If you can drop the temperature of a chamber to -47 Fahrenheit and pump 2,000 volts through a needle, you can witness one of nature’s most gorgeous microspectacles, the growth of unique crystalline sculptures that measure just a fraction of a millimeter apiece.
The technical term is something like "ice crystal growth accelerated by electromagnetic charge," but before Words are Pictures spent four days in a basement recreating this lab experiment for Ryan Teague’s "Cascades" music video, they’d coined another nickname for the phenomenon: frozen lightning. It was a foreboding premonition of the dangers behind the project.
"From day one we had to overcome hurdles with the production, the cost, the feasibility of the project—some of this has never been done before, certainly not outside of a laboratory—and the reliability of the equipment we’d created," director Craig Ward tells Co.Design. "[We] did numerous tests ahead of the shoot and even spoke with a chap in the employ of NASA to iron out problems but, when it came down to it, we didn’t really know exactly what we were going to get, tests or no tests."
When filming started, the team encountered a big problem. The slight increase in the basement’s humidity from having two people in the room rather than just one as they’d tested trapped condensation inside the ice chamber, meaning that the entire mechanism needed to be disassembled, dried, and returned to temperature. Then amidst time-lapse shooting for four days straight (24 hours a day), one of the cameras burned out.
But the resulting footage was worth it, at least from the soft lower lumbar support of my desk chair. Watch as ice webs weave chilling patterns, frozen trees grow from thin air—a glimpse of something that, even if you can’t completely understand it, you know makes you lucky to see.
It’s an effect that’s so incredible that it almost feels ungracious to ask: What did frozen lightning have to do with Teague’s music-box-inspired track in the first place?
"When I first heard the track, winter was very much in the air and the sharp, twinkling notes called to mind falling snow and also a memory from my childhood of a broken jewelry box that belonged to my grandma," writes Ward. "The partnerless, plastic ballerina in the centre of the box would rotate tremulously to a sparse and lonely clockwork soundtrack that echoed through the over-wound springs in the base."
This music box motif is echoed most literally in the frozen ice cylinder about 1:15 into the clip. It’s absolutely beautiful and haunting.