“Planet Earth, but on acid.”
That’s how filmmaker Cyrus Sutton pitched his latest project, short film I Am This.
That idea captured the attention of Sebastopol, CA-based company Guayakí Sustainable Rainforest Products, which makes yerba mate beverages and also devotes its resources to stewarding and restoring South American Atlantic rainforests.
Sutton, who launched his career with a surf documentary at age 19, shot I Am This on two continents — including stunning locations in Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Oregon, and Hawaii. The final product is a mesmerizing trip across the Earth and through the cosmos. Credited with Sutton as the film’s co-writer is astrophysicist and educator Dr. Jon Swift.
A 15-minute cut of I Am This is currently screening in Austin, TX, at a mobile planetarium set up at Native Experiential Hostel. Sutton will tour the film in the planetarium to other parts of the U.S. later this year.
Below, you can watch a 3-minute version of I Am This, then read on for Inverse’s interview with Sutton about how the film was made.
How did you get involved with Guayakí for this film project?
I work with them making films. I pitched this project, and it started as “Can I make a trippy nature film? Something like Planet Earth but on acid?” They are a really supportive and creative company and gave me the time and resources to hire my friends. One of them, Christine Peterson — has worked on blockbuster films — she did some compositing along with friend Jill Black. My buddy and neighbor Foster Huntington does a lot of practical effects, which are effects that are not CG. And he has a movie studio called “Movie Mountain” in rural Washington. I was inspired by what he was doing. So I just tried to figure out how I could shoot this in a way that didn’t involve 3D animation.
How did you create those nebula-like images with inks?
It was just food coloring in milk with dish washing liquid in glass lab dish. Combined they create swirls, and I inverted those colors.
Some of those shots reminded me of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain [which used microphotography to create starscapes]. Was that film an influence for you at all?
Totally, that film had a big influence on this.
Tell me more about the music for I Am This — I saw that it involved harnessing the electrical currents of plants.
[The composer] Mileece I’Anson does plant sonification. From what I’ve gathered, she hooks electrodes to plant foliage, then translates their signatures into pitch-shifts and composes from there. She does a lot of atmospheric soundscapes for AR and VR installations. And then my colleague Daryl Chonka created the ending anthem on MOOG synthesizer.
How did you set up the shot of electricity running through wood that looks like lightning bolts?
I had a bunch of scrap wood because I was re-finishing my basement, and I think it was oak that had the most interesting grain. You make the designs with positive and negative alligator clips wired to a microwave transformer. You then wet the surface of the wood, with baking soda dissolved in water. The current spiders out following the grain of the wood. The coolest thing is it creates a wider branching pattern on oak than other woods I tried, almost emulating the way oak trees fractal out their limbs.
Did you and your crew shoot all of the film yourselves, or are there some shots you sourced from elsewhere?
I think there’s about five or six stock clips, microscopic imagery or the scans of the brain and we licensed a couple clips from Brett Foxwell who stratacuts wood. Nature shots were taken by myself and Hayden [Peters], who shoots for National Geographic, he and I went to South America, and I did a road trip across the Western United States shooting most of it ourselves.
What did you have to do to make your footage work for displaying in a geodesic dome?
Well, that’s been my life lately. You basically center crop 4K footage, so you’re losing much of the screen. I feel like normal filmmaking is about focusing the viewer’s attention on certain things through depth of field and framing. In a planetarium, you take such a small part of an image, and then it blow it up so incredibly big. It spreads things out. What I found is if you try to focus the attention of the audience on any particular thing, it just falls apart.
Shots that I thought would look great look horrible, and some shots that I thought wouldn’t look unexpectedly cool— its a big learning curve and I love that. We just got the projector in the planetarium set up. I’m going in there as much as I can because I’m able to see what things look like in that space.
What was your collaboration with Jon Swift like?
He’s a really bright guy. I wrote the script out as best I could, after researching online and he guided me on what was factual and added some things that I had no idea about. I am not a scientist but I think Jon and the team of people who helped on this all tried to make something that creates a sense of awe and wonder for what surrounds us.
Do you have a favorite shot in the film?
No, there’s so many I like for different reasons. I do like the one where I poured milk in a speaker and used cymatics, and then put that in the shot of the lake. I like that shot because I climbed many miles up this steep Sierra mountain pass to get it, so it’s got some sweat equity.
What do you hope audiences take away from the experience of watching I Am This?
For me, it was fun to make and a challenge. The more I learn about the Earth and the universe, the more I can comprehend the connectedness of it all. I Am This is an attempt to share that feeling.
Want to see I Am This on the big screen? You’re in luck as Cyrus Sutton is taking the film to select cities in a mind-blowing experimental fashion. Projected inside a 20 foot geodesic planetarium dome, viewers will be enveloped in a 360-degree universe of stunning visuals and animations. Visit guayaki.com for more details.