Starre Vartan January 21 2018

It's Electric


It's like a riddle: What is usually unseen, but has dramatic, visible effects on the world around it? What is both as old as the earth itself, and integral to the most modern life? What keeps our hearts pumping, and can also kill us in moments?

Electricity has long been one of humanity's great mysterious forces. Most of us learned how it works, but don’t really understand it—we know enough to keep it at arm’s length, a little fearful, respectful. Yet, we depend on electricity so completely most of us cannot imagine living without it. All of this familiarity mixed up with mystery, topped off with a dollop of fear makes this an ideal subject to explore in film.

These filmmakers have done just that, via three mediums: Wood, water, and the human body. How are they changed forever by electricity’s forces?

15,000 volts & Path of Least Resistance by Melanie Hoff are companion films—in each, we watch as 15,000 volts of current is applied to a flat wood surface. The results feel like a kind of magic—they are completely surprising. Start with “15,000 volts,” and watch closely as the current surges into the wood, and strange designs appear. It seems that the large, flat wood surface is being carved by the electricity—or is it the other way around? Is the wood acting on the electricity, pushing it one way, then another? The current cannot travel freely, but instead flows like water through an obstacle course. It’s both mesmerizing and unexpected to watch the new creation make itself in front of the camera’s lens.

In “Path of Least Resistance” we don’t have a flat plane, instead it is a repeating square path of wood; Here, the 15,000 volts “completes a circuit through the surface of wood by navigating around non-conductive barriers,” but even though we have seen this before, in the previous film, this is different. The electric tattoos upon the wood stop and start in strange places, popping up unexpectedly, and forming connections with surrounding branches. It moves and grows and the trails darken until the wood resembles the roots of the tree it once was. Brought to life, by electricity.

Path of least Resistance (left) & 15,000 (right) - Melanie Hoff

In 25KM2, director Jana Minikarikova breaks the fourth wall almost immediately, as the viewer is told that the narrator’s voice we hear is not that of the man pictured, but another man hired to sound “convincing” so you won’t think the story is made up. But we are expected to go along with our self-assured guide, and we do, chuckling at his comic asides. He is too good-natured to question.

In sepia tones, we learn that the man has figured out how to make “hydrometerological eco-jewels,” and that he does it by harnessing the power of lightning. He is even going to show us how.

But one day, in the course of creating his art, the bolt from the sky hits him, instead of his jewelry, and it changes him forever. “It is a metaphor of power that could change lives,” explains Minikarikova, who shot the film on 8MM film. His life altered by the electricity, the man can no longer live as we all do, and must sequester himself in the woods—though he can come out if he dons a special helmet. This sounds like self-banishment, but it isn’t, as the final frames of the film reveal that now, he can give much more than ever before. He is able to delight us all, as he revels in his newfound power, bestowed upon him by electricity.  

25km2 - Jana Minarikova

Cascades by Craig Ward and Linden Gledhill eschews alchemy and magic for science. After all, the beautiful white structures we see growing before our eyes, like a city pulled from a far-north ice world would never have been seen if not for the curiosity of scientists about the vagaries of water crystals. How do they form? What causes them to change shape? “Without the application of electricity and the scientific research which has been applied to the study of ice crystallisation, Cascades could not have been created,” says Gledhill.

And so, we can see exactly what it looks like, in microscopic detail, what happens when “electromagnetic fields, sub zero temperatures and 2000 volts of electricity,” come together to create ice needles, which are “the star of the piece,” according to Gledhill, who explains how it works: “The high voltage creates  ions which stream out of the tip of  a needle which in turn bring supercooled moist air with it.  The water vapour condenses at the needle tip and freezes into long ice needle fibers.  It's these needles which you see bend towards earth with a dramatic elegant motion.  

The glorious result is something that seems alive, somehow maybe a little magical after all.  

Cascades - Craig Ward and Linden Gledhill

About the author

Starre Vartan is a former geologist who is now a science and environment writer. She's cowritten screenplays on climate change, the power grid and the first Mars landing for HBO, Discovery and CBS respectively. Her favorite films include The Fly, Logan's Run, the original Planet of the Apes, War Games, and Brazil. 

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