currently, we’re producing a documentary filmed in the Peruvian Amazon about the wildlife conservation area called Lago Preto; we follow a young wildlife biologist and his work with red uakari monkeys. This will air on Animal Planet in the Fall 2008.