Robert Buelteman’s Magic Flora

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Do you know who Robert Buelteman is?  A while ago I read an article in Wired about Robert (the article is where I got the images), and I was so intrigued by his art and process that I had to contact him myself and tell him how great I found his work.

Robert is an artist of the utmost depth and skill.  He’s an artist working with light, electricity, nature, and an idea of using those three things to expose images that are hidden from our view by design.  Robert Buelteman creates images of plant life, but not with a brush and pigment, a camera, or a lens.  His images are exposed in total darkness with high voltage electricity.

Robert made an interesting comment in an article in Asian magazine “Photoworld” – he said that his art has more in common “with Chinese Brush Painting and improvisational jazz than it does with the current practices of photography.”

Robert’s process is almost as beautiful as the work that it produces.  In order to get the effect Robert creates, he has to “thin out” the subjects (the plant life) by scalpeling them down very thin to get the aesthetic feeling that he wants in the particular image.  They are then placed on a piece of color transparency film that’s covered with a diffusion filter (could be rice paper, ground glass, acetate, Plexi) laid on top of the subject to scatter light.  The “easel” onto which Robert composes his image is a piece of sheet metal between two pieces of Plexiglas, all of which is submerged in liquid silicone.  Oh, yes – and 40,000 volts of electricity that are hooked up through the plant subject, making electricity jump through the plant life and onto the sheet metal.  All of this is captured on the color transparency film.  Robert then “paints” the plant subject with a fiber optic lead no larger than a human hair using light onto the film.

It’s a trial-and-error process – Robert might do 150+ “takes” of each photo, trying to accurately catch the auras and make it looks how it looks in Robert’s mind’s eye.

The interesting thing to me about the process is the point where the gas surrounding the plant subject gets ionized.  At this moment, the gas is turned into a plasma corona of sorts, and the work takes on an almost Kirlian photography in some cases.  Robert’s process is different than the Kirlian style of photography (which is all blue); what I find very interesting is how the life of the plant is almost released and captured on film.  It’s like looking into the soul of the plant.

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I emailed Robert a little while ago, hoping to find out about the way he feels about the work, and some insight on him as an artist working with light.  He was gracious enough to answer some emailed questions – I’ve posted the exchange below:

JimOnLight:  How did you arrive at the conclusion to take such an interesting look into plant life?

Robert Buelteman:  I’ve been photographing nature for over 30 years as a black-and-white landscape photographer, and even though I had been very successful with my work, I became frustrated by the ordinariness of it all. Seemed everything that inspired me had been shot by so many others so many times that my art form had become an exercise in futility. No one SAW what I did – I desperately need a new set of eyes, a new way of apprehending life itself.

JOL:  Does your muse for this work come from a particular fascination or interest in your life?

RB:  I am interested in assisting people to beyond the strait jacket that life puts us in. Day in, day out, life has it’s way with us and we tend to become more dead, more asleep every day. My work is a wholesale rejection of the way of life that says “Nothing to see here, move along” – life is brilliant, life is precious, life is a privilege, life is a miracle. Those are the qualities I work to imbue in every photograph I make.

JOL:  Your works are amazing in many ways, but one of my favorites is the form of the work. It has a slight flavor of the Kirlian Photograhy style mixed in with something that must be specifically Buelteman – can you describe your process, both artistically and physically?

RB:  If these were straight Kirlian images there would be no color other than blue. I meticulously hand paint the subjects using a fiber optic probe the size of a human hair.

JOL:  When you look closely at one of your works, take “Avena Futua” in the Through the Green Fuse Collection for example, the observer notices a very ethereal feeling connected to the leaves and the aura of electricity. How much of your work do you see in your “mind’s eye,” per se, and how much comes from experimentation with the flora and the electricity?

RB:  You have selected the only pure Kirlian image in the entire body of work! And yes, it was a bit of a surprise when I saw that the intense discharge had super heated the leave causing it to turn red. The experience of making these images is very distinct from landscape photography – there is no sense of control – it is replaced by a serendipitous dance between myself, the subject, the vision I have for it, and the vagaries of the process.

JOL:  If you had any bit of advice for young artists and designers working with light, could you share a small bit?

RB:  I try not to give advice as I don’t think it is of much value, and it all sounds so trite:
listen to your hear
think for yourself
follow your dreams
believe in yourself or no one else will
damn the torpedos, full speed ahead

See what I mean? Now, if you can be those qualities instead of merely speaking them, there’s some real value in that.


I am so very grateful to get to connect with this man!  Check out a few more of his images (thank you, Wired) and please check out Robert Buelteman’s studio site with more of his lovely work. Robert has a great new book out of his work in this series.  The book is called “Signs of Life,” and is available from Light Language Publishing.  Check it out – free shipping through the end of the year!

Robert sent me a new work, and I have posted it directly below.  The work is called “Rainbow Chard,” as it is the Buelteman process on a piece of rainbow chard, which is almost as delicious with garlic as it is with light and electricity:

rainbow-chard-robert-buelteman

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Thank you so much, Robert!  I think your work is spellbinding.

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Moving to A Private Server! Excuse the Downtime Tonight, If Any

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JimOnLight has grown to the point where we’re trying to find better ways to make the site perform better.  Tonight, we’re moving the site over to a private server to see if performance issues improve this evening.  Thank you for reading so much that we have to make changes like that!

While we’re moving the site over to the private server tonight, we might have some times where the site is either flaky, or not loading at all.  Please excuse the inconvenience, we’re trying to make the site faster and rock harder.  Maybe in the same fashion as that of a hurricaaaaane.

JimOnLight.com readers ROCK!

Phish and Red Rocks: An Excellent Way to Spend the Evening

It’s no secret that I am a Phish fan.  I love the innovative and creative grooves that “the boys” lay down every night, and as a lighting designer, I am always a huge fan of what Chris Kuroda is doing behind the lighting desk.  I was at the Hampton Run and interviewed Phish lighting designer Chris Kuroda, but I’ve missed everything else.  When I’m at LDI, they’ll be playing in Cincinnati.  Foiled again!

I read this blog called Hidden Track, from Glide Magazine – a Youtube user named gdoucette78 has uploaded some amazing multicamera videos of the Red Rocks run from Phish at the end of July.  I love having videos of live shows because of the ability to see how certain songs were treated with respect to light and orchestration of the cues – it’s like having the ability to research that moment in lighting time!

I have attached a video below from gdoucette78’s list – he has a ton of videos from that weekend.  If you enjoy the music and want to see some cool lighting, check out the rest of his videos.  Thanks for posting these!

(this video is of the song “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” or 2001.  This might be one of my favorite “lighting songs” of all time)

Pandemic Studios Rumored to Close Today

When I was in grad school, I took this class called “Digital and Physical Light,” which was a grad seminar class between the lighting designers in the School of Theatre and the grads in the ACCAD (the Advanced Center for Computing and Design).  The ACCAD kids were the future of animation and digital lighting – Maya people, animators, etc – and it was interesting to see light from an animation side.  I gained a lot of respect for those digital lighters that semester.

The above rambling is relevant to the article because a bunch of animators and digital lighting designers are rumored to lose their jobs today – EA Games’ developer Pandemic Studios in LA is possibly laying off 200 people today.  This is in part to some cutbacks EA is having.  Isn’t it weird to read about light in video game news?!

EA just ponied up $300 million bucks to buy “social game developer” Playfish, a company that develops games for the iPhone, Android, and Facebook platforms.  Why they would do that seems fairly obvious, being that it’s a huge market and all.  James Riccitiello, EA’s CEO, said that “EA is performing well, with quality, sales and segment share up so far this year.  We are making tough calls to cut cost in targeted areas and investing more in our biggest games and digital businesses.”

It sucks that the holidays show up, and people lose their jobs.  It sucks any time of year that people lose their jobs – it just sucks even more for me when it’s cold out.  Thanksgiving and Christmas are around the corner.

You gotta love the economy.  I wonder how those Goldman Sachs bonuses are going to be this Christmas.

Thanks, Gamasutra.

Late Night Article: The Leonid Meteor Shower is Tonight!

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I just read that the Leonids will be visible tonight!

For those of you who are not major nerds like me, the Leonid meteor shower is a remnant from the comet Tempel-Tuttle – apparently way back in the mid 16th century a bunch of dust and ice got free of the nucleus of the Tempel-Tuttle comet, creating a band of essentially “comet garbage” to trail along it.  The space.com article on this year’s shower gives a little history on the Leonid shower and its relation to the Tempel-Tuttle comet:

The Leonid meteors are debris shed into space by Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which swings through the inner solar system at intervals of 33.25 years, looping around the sun then heading back into the outskirts of the solar system. With each visit the comet leaves behind a trail of dust in its wake.

This cycle’s shower is supposed to be a bit above average – NASA scientists are predicting between 20 and 30 meteors per hour if you’re in the Americas.  Asia will have a better show this time, with between 250 and 350 meteors per hour.  It’s not gonna last long though, so get your meteor shower watching in around 1am PST (4am EST) for about 3 hours.  Let me know how it goes, because I am not gonna make the time!

(you see, I’ll be sleeping)

NASA posted a basic star map on where to look for Leonid streams:

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These meteor showers have the potential to be huge – back in the 1830’s, the Leonids provided spectators with reports of meteor frequency of between 100,000 and 300,000 meteors an hour.  Can you imagine what that must have looked like?!

If you do stay up to see the Leonids tonight, enjoy the view!

LDI in Orlando: T-Minus 90 Hours…

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LDI LDI LDI LDI LDI!

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This is one of my favorite times of year – lighting industry people coming together to network, say hello to old friends, geek out over stuff you’ve been watching for a while, and generally get to think about light and lighting for an entire weekend, non-stop.  As a super lighting web nerd, I get to see how the industry is progressing, and I get to see how we are all doing with the progression of the industry.  FUN!

Remember – Saturday night is the JimOnLight.com and iSquint.net Tweet-Up at the Peabody Hotel Lobby Bar.  We’re sending the word out conference-wide:  if you are at LDI and you like light, come to the Tweet-Up! Come say hi to us, and come meet other like-minded people who just want to ROCK!  We’ve got an invite post at Tweet-Vite, check it out and let us know if you’re coming!  The time is 8pm, and there’s an announcement at 9pm!

If you’re at LDI 2009, come make this a memorable one – we’ll see you at the JimOnLight.com and iSquint.net Tweet-Up!

DIY LED Brake Lights for Bicycle Handlebars

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I read these DIY posts about hacking every day stuff and sometimes I wonder why no one thought of this sooner!

Instructables user WyoJustin has posted an article about making a set of LED brake lights for the ends of the handlebars on a bicycle.  It’s a fairly simple project using an arduino microcontroller and a 3-axis accelerometer.  Clever!  Check out the full Instructable here.

Thanks Make!

ATTENTION LIGHTING STUDENTS: WYSIWYG Now Has A Student “Perform” Version

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I had a great conversation with Gil Densham from Cast Lighting yesterday.  We’ve been talking about the upcoming release of WYSIWYG R25 and some of the new features that will be implemented in R25, as well as all kinds of developments that the Black Box system is having.  Gil also informed me about a new Cast Software offering – a limited time WYSIWYG student version.  Normally the student versions of software are fairly limited, whether it is in features or a big watermark somewhere on the drawing or something equally as pervasive.  However, the student versions usually have a reduced price tag too, so the balance finds its way in there somehow.

The student pricing, also called Cast’s “Perform SSE,” is a full version of the Perform suite with visualization.  You will get a dongle which is your property – the dongle will come authorized for the student version of the suite, which includes everything but tech support and updates.  What I understand the details to be is as follows:

  • it’s the full version of Perform.  Viz, console connectivity, the works.
  • the student WYSIWYG suite is $499
  • the $499 that you pay as a student is fully applicable to a full version when you’ve graduated – essentially you’re getting the program for nothing if you plan on upgrading at the end of school.
  • you get a dongle that you can travel with, and you’re not limited to using a student version in the computer lab.
  • you do have to prove that you’re a student currently enrolled and taking classes.
  • It’s essentially a full version of R22, which has all of the great viz and beam stuff.
  • the student WYSIWYG will have a 1000 channel limit.

I love my WYSIWYG.  After my eyes, it is my number one lighting design tool.  If you’re a student, and you want to get in on this, email learn@cast-soft.com and give them the hey-what’s-up.  If you ever have questions about WYSIWYG, please don’t hesitate to contact me through the JimOnLight contact form, just put WYSIWYG somewhere in the subject.

Cast also has some cool student pricing on a specially packaged student version of WYSIWYG Design, and their Event Planning and conceptual design package, Vivien.  I haven’t ever talked about Vivien much, but it is a cool product.  I’ll talk a bit more about this in the near future, but for $199 and a $30 “initiation fee” you get one year of the software as long as you’re a student.  The cool part of that money is that if you were to buy four years at $199 a year, at your graduation they will credit you every dime of that money towards upgrading to the full version.

You’re going to use a lot of software in your lives to design lighting – some of it is cool, some of it is a waste of your time.  WYSIWYG has taught me more, saved me more time, and saved my rear end more times than I can count.  That’s why I write these posts.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Controllable Properties of Light, Part 1: Intensity, Distribution

I love to think that at this moment in time in America, there could be tens of thousands of students learning how to characterize the controllable properties of light.  No matter what industry of light a student goes into, the fundamental properties of light are the same.  As lighting designers, we have so many things to know about light – and right when you think you have it figured out, light will do something completely unexpected and remind you that you don’t know everything!

So, what are some controllable properties of light in a design sense?

We can control the brightness of light, or the intensity, in many different ways – a dimmer, a douser, by using filters, louvers, you name it.  Put your hand in front of the beam of light and see what happens – the brightness goes down.  The sun is certainly less bright in the dawn than it is at noon – we know the property of intensity from a very young age.  Our bedrooms as children were certainly less freaky during the day than they were at night.  The reasoning behind why they were less scary during the day is a common theme between these first two properties of light – telling a story, or giving information.  When it’s bright, we see more detail.

Here’s a comparative study of intensity, comparing 20%, 50%, and full beam brightness:

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The intensity of light is perhaps the most important controllable property – without it we could not see, and what’s the point then, right?  It affects every usage of light – every one.  Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it – well, it really is!  I challenge you to find one use of light where intensity isn’t a factor.

The reference to the sun brings up another property of light that we all become familiar with very early in life, whether we realize it or not.  The placement and spread of the light, or distribution, is a controllable property of light that gives the thing being illuminated its dimension.  Distribution refers to direction and quality of the light.  Keep in mind that when I say “light,” I am not referring to lighting fixture – I am referring to the light itself.

I’m sure if you’re studying lighting design (at least on a theatrical scale), you’ve seen this sketch:

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Essentially this is a representation of a variety of ways you can light someone on the stage, conceived in plan view – straight on front light, angled front light (or McCandless style frontlight), top light (down light), straight back light or angled back light (key and fill), and side light.  Now obviously these arrows do not represent the only directions acceptable for lighting something or someone on stage – quite the opposite, actually.  My mentality as a designer is that there are very, very few places I can’t put a light.  When it really comes down to it, you can affix a lighting fixture pretty much any place that is legally safe to do so.  This is, of course, my mentality – I try to be true to the design when figuring out where to place lights and not to what is easiest and most convenient.

One thing you might have asked yourself with that first sketch is “what about the height of the light in relation to the thing being lit?”  You have probably also seen this sketch:

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Again – a very basic and rudimentary representation of some commonly used directions (in theatre and dance, for example) for side light on a subject or thing.  The lowest arrow represents a close-to-the-floor, grazing the ankles of the dancers kind of direction.  Lighting fixtures placed in this orientation are lovingly referred to as “shin busters,” derived from the incident of a dancer running full speed offstage and slamming their shins into the fixture.  The second arrow up is the direction called “mid high” or just “mid” – aimed at the waist essentially.  The next arrow is a “head high” or “head,” and is pointed at – you guessed it.  The last arrow represents a “high side light,” which is a direction that can be pretty much at any angle.  Combinations of these ideas can create wonderful dimension.

Besides giving sculptural detail and accentuation of the subject or thing being lit, the direction of the light also gives information and can help tell a story.  When the sun is low in the sky, you obviously know that it’s either rising or setting (depending on how late you stayed at the tavern), and this is a glaring difference than the sun in its noon position.  We can, with the direction of the light, reveal or hide architectural detail – brick facades for example, when lit well, can accentuate the brick texture to create a beautiful surface.  If the direction isn’t appropriate, those bricks become a flat wall.

When considering direction, there are some relatively rare (comparatively, of course) directions that should not be overlooked.  What about light coming from underneath something, from directly behind it?  Like this:

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Light from low and behind a subject can really speak volumes – the evil character in a drama, someone down on their luck, you name it.  Light from underneath and you add depth in places that can be surprising and unexpected.

One of the properties of light in the distribution category is the light’s quality.  This modifier pertains to the general “feel” of the light itself.  Is the light soft-edged or soft focused?  Is it crisp with a sharp edge around its pool?  Does the light have texture?  Is it diffuse?  Is it “punchy” like an ACL PAR at a concert?  One of my favorite qualifiers of light comes from my graduate mentor, Mary Tarantino at The Ohio State University – Mary always said that light can be “lumpy,” like the pool of an older Altman beam projector from back in the day.  Those fixtures were great – the lumpiness that Mary spoke of came from the reflection of the lamp off of the reflector that would project on whatever surface the light was lighting.

Here are some visual examples of light qualities.  Please note that these are obviously digital renderings from my visualization program, WYSIWYG:

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This is not the be-all-end-all of qualities of light, mind you.  These are some very broad generalizations to help the inexperienced gain a little insight.

No matter what field you’re in as far as lighting design goes – corporate, product, theatre, concert production, dance, opera, musical theatre, film, architectural, or industrial lighting – never stop experimenting with basic properties of light.  You might discover something you have never seen before!