Thongdrol: Liberation Through Seeing - The Feature Film

by David Cherniack

New Preview of Thongdrol: Liberation through Seeing from David Cherniack on Vimeo.

A visually stunning, feature length, theatrical documentary on the magical Tibetan sacred art form that was developed by the Karmapas.

His Holiness Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa. For letters of support for the film please click on the Link

This theatrical documentary has the active support and guidance of His Holiness Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa.The Karmapa is the traditional leader of the Karma Kagyu, one of the major branches of Tibetan Buddhism. The first Karmapa was the original Tibetan master to intentionally take rebirth.

The film is being made by experienced professionals: a producer/director who has made more than 60 documentaries, a Visual Effects producer who has won two Oscars, and talented cinematographers.

Filming in ultra high definition 4k has been underway since the January shoot in Bodhgaya that is featured in the preview video. For a more extensive, much better resolution version of the preview please download at

We're in need of additional funds to continue production. We have already shot material costing $200,000, raised through private donation. The money we are raising on KickStarter will enable us to shoot an important sequence in the Himalayas before weather makes it impossible in October. The film's planned budget is $2,000,000 with extensive visual effects sequences. The remainder of the funding will be raised through private donations in the Fall and Winter.

Please keep in mind that films like this are not funded by broadcasters anymore, even in countries that have a long tradition of support for the documentary form. (If there was a contest or cooking, or better yet, a contest AND cooking, somehow involved, it might be looked upon more favorably by broadcasters). As it is what it is, we have to depend on people like you who want to watch a film like this and are willing to contribute what they can. 

(To make a U.S. tax deductible donation to the film contact us directly for information about our 501C3)
ABOUT THE PROJECT      Thongdrol is a Tibetan word that means liberation though seeing. Something is seen that liberates. On a basic level it can be anything that turns the person seeing toward the spiritual path. On an advanced level it can be the instantaneous act of seeing the world through liberated eyes...the non-deluded eyes of the fully awakened.

A thangka of Choying Dorje, the 10th Karmapa, who was himself a brilliant artist.
Tibetan thangkas are a primary form of thongdrol. Though their subjects widely differ they all represent a sacred vision of Totality. Some venerate the lives of great masters. Others display wrathful deities as meditation objects that represent aspects of the enlightened being. All turn the mind toward the spiritual.  The Karma Gadri style of thangka painting is exquisitely detailed, with beautiful natural pigments.  It is named after the Great Encampment of the Karmapas where it emerged. For hundreds of years the Karmapas traveled and taught throughout Central Asia and China in a huge mobile monastery of tents. The style of painting that emerged in the Encampment added the natural world as an integral part of the thangka's sacred vision. Karma Gadri thangkas resonate with environmental awareness. A timely film on the subject is in keeping with his His Holiness, the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje's teaching that respecting the environment is a sacred human responsibility.
The film is being shot using the latest digital cinema production equipment at 5k+ resolutions. This will portray all the stunning detail in Karma Gadri thangkas and allow us to create exceptionally fine cinematography of the natural world, allowing the film to function as a kind of thongdrol itself, a contemplation of the spiritual through seeing spectacular images and image making, of landscapes and rituals that plant seeds in the mind of the viewer. It will use extensive visual effects sequences to reconstruct episodes from the history of the Karmapas and the Golden Rosary lineage and their development of the Karma Gadri style. Through CGI animation, it will take us on a journey into the visual universe of the thangkas, exploring their symbols and illuminating the magical lives of the extraordinary yogis who created them.
THE PROJECT STATUS       The film is now about 25% shot.
Principal photography which has been completed:
  • In January, 2014 at the Kagyu Monlam festival in Bodhgaya, India, including spectacular aerial footage during the Procession around the Mahabodhi Temple where the historical Buddha was enlightened.
  • In India with His Holiness Ogyen Trinley Dorje on the historical development and spiritual and ecological significance of the Karma Gadri style of thangka art. This includes a sequence of His Holiness as he does a brush drawing while talking about painting as meditation.
  • The principal interview with His Eminence the 12th Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche on the history of the Karma Gadri style and the role played by one of his predecessors: Situ Panchen, the 8th Situ Rinpoche who was revered as a polymath and a brilliant artist. His Eminence talks eloquently about the act of painting while demonstrating his technique on a Karma Gadri thangka.
  • In England, India, and Tibet with Terris Temple and Leslie Nguyen Temple who took three years of their lives to re-create a 35 meter appliqué thangka (goku) at Tsurphu Monastery, the Karmapas historical seat. The original was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
  • In Sweden with Thomas Dalarud, a Gega Lama trained thangka painter, who does brilliant natural landscape photography inspired by his Karma Gadri training.
Principal photography remaining:
  • In India
    As one of the many visual effects scenes we will reconstruct the Great Encampment in Ladakh and shoot historical sequences.
  • USA
    We will film in New York at the Rubin Museum: their collection of Karma Gadri thangkas; an interview with Karl Debrezceny; the pre-emininent scholar on the 10th Karmapa, and a teaching tour of elementary school students as they learn about thangka art and its significance.
  • Canada
    in Halifax with Ann Shaftel  who is a world renowned authority on thangka restoration and preservation. Thangkas were created to be rolled for portability. Although their construction was well suited for this, over many decades and centuries they become particularily susceptible to wear and tear. Karma Gadri thangkas have their own unique issues because their landscaped backgrounds tend to be applied with thinner layers of paint. With the support of the 17th Karmapa, Ann has initiated a campaign to preserve the treasures held in monasteries, nunneries, private collections, and museums. 
  • China and Tibet.
    • Principal photography in China will include various historical locations between Nanjing and the Western part of the T.A.R. with stunning aerials shot from drone-coptors.
    • We will also film at Palpung Monastery in Sichuan, the seat established by the 8th Tai Situpa where he revived and enhanced the Karma Gadri style. Kenting TaI Situ Rinpoche has given permission to film the magnificent works of art created by Situ Panchen, the 8th Situ Rinpoche, that are rarely, if ever, displayed.
    • We also have plans to obtain ultra high resolution visuals of the rare thangkas locked away in the vaults of another famous monastery of the Karma Kargu tradition.
  • Visual Effects
    • 15-20 minutes of the 90-105 minute film will be high production-value visual effects sequences. Using CGI the film will create animated incidents from the lives of the previous Karmapas, all done within a 'Karma Gadri' style.
    • A significant feature of the methods used will be that we have motion captured the 17th Karmapa's facial expressions. We will use them to animate 3D models of his previous incarnations.
    • The film will also use CGI to compress the highly complex and lengthy process of creating a thangka, beginning with the intricate sacred geometries that underlay the work and contribute to its spiritual impact (thongdrol) as the work is viewed.
The Project Personnel
  • His Holiness Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa is the advisor and authority on the contents of the film.
  • David Cherniack, the writer, director and executive producer, is a distinguished Canadian filmmaker with a long filmography of more than 60 documentaries on spiritual subjects for broadcasters, including six documentaries which feature His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

  •  Terris Temple, executive producer, presented the original idea for the film to His Holiness, the 17th Karmapa. He has been a thangka painter in the Karma Gadri tradition since the late 1960s.  He was a long-time student of the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa, and the 17th Karmapa has known him and his wife, painter Leslie Nguyen Temple, since he was a child at Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet, where they reconstructed the 40 meter Karma Gadri gö-ku between 1992 and 1997. In 2006-2007 they reconstructed the Norbu Drabche and are presently working on drawings for the Tsechur Drabche.  His web site 

  • Scott Ross, producer supervising CGI/Visual Effects, has won two Oscars from three nominations, (TITANIC, WHAT DREAMS MAY COME and THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON). Scott ran Industrial Light and Magic for George Lucas in the 1980's and in the 90's he started Digital Domain with James Cameron.
  • Zsolt Ekho Farkas, CGI artist. His web site is
  • Kris Belchevski, cinematographer and RED camera guru.
  • Mark Mackay, cinematographer and guru of a rare sort.
  • As well, there are the wonderful volunteers: Trisha Lotzer, intrepid legal advisor, Garrett Staab who works on this Kickstarter campaign, Shining Guo, who has done translation for us into Chinese.

Risks and challengesLearn about accountability on Kickstarter

The people behind this film are committed to seeing it through to its completion. As the producer/director I have made over 60 documentaries for broadcast, six of them with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. The producer overseeing the Visual Effects component ran Industrial Light and Magic for George Lucas and started Digital Domain with James Cameron to do Titanic and other Hollywood films, one of which, What Dreams May Come, won an Oscar for Visual Effects.


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