With a calculated blending of photography, science, and practical effects, photographer Scott Portingale captures and presents dynamic images of macro worlds and chemical reactions all within a square inch of a petri dish.
In Portingale’s new experimental short film and image series titled Chemical Somnia, audiences are immersed in a hypnotic and vivacious macro setting that is also paired with music from an unconventional acoustic string synthesizer.
In his garage-turned-laboratory and studio, the self-taught photographer attentively mixes elements to illustrate the dynamic nature of fluids and phase transitions, that were expressed in his film and images.
“In Chemical Somnia my original intention was to explore many more aspects of chemical reactions. It did not take long before I realized the safety issues associated with turning my garage into a lab and opted to keep it safe and manageable to not become the Wile. E. Coyote of experimental cinematographers. A lot can go wrong when you are an untrained chemist with a library of chemicals and a hair-trigger for experimentation,” Portingale says.
Treading with caution and determination, Portingale dove into his experimental cinematography despite the failure of past projects.
“I never intentionally set out to make experimental films initially. My experimental work has been a result of unrealized narrative aspirations. I developed a documentary on plant intelligence which also did not get funded past the development phase, but for me, the desire to pursue the imagery remained and lead to a body of new work that includes plant time-lapse, and macro cinematography on natural subjects be them biological, chemical, and/or physical,” he says.
“I call this new body of work, ‘experimental natural history’. So in a sense, my subsequent work has been a regrowth of sorts when larger projects fail to launch. I pick up the pieces from the debris field and make something else from it.”
To assist in the dramatic shifts, reactions, and overall tone displayed in his short film, Portingale sought out composer Gorkem Sen after discovering him on YouTube.
“An algorithm drafted somewhere in Silicon Valley introduced us,” he recalls. “There was a timeless feeling to the instrument he invented, the Yaybahar* (an acoustic musical instrument described as a ‘real-time acoustic string synthesizer’). I initially thought it would be perfect to pair with a quantum sequence I’m working on. Imagine riding an atom like a horse. I did and it sounded like Gorkem playing the Yaybahar. When the right film came along I did not hesitate to reach out to him about the project. His music really elevated the project. Music and sound design is a very underappreciated aspect of cinema.”\
The Yaybahar gives Portingale’s macro universe a deeply dramatic and flawless effect, an effect and process that wasn’t without its unique challenges.
“Dust was my biggest challenge. It is everywhere. And when shooting liquids always end up in a frame. The next time I shoot a project like this I will create a dust-free environment and wear long sleeves to cover my constantly shedding hairy arms. So many shots were ruined or had to be addressed in the post. The audio track behind the raw footage is embarrassingly profane,” Portingale explains.
Portingale uses a Blackmagic 6K camera and a Nikon D850 for the longer duration time-lapse sequences.
“What I really liked about the Blackmagic camera was the intervals I could shoot under 24fps, like 4fps, and 8fps. Raw imagery is taxing on Hard drive storage. Being able to dial in unconventional frame rates was key for this project. I always find myself looking for options in equipment that may have potential to use it in a different way that wasn’t intended.”
Unconventional is a familiar approach for Portingale in his execution and set-up. With a workspace filled with peculiar objects and simply anything that ignites creativity.
“My material library is extensive and I have a hard time throwing away what may have a use in the future. A part of my brain is always looking out for something that MAY be of use and it is a bonus if I find a lot of one thing. I have a box of orange ping pong balls, 4 spherical plastic beer kegs, and 40 lbs of tiny glass beads that make painted road lines glow at night. If it’s colorful or bends light I just can’t help myself,” he says.
In his work, Portingale hopes viewers can appreciate his efforts toward, context, frame, light, and timing. While also kindling their curiosities and closer observations of our shared natural world.
“My favorite imagery to create was the metal displacement sequences. A replacement reaction occurs when a metal-aqueous liquid and a solid metal are paired. In chemical Somnia, I used zinc and an aqueous compound, silver nitrate. This reaction to an unaided eye doesn’t look like much but under a small amount of magnification, a rich textured world emerges. When looking into the monitor a sense of awe is definitely present,” he continues.
“Events like this are happening around us all the time beyond the narrow reach of our unaided senses.”
Feedback about the series after its debut has been more low-key than Portingale has expected, but is currently shifting, which he has been grateful for.
“It meant the world to me when a few filmmakers I have a lot of respect/love of their work shared it on their Instagram stories,” he says. “I was fortunate (and extremely grateful) that Vimeo chose it as part of their Staff Pick curation and that PetaPixel is writing about it. Now at least the project will get in front of way more people than I can reach alone that may be interested in this work.”
As for what’s next for Portingale, He’s keeping busy and being a bit secretive.
“I carry lots of secrets…on the details but, I’m about to release another experimental natural history film, with two more in production, and a narrative stop-motion project close to post-production.”
*Yaybahar is an acoustic musical instrument invented by a Turkish musician Gorkem Sen (Turkish: Görkem Şen), who describes it as a “real-time acoustic string synthesizer.” In its online review Classic FM called yaybahar a “genius monstrosity” that makes “thoroughly bizarre, terrifying and delightful noises.”
Image credits: Scott Portingale