Matthew Rankin hails from Winnipeg, a city he describes as a paragon of failure. Rankin trained as a historian, and his experimental shorts often home in on gloomy chapters in local history: the flood of 1950, say, or a doomed war hero. This film – ironically, a collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada – plucks its subject from abroad, but the theme of misfortune remains. Though instrumental in the development of our electrical infrastructure, the Serbian-American physicist Nikola Tesla never really converted his visionary ideas into financial success. Rankin does his legacy justice with a film in which sparks literally fly.
The Tesla World Light conflates a few events in Tesla’s later life, by which point he’d earned reputations for both intellectual brilliance and wild eccentricity. His plans to develop a utopian system of electric power transmission had foundered when his backer, one J.P. Morgan, pulled out. Dejected, the scientist retreated into private delusions, and ended up falling in love with a pigeon. All this is related in a narration compiled from Tesla’s writings, while the scientist (Robert Vilar) and his bird interact in a claustrophobic room lit with fiercely expressionistic light displays.
A charm of animation is that the medium can change to embody the subject. The story of a beach can be told in sand; a film about a former typist can be made on a typewriter. Tesla, naturally, gets the electric treatment. Like most of Rankin’s works, this one is a hybrid of techniques: Vilar is animated in pixilation (stop motion applied to human actors), while light painting is deployed to conjure the semi-abstract patterns. Using long exposures, Rankin’s team filmed flashlights, fluorescent lamps, light-emitting diodes, and around 15,000 sparklers. They shot in black and white on 16mm film, largely avoiding digital trickery. If the effects look computer-generated, that’s just testament to the skill behind them.
Other experimental filmmakers have used light painting to create febrile moods – take Takashi Ito’s hypnotic Thunder, which Rankin cites as an influence. In The Tesla World Light, though, the flashes seem to express Tesla’s very mind – its inspirations and agitations. They also evoke synaesthetic visions, which Rankin believes Tesla experienced. Reflecting on his work, the director has said, “What is the history of our most extreme emotions? How can this be documented? That is more the vocation of the artist than the historian.” Emotions are at the core of The Tesla World Light, in the visuals as well as the narration. This is that rare thing: a film that becomes more moving as it pushes into abstraction.
The message appears to have got through to audiences, as The Tesla World Light has been a hit at festivals. After premiering at Cannes in 2017, it went on to win around a dozen awards, and made Toronto International Film Festival’s annual list of the best Canadian films. Rankin is now finishing a live-action feature, The 20th Century, about a former Canadian prime minister. If you thought Tesla was quirky, wait till you meet this guy: he fell in love with a shoe.