RADIOLARIANS – An Artform in Nature

I am deeply interested in forms, structures and organic patterns, thus the morphology of organisms is a fascinating topic to get into studies about the blueprints of nature.

Any artist, designer, architect or biologist deals with this multi-purpose subject because it offers a plethora of inspiration and ideas. Ernst Haeckel’s “Artforms in Nature” is a very popular monograph, reason alone because nobody else ever did what he published. The incredible amount of extremely skillful and detailed illustrations of unicellar organisms and life-forms still is a class of it’s own. His book “Radiolaria” (1862), which is part of “Artforms in Nature” was accompanied by 35 copper plates which all can be found as high resolution scans on this website. If you never seen some of Haeckels works, take a break and have a look, it is absolutely fascinating!


“Radiolaria”, 1862, Ernst Haeckel, Plate 34

Now, what has all this to do with macro cinematography (besides the fact that I own this book…of course)? By accident, I stumbled over a truly organic pattern machine which made me develop my next experimental short RADIOLARIANS.
If I start working with liquids and colors from scratch, I usually do not have a concrete idea or plan, it’s an identification stage, a trial and error process until you discover something you like to hang on. I always get exited if I see something I’ve never seen before. This “first time ever experience” gets my powertrain for the whole project from start to finish. In this case, it was at the end of an evening session with more or less no result. With a pipette I added a last drop of ink into a messed up petri dish and saw this single drop expanding from the midpoint through to the edge of the petri dish before contracting in a fast reaction and decomposing into a mesh of thousands of microscopic dots. The dots were forming kind of dome, a complex mesh structure which transformed more over time and finally dissolved like stardust. But what I saw did not only remind me of a spangled sky and outer space: every single dot of the mesh was slowly moving before finding a rest position. While doing so, the mixture continuously showed complex shapes, transforming one into another. These shapes more and more reminded me of Haeckel’s illustrations of unicellar organisms in “Radiolaria”. And this was the start of the project I am writing about right now.

I failed to repeat the reaction until I found the trigger. It was rapeseed oil, a layer of alcohol and a special ink which caused the effect. After working out the mixture of liquids, I started experimenting and developed a procedure which allowed me to (more or less) direct a scene. I used alcohol and water to initiate movements and also slightly tilted the petri dishes to give the liquids a direction. I faced a lot of problems concerning video capturing as I was able to repeat the reaction easily, but the mesh of dots started to subside into the oil immediately after the reaction was over and it was impossible to focus properly. I had to decide whether I wanted to focus on the layer on top which was the first part of the reaction, or the dots which were sinking into the oil before dissolving. As I was not successful to nail focus no matter what f-stop I tried, I decided to reduce the depth of the scene and started working with a sheen of oil covering the bottom of the petri dish.

Freeze frames, not inverted.

After a bunch of shots I switched to Premiere to analyze my clips. I was excited about the patterns and formations, their movements and disappearance. But I was overall disappointed with the contrast and dimension of the scenes, it just looked to flat and pale and was far away from the vivid color compositions I like. After correcting and grading the video material in several styles, I still wasn’t satisfied and decided to try something different. I simply inverted the luminance and color channels and was blown away immediately. The content looked vibrant and punchy and I discovered a lot more patterns which previously were hidden.

Freeze frames, inverted.

This method worked extremely well with overexposed shots and blown out highlights. But there was a critical range within the white clipping was literally perfect. Below or above it, the shot was more or less ruined because clipping in post leads to different results than clipping while recording.

I finally got a strategy and a really big problem: I was only able to see the potential of a shot in post, not during recording as the most important transformation was the inverting of the video channels in Premiere. This made the whole shooting process slow and troublesome. Although it was frustrating sometimes when finishing a session not having a single usable shot, but it was worth the effort because every now and then I was able to collect stunning footage and totally fresh compositions.

Stay tuned for the release of RADIOLARIANS and a follow up post with more details on my project.

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