From the first time he heard about synesthesia, Nigel Stanford was fascinated with seeing sounds. Stanford, a musician from Wellington, New Zealand, had seen a documentary on the phenomenon—in which people’s sensory and cognitive pathways in the brain get crossed—and was amazed by people who are overwhelmed by auditory response to the bright lights of Times Square, or children who see colored auras around their parents’ faces as they speak. He would learn that synesthete musicians like Pharrell and Devonte Hynes claim to see music represented as colors.
The fascination inspired Stanford to make Cymatics, a music video that uses a pair of high-tech cameras to capture classic science experiments engineered to visualize an original song he had written. Stanford had just done the soundtrack for Tom Lowe’s film Timescapes, a time-lapse film featuring the night skies of the American Southwest. While he was frustrated by his lack of control over the visuals, he saw the potential in the way the film was marketed.
“Seeing how you could put something on Vimeo, get a trailer out, and a couple of million people will watch it…it was cool,” Stanford admits. “And I wanted to get something more for myself.”
Stanford was working on a new album, and had been fascinated by watching videos of experiments in cymatics—the study of visible sound vibration—online. Plenty of people had filmed experiments, but the videos were typically artless and featured one experiment at a time. Stanford wanted to combine multiple scientific phenomena into a single narrative paired with his music. He knew he would need help with the visuals, so he recruited his old friend Shahir Daud, a director and editor at MTV Networks. But while he had a concept and a director, he still didn’t have the song.
“We did all these experiments and found the notes that would work for the visuals,” Daud says, “and then Nigel would go away and write a piece of music that would work for those visuals.” In the video, each experiment is triggered in some way by Stanford’s music: magnetic pulses triggered when his synthesizer activated ferrofluid, the liquid in a petri dish affixed to his speaker rippling in time to the music, Tesla coils activated by an audio signal shooting bolts of electricity. Because different sounds would create different displays, Stanford had to write music that would induce esthetically pleasing visuals.
Some of the equipment for the experiments could be rented, but much of it was custom-built, and each one had its own quirks that required consideration. They discovered, for example, that the Chladni plate (a vibrating plate that makes patterns with sand) they had hooked up to Stanford’s synthesizer requires long, sustained tones to create the visual patterns. They collected seven experiments, including Nikola Tesla’s famous coils and a plasma ball, incorporating them into the video—and therefore, the song—in ascending order, starting with the experiments that used the smallest equipment, and moving to those that made the biggest visual impact. Each part builds upon the other’s into a crescendo until they are all being played simultaneously during the song’s climax. Since Stanford plays all the parts of the song on record, he and Daud cast body doubles. When the shot called for close-ups of his face, they composited multiple images of Stanford with the frame, making for an ironically more “honest” depiction of how the music is made. They perfected the experiments as Stanford finished writing the song, made storyboards for every shot and assembled a team for a two-day shoot at The 1896, a studio in Brooklyn, NY.
On the recommendation of photographer/director Vincent Laforet, Daud hired cinematographer Timur Civan, who used a combination of vintage glass and high-tech sensors to define the video’s visual esthetic. Almost everything had to be done in-camera, because other than the few composites of Nigel, there were no computer-generated images—everything you see in the video happened in the studio. Civan would prove helpful in solving the technical challenges of capturing the experiments’ fleeting moments of beauty.
“Some of the things are spectacular, but they’re over in a fraction of a second,” Civan explains. “Mainly the ferrofluid, and the electrical components of the Tesla coils. The lightning bolt in the air, to your brain it’s a few seconds, but to the camera it’s really only up for 1/100,000 of a second or something. So you have to shoot really high frame rates to try and get it spread over two frames, so you can cut all the air out.”
Civan and his crew took an entire day to prep the lights at the massive studio. They blanketed the warehouse space with light so the camera could move freely throughout with minimal adjustment of the equipment. He shot with a RED camera sporting the new 6.5K Dragon sensor, and a set of Russian Lomo square-front anamorphic lenses. The ancient coatings on the Russian lenses added dramatic flares, and the anamorphic ratio let them pack multiple Nigels into the frame.
To capture the fast-moving experiments, they worked in footage from the high-speed PhantomFlex camera, capable of capturing 1280x720p video at 1000 frames per second. For example, the bolts of electricity from the Tesla coil moved so fast that Civan would have to assemble key frames from the high-speed footage on set to make them sync with the music. Daud and Stanford mostly stuck to their original storyboards when they edited the video, and they finished and graded the video in 4K, with the 720p footage from the PhantomFlex scaled up.
When Cymatics was released, it quickly went viral, earning a Vimeo Staff Pick and racking up more than two million views across platforms on the Web. Stanford says he’s received offers to perform the music and the experiments live, and the pair hope to build on the momentum and make another music video, but it may prove difficult—Cymatics took almost year to assemble, edit and grade after the shoot in December 2013. Daud, for his part, is already starting to think about scaling back his day job in TV.