The Magical Science of 'Cymatics': Directing Sound & 16K Volts of Electricity
The best thing about science is that to the uninitiated, it can look like magic.
My eyes were mystified when Nigel Stanford first showed me a handful of cymatic videos online. Sand snapped into symmetrical patterns as though they were being conducted by some omnipresent being just off screen, water seemed to defy gravity and freeze in place and fire danced to music as though it had a soul.
Nigel’s pitch was that he wanted to take these cymatic instruments and create a piece of music that had a direct correlation with physical elements.
I’ve known Nigel for almost eight years now. We’re both from Wellington, New Zealand, and we’d recently found ourselves living in New York City. I’d worked with him previously on a music video back in New Zealand, and he’d also sound mixed and composed some extra music for my first New York short film La Loteria.
The term collaboration gets tossed around a lot in filmmaking, and I’ve worked with a lot of talented people in the past, but Nigel is pretty unique in that circle of friends. If I woke up at 3 in the morning with some nagging concern about the project, Nigel would take my call and probably be thinking about the same thing. As far as collaborators go, Nigel is the kind you want -- fiercely intelligent, motivated and willing to negotiate between our two distinct visions.
It only took me a few minutes to sign on to Cymatics. Check out the video below.
We got started in June of 2013, researching cymatic instruments and learning more about audio frequencies than I’d ever thought was possible. Nigel tended to take the lead on the science, whereas my focus was on creating a thematic throughline with each of these instruments. I’m not a big fan of the “band playing instruments” types of music videos, so I always try to add some narrative or visual device to push my videos beyond simply being filmed performances.
We spoke about the idea that each instrument was part of a monastic ritual which involved characters creating a sequence of sounds through physical matter, building in size and scale over time. The final moment involved a character transforming his body into a cymatic instrument via a Tesla coil to complete the ritual.
What does the ritual accomplish? We decided to leave that question unanswered, but left in one clue which pays homage to Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.
One important fact that often gets overlooked is that Nigel wrote the track from scratch after we’d developed our instruments. In a sense, the video inspired the music rather than the other way around. He would prompt me with buzzes and sounds based on each visual element as we continued through pre-production. Nigel was particularly pedantic about making sure that each note had a precise visual correlation, often down to the frame and microsecond.
On a freezing December Saturday morning, we began rolling on the first instrument, the Chladni plate. You can see an overview on each instrument in these behind the scenes videos.
Though we ran into several technical problems throughout the two day shoot, the months of research and preparation paid off as we were able to problem solve almost every minor technical deviation including frequency variations and frame rate mismatches which caused the instruments to misfire.
But there was one instrument we hadn’t had an opportunity to experiment on: the Tesla coil. Somehow despite our scheduling, we drifted later and later into the night without switching it on. Soon, it was close to 8 pm on Sunday evening and the time had come for Nigel to put on the faraday suit.
I’d always imagined the final moments of the video to be a beautiful chaotic mess with fire, water, sand and lightening all firing in different directions, creating a cymatic symphony. In order to achieve that, Nigel would need to don his protective armor, a faraday suit that allows the wearer to be struck by the electrical discharge and not be killed.
Nigel needed to wear the suit as he played each instrument and be zapped by a mini Tesla coil. Bear in mind that the suit weighs around 30 kg (66 lbs.) and Nigel often had to jump up and down as the music played.
Needless to say the lengths of our friendship probably got tested that night, though I had a great time calling for the tesla coil to fire more electricity as Nigel nervously played drums.
For the final shot I wanted to see one of the characters standing next to our large tesla coil and jump into air as the electricity discharges through his body into the ground below. We were shooting on the Phantom camera at 1000fps, so we needed to co-ordinate the shot with a long speedy dolly move to get some parallax between the tesla coil and the character as he leaps into the air. Nigel wasn’t quite as interested in being subjected to my ongoing takes especially for such an athletic jump, so our on-set PA Michael Provencher agreed to take the hit for the team.
After suiting up, we hit him with electricity about eight or nine times.
Now, this may qualify me as some kind of sadist, but the shot was completely worth it. As he leaps into the air, the tesla discharged exactly as we wanted it to, sending a stream of electricity into his chest, through the faraday suit and into the ground below. Timed with the dolly move, the shot is a perfect closer to the video.
The study of cymatics often spills over into broader ontological questions about the fundamental nature of the universe and the presence of the divine. Though I’m not a religious person, it’s easy to understand how some would see the symmetrical patterns of a chladni plate as evidence for a higher power. I’m not really in a position to answer that question, but all I know is that for such an ambitious shoot and with such a unique premise involving so many interrelated elements, we sure had a lot of luck on our side.
Be sure to check back tomorrow for Part II of this behind-the-scenes look at Cymatics, in which DP Timur Civan breaks down the video's cinematography.