The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams – Review

The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary about the Chauvet caves of Southern France by Werner Herzog. These caves were discovered in 1994 and contain a collection of the oldest paintings in the world, which date back more than 20,000 years. The caves are guarded by the French authorities to protect them but each year a collection of scientists are allowed access for several months to carry out research. Herzog’s documentary marked the first time a film crew had been allowed in.

The documentary was released in the UK earlier this year and received good reviews from critics and everyone I knew who went to see it. It was shot in 3D and I heard several people say it was the best use of 3D they had seen. It only had a limited release and I never managed to see it at the cinema so I was really pleased when I found a screening in Vancouver.

I’m going to review the film separately from the stereoscopic 3D.

The Film

After looking through Herzog’s IMDB page I realised that this is the first of his movies I had seen.

The film starts with a rather factual description of how the caves were discovered and a little history of the area. There is a long sequence of Herzog and his crew being taken into the caves and seeing the paintings for the first time. There is then a series of interviews with researchers and experts who describe their discoveries and theories about the paintings and the people who painted them.

The caves were fascinating and the paintings were mesmerising. This documentary should have been brilliant but I felt like it kind of missed the mark.

The paintings were so old that we will never really know why they were painted but Herzog was happy to entertain many quite elaborate theories from some of the kookier researchers without presenting any of the evidence that may have lead to them to these ideas. In some cases he seemed more interested in the scientists themselves rather than their work. At one point there was a rather painful sequence of an historian trying to demonstrate how a spear throwing device may have worked but failing miserably.

There was another sequence in which an archaeologist had made a replica of a bone flute they had found. The fact that these ancient people had music and that the flute used the same notes as we use in modern music was amazing, but we didn’t need Herzog to spend five minutes watching the guy play the American national anthem on it.

As the documentary went on, Herzog seem to care less and less about facts and was more interested in conjecture and theories. There was also a bizarre epilogue featuring albino crocodiles and a nuclear power plant, which was trying to make some kind of deep point that I – and most people in the cinema -completely missed.

The caves and the paintings were amazing. I would have found them engaging and interesting enough on their own. I didn’t need to know that one of the scientists used to work in a circus. If I had made this documentary, I would have asked someone like Robert Winston to present it and would have devoted much more time to the scientific knowledge and tangible evidence that we do have.

The Stereoscopic 3D

I had great hopes for the quality and impact of the 3D in this movie. I had heard good reviews in the press and from friends that had seen it. They had said the 3D really bought the caves to life and made the paintings more engaging. I was sadly disappointed.

Most of the movie was shot on a small handheld camera rig with cheap cameras. While this is obviously great for a documentary, it is not ideal for shooting decent stereo. There was a lot of visible video compression and noise from the low light levels. These were obviously different in each camera so made it harder to resolve the stereo images.

The other highly noticeable problem was caused by mismatching highlights between the two eyes. Because the only light sources in the caves were torches and camera lights, they caused very defined and bright specular reflections. These kinds of reflections change dramatically with the angle you are viewing them at, which means they can be quite different between the two stereo cameras.

You can fix a lot of stereo issues in post production using software like Ocula. When I saw Cave of Forgotten Dreams I had just started working at MPC Vancouver and had been learning techniques for this kind of work. Some of the things I had been asked to fix had seemed petty, but after watching an entire movie full of these issues I realised how important it was.

There was also one long shot where there was a really obvious roto line around the subjects. I couldn’t work out why it was there at the time, but afterwards I found out that some of the shots had been post converted into stereo and this was an artifact of the process. I cannot believe that this shot was accepted with such an evident error.

That said, there were some shots that did look good in stereo. The last ten minutes of close-ups of the paintings looked like they were shot on a higher quality camera and had better lighting and looked good, but in most cases the 3D just didn’t work well enough to add anything to the movie.

Overall this film did not live up to the expectations I had of it. A colleague of mine, who is a big fan of Herzog, told me that he felt Herzog had dropped the ball on this occasion so perhaps it wasn’t a good introduction to his work.