Tuesday, August 01, 2006

(Avant-Garde Blog-A-Thon) Liquid Crystal Films

I debated over what I was going to write about for this blog-a-thon (organized by girish). A friend of mine told me that she thought some people might want to know the science behind my liquid crystal films, so here we go:

My work is made using a technique known as cross-polarization. This technique utilizes two Polaroid filters which are placed at right angles to one another. Under normal conditions, this blocks out most light.


Most light waves, seen head on, propagate in all directions; up and down, side to side, etc. Polaroid filters work as "prison bars," blocking out all light except that which is propagating in the direction of the alignment of the "bars." This is called polarization. Incidentally, this happens when light is reflected, as well (this is why your polarizing sunglasses block out "road glare" which is reflected, polarized light).

By placing a horizontally aligned Polaroid filter in front of a filter that is vertically aligned, one can create a sort of "light prison" trapping all light between the two filters. To visualize this, see the diagrams below:

When both "jail bars" are aligned vertically, a vertically vibrating light wave can make it through both sets of "bars," while all other vibrations are blocked.

When a horizontally aligned set of "jail bars" are placed in front of vertically aligned "jail bars," the vertically vibrating light wave that makes it through the first set of "bars" will be blocked by the second set, preventing the light from "escaping" from its prison!

Artists are often required to bend the rules. I bend the light waves, liberating them from their polarized prisons!


By using liquid crystals, of course! Liquid crystals and some other materials display a property called birefringence (double-refracting or light-bending) Liquid crystals are materials that are not quite solid and not quite liquid (despite what we are taught in school, there are more than three phases of matter).

Using these "double refracting" materials, I can selectively bend the vertically aligned light waves that make it through the first set of "bars" so that they are vibrating in a horizontal direction and can pass through the horizontal "bars!" Through experimentation and study, I can choose my pallet by choosing the materials I use, the severity of a bend, the harshness of a twist, or the depth of a scratch. In effect, instead of painting with different colors of pigment, I'm painting with different wavelengths (colors) of light waves.

"Enough, chatter, egghead! Show us the results!"

Fair enough:

Stills from "The Light Touch Dust Nebula" and "Callisto"

From "The Light Touch Dust Nebula"

From "Callisto"

In these films, I used temperature sensitive (thermotropic) liquid crystal paints (available through Edmund Scientific at a reasonable price). This is the stuff that makes mood rings and those rainbow thermometers work. To obtain different colors in "Light Touch," I blew on the paints (and nearly passed out). For "Callisto" I decided to use an air blower and the evaporative effects of rubbing alcohol (much better).

Stills from "Europa"

This made a HUGE mess! The liquid crystal at play here is soap, which doesn't like to stay in one place for too long! Soap is a lyotropic liquid crystal (changes based on its concentration)

Stills from "The Counter Girl Trilogy"

I unveil my newest films!

From "Snake Oil"

From "Anti-Rides"

From "GWP (Gift With Purchase)"

This is a very special little trilogy for me. This film features three different shades of lip gloss that I got from my job as a makeup counter attendant. This particualr liquid crystal...(drum roll)...cholesterol! Can you imagine using that as a selling point? "Ooh! You'll love our new lip gloss! It contains green tea extract, Vitamin-C and a suspension of thermotropic cholesterol in its chiral nematic phase!" Which, I guess, quite a few of the cosmetics companies employ (click here)!

I have worn it, and yes, it does taste "greasy." Here is its "before" picture (this was the shade I used in "Anti-Rides"):

You can see how nicely it refracts the light...

The images in "GWP" show what this liquid crystalline material looks like when simply lit from above. In "Snake Oil" and "Anti-Rides" the material is cross-polarized to even further isolate and exploit the colors.

If you would like to see more examples, please click on this link to my site (or click on the film image to the right).


Tom said...

Absolutely beautiful. I suck at science, but that was a fascinating look into your process. My question for you: How does this "manipulation" fill your frames with meaning? Do you find that certain materials express your intentions better than others, certain light manipulations house the feelings you prefer? Or is this process somewhat random (and experimental), whereby the process of creating and recording is the whole point?

I would love to see these frames in action. Nice to find your site.


seadot said...

Thanks, Tom! This might be a long comment. I guess it would be easier for me to just say, "yes," but I will expand:

To me, the entire process of catching these lights in ordinary household objects is just one manifestation of something I've done my whole life: search for magic in the mundane. As a quiet, tiny little girl (always the shortest), I often felt the urge to say, "hey, look down here! I matter too!" To make bright, colorful, magical art pieces out of the bits of clear plastic or soap scum one finds in the trash seems...important, somehow.

I'm not sure I always try to fill frames with "meaning" before starting a project. A lot of that comes through as I work. But...I guess I do, though, now that I really stop to think about it. Like the lip gloss- the company I worked for took all of the joy out of makeup (which should be fun, imo) and tried to convince me to manipulate women into hating their own faces. Finding this treasure was a way for me to reclaim my wonder and love of self, which lies deeper than the crap they tell you to put on your face (though, I do stress that this can be fun and expressive too, but they make you feel that it is a necessity and that it can only be done "their way"- I almost got fired for dying my hair red, for example). I manipulated their product in a way that was meaningful to me. I might add that these funky lip glosses were hidden away- not even displayed with the rest of the colors!

Many of the materials I use house feelings and emotions. Certain materials look better when scratched. I've done this in very angry moods. Others look better when delicately placed, like the little film bits in my film Gossamer Conglomerate, which was my attempt at liberating the material of film through light. Others look better when stretched under extreme pressure. I tend to use those a lot! Hmm...

And there is the random, experimental aspect of it too! I have to try new things out all the time. I've got loads of stuff sitting around the film bench, but I haven't found a place for it yet, in my soul.

There are clips of my films on my web site, but I don't think that is the best way to view them. If you send me your address, I'll send you a DVD. I'm about to ship out a bunch of long-overdue disks!

Thanks for reading!

acquarello said...

Wow! May I just say how refreshing it is to read someone operating from a similar academic wavelength? :) I'm a NASA engineer working thermal systems design (I also have an M.S. in Space Physics), but my specialty is optics and lasers, so I think the idea of someone rummaging through Edmund Scientific to make avant-garde films is just plain brilliant! This is one of the reasons I'm attracted to Patrick Bokanowski's work as well, he plays with optics to create unusual patterns out of ordinary objects.

I especially love that first still from "The Light Touch Dust Nebula", you could put it side-by-side with that famous HST image of the Eagle Nebula and it would look as though it came from the same composite pass. The soap experiment is quite interesting too, the first one looks like metallurgical striations, but the second one almost looks neural and biologic.

seadot said...

Wow, thanks! Astronomy is very near and dear to my heart. I have a series of films called The Galilean Satellites that I made right at the end of the Galileo mission. I'm on the JPL site daily gleaning inspiration from all the telescope images (particularly the non-optical wavelength 'scopes). Cheers!

jmac said...

Seadot, I had no idea how complex this process could be! I am fascinated by the cross-polarization technique. And what is that glass chamber used to create the irridescent refraction of "Anti-Rides." What exact tools are you using? It looks like a laboratory!

I love the stills from the "Counter Girl Trilogy." Especially th midnight blue and green of "Gift with Purchae." Oh, it makes my heart pound. I cannot wait to see these films!

Thank you for writing about the liquid crystal fims!

seadot said...

Actually, the "glass chamber" is the packaging it came in- a hard, clear plastic lip gloss tube! That's the lip gloss itself that is doing all of that refracting (all of the individual liquid crystals and their orientation).
For "Anti-Rides" I painted a surface with that lip gloss and polarized it. I'll send you a print!

Michael said...

Seadot, this a great post (and glad to have found you via the blog-a-thon); it's about the very process of, as you say, finding the "magic in the mundane," which I think is one of the many purposes both of good art and good criticism. It's not everyday that one gets to read a first-person account of how a filmmaker goes about creating something, so thanks for writing this up. And as an amateur shutterbug who is still learning to manage light (the essence of photography, really), I found this very interesting.

jmac said...

It's amazing how mysterious lip gloss can be! How marvelous!

jmac said...

P.S. I woke up this morning thinking about the "Anti-Rides" still. I would love love love a print! I'd also like to send a dvd to you of my film to video (FTV), The Garden Dissolves into Air!

HarryTuttle said...

I'm fascinated by the hypnotical potential of such physical phenomena, I could watch this stuff for hours ever changing and developping. I really like your experimentations, I wish I had your equipment to play around. What is the scale of what we're looking at? Is it magnified a lot? Looks like microscopic observation into matter.

The films on your website look wonderful, I notice you screened them all over the place, even in Paris! I hope to get to see them on the big screen on day.
Thanks for joining the blogathon, this insider explanation was very informative.

You might be interested in Dali's pseudo-scientific film : Impressions de la haute Mongolie, where he films with special lighting a macroscopic view of a gold pen corroded by his urine, and improvize a surrealist story about the scenery he discovers there. But you probably saw it already. ;)

I'll have to read your thesis on Truffaut.

seadot said...

(catching up):

Thanks, michael and harrytuttle! I'm glad you found this post valuable to your own works. I was afraid that writing about my own process would be too "self serving" for a blog-a-thon.

jmac- can't wait to get your DVD! I'm trying to determine the best way to make prints (it's kodachrome). It's a little trickier here in Colorado!

harrytuttle, this stuff is magnified, but not quite microscopic. I'm just using a plain 'ole 16mm bolex on a J-K optical printer (which I first started using at Millennium Film Workshop in NYC). I'm filming about...a foot or so from the field. The end result on the big screen is, of course MUCH bigger than "real life."
And actually, I don't think I've seen that Dali film (though I might have read about it)! I'll have to check it out.

Squish said...

After the success of this Blog-A-Thon, I decided to host one of my own. Drop by and see if you'd like to be a part of it:


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