We spoke with Ruben Van Leer about 'Symmetry,' his explosive upcoming film about particle physics.
Inside CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the particle accelerator where scientists are studying the tiniest building blocks of the natural world and peering at the remnants of the explosive birth of our universe, an unlikely group of individuals in suits and construction helmets burst into dance. They are part of Symmetry, an upcoming film that fuses opera, choreography, digital art, and physics to tell a deeply existential tale around the basic questions asked by all curious humans: who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? Today, we’re premiering a teaser of the massive multimedia piece, above, which will be screened at the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam on March 14 as part of the Cinedans film festival and at the NewScientist CERN festival later that same week.
“I didn’t want to make a documentary to explain or understand modern physics in general, but rather interpret the complex material this institution is presenting,” director Ruben van Leer tells The Creators Project. “And this is also what for me an opera film could do; give space for the audience to make up their own story, with their own imagination and make a journey like [the main character] within themselves: a tiny, personal, world changing quantum-story.” van Leer and his team wanted to research how they could connect multiple levels of movement, including music, sound, animation, data clouds, and camera work, into a single visual experience.
The first challenge van Leer faced was crafting a film script around dance, because he could find no precedents from his research. He met with choreographer Lukas Timulak, a former dancer for the Netherlands Dance Theater, and together they hammered out a story that would involve an inaugural dance performance inside CERN. Played by Timulak, the main character Lukas is a scientist/dancer who, when struck by an inner voice, played by soprano singer Claron McFadden, is suddenly thrown off balance from his rational studies. On a quest for a unifying theory, he is transported by McFadden’s voice into an alternate dimension, a “landscape of endless possibilities,” where she teaches him about the timelessness of dance, music, and love.
Bolivia's largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni, is almost as high as the depth of CERN's detectors and colliders, says Van Leer, which makes for an incredible metaphorical contrast. In the film, once Lukas spins through the Collider, he ends up in the Uyuni mineral landscape, a pure, monotone, and serene plain that transforms the sky above into a mirror image. This is Lukas’ inner world, he adds, where he grapples with the decision between infinite love and the smallest particle.
From Chris Nolan’s Interstellar, to images in Stephen Hawkings’ books, and to physics lectures by Richard Feynman, van Leer knit all of these influences together into the visual language for Symmetry. In addition, he and his team were drawn to the data visuals of CERN’s data, the digital animations of particle collisions. To bring that research into the artwork, van Leer collaborated with Berlin-based generative art studio OnFormative, who captured the dancers with six Kinect cameras and morphed them into a 3D data cloud of their bodies. Then, Belgium physicist Frederik VanHoutte created a tool to transcode the CERN data collisions into usable 3D paths of explosions and Tom Geraedts digitally animated the protagonist. The combination of visuals became representative of “greater insight.”
Art and science are similar worlds in that they are filled with uncertainty, yet at the same time, they are expanding creating endless new routes for exploration, explains Van Leer. At the same time, they’re also different: “[Scientists] can put forward a theory and insight with great conviction. But when they find out their theory was mistaken in the first place, they are also the first ones to admit, and go straight back to the drawing board to refine the idea. For artists this is really difficult. We got a big ego, and we need this ego to create and express ourselves.” The meaning and significance of the word “symmetry” in the two worlds was the perfect name for the film.
At the heart of Symmetry is the notion of time. van Leer feels that we're in an era where it no longer means the same thing. With big data and technological advances like the internet, time travel, in a certain sense, seems possible. With the film, he wanted to connect the past, ancient “primal arts” such as dance and song, with the future, contemporary scientific innovations. “Maybe time is just a memory. And stories set the mental clock,” he says.