Sand Water Fire

personal project
SOULSCAPES_logo

One night after work in 1997, I went up to the beach, poured a can of rubber cement on my head and lit it on fire.

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That night sparked a chain of events which, 23 years later, has evolved into a series of short films about the journey of the human soul. An opportunity for my wife and me to share some thoughts with our kids on life, death, spirituality, etc.

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The first film, SAND WATER FIRE is the phase from birth to death. Among other things, it is a reflection on the importance of staying connected to our spiritual sides, regardless of what’s happening on our human sides. 

With that in mind… SAND represents the variety of human experiences which can serve to connect us to — or separate us from — our Higher Selves. WATER represents the Spirit World, where the ocean is the source of Souls. And FIRE represents one’s Ego, our sense of self which, if out of balance, has the potential to consume us.

Sand Water Fire

2020
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SAND WATER FIRE opens on a baby at the edge of the Ocean, her Ego descending in the form of a flame. After briefly wandering through the human world [represented by the desert], she is drawn back to the Ocean and immediately recognizes it as her origin.

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As a young child, there are moments of perfect balance between the spirit and material worlds, moments where she clings to the Spirit, and moments where she faces the unknown. This balance is the foundation from which to explore and to have the courage of being unafraid of failing — to see failing as an opportunity for growth. 

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As curiosity about the material world grows, the water recedes and the internal flame brightens. The stylistically-defocused edges simplify the detail and energy of the live action waves to reinforce the idea that reality can be interpreted many ways.

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Disconnected from Spirit, he is consumed by human concerns [sand], stares down death and is the self-proclaimed king of his land. The culmination of this trajectory is, eventually, ego death [head engulfed in flames].

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Reconnecting with the Spirit now shining from within, he reflects on the human experience. Integrating this awareness is a process that ultimately allows him to keep the ego in balance, keeping the flames in control at a safe distance

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Finally, returning to the world of Spirit, submerged in the Ocean and ready to begin the next phase.

SAND WATER FIRE with commentary...

BEHIND THE SCENES

For the most part, this was a found-art project — going back through decades of home movies to find shots that contributed to the story. Even the footage of my head on fire wasn’t really planned out as far as any underlying meaning, and obviously nothing can be orchestrated with babies and toddlers. Here are a few before and after images to help explain the meaning and process for some of the shots.

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For some of the shots, I changed out the background for sand dunes. Introducing the desert was intended to emphasize the world of “sand,” the world of human interests and experiences, some of which — our careers, social media, money, etc — can serve to separate us from our higher selves. It’s important to interact with that world, but staying connected to spirit gives a healthier perspective for how to do that. Also, the desert here relates directly to the story that unfolds in BIRTH DANCE, another phase of SOULSCAPES.
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I added a shallow depth of field for a few reasons… one, aesthetically I’ve always been a sucker for bokeh. Two, with lower resolution footage, it helps give the appearance of the in-focus sections being sharper. Finally, it was used to help obscure the tiny heinies throughout. The footage of the ocean is sometimes reversed to symbolize the potential for the spirit world to recede as we grow.
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Don’t be afraid to fail. While exploring, the child comes to the edge of the unknown — a dark, foreboding canyon that disappears the moment she takes that step forward. Many of life’s obstacles are self-imposed. Staying connected to spirit doesn’t prohibit exploration of the human experience, but rather allows for a broader context to shift “obstacles” to “opportunities.” At times, you will have to leap without knowing how you’re going to land. Face those fears and go forward boldly.
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Emphasizing that we come from the spirit world by making him of water, this is a technique I’d like to eventually apply to at least one shot in each of the other sections.
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Finishing a 4K project with SD content was a unique challenge. First, I pushed it as far as I could with today’s technology, using an AI program to upscale the footage. Then, I found that by overlapping the footage and adding a soft blur, I could get a much higher bandwidth of color and luminosity. I composited in 32-bit linear color space which allowed the light blooms and color transitions to feel more realistic. (It took a long time for me to realize how crucial it is to composite this way when trying to create the sunsets I love). Finally, I defocused the edges and added back film grain (so that anything out of focus enough would theoretically be approximate to footage shot at a higher resolution).
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Ironically, for the scenes with my head on fire, the only effects required were removing the guy that lit me up and a slight color correction. Overall, I pushed the footage of me and my kids closer to silhouettes since it’s not really about seeing us as individuals, but more about the collective human experience.
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The biggest adjustment in this section was the color correction and emanating rays. For a few shots, I did a quick 3D track of some skull geo to emphasize the multifaceted nature of our identities.
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Some of the underwater footage I shot years ago had really nice motion and patterns, but they were low resolution and pretty compressed. After running it through VideoAI and adding a light source and rays, it started to have more volume and feel more ethereal. And a vignette hid my feet when they would occasionally wander into frame.
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THE BIG PICTURE

Creating SOULSCAPES has had the added benefit of requiring my wife and me to investigate our own belief systems. There were two others who, unbeknownst to them, greatly influenced this process: the philosopher Alan Watts and the music group M83.

A consequential moment was when we first heard Alan Watts’ “The Real You.” His lectures got us thinking more… “What happens the moment after we take our last breath?” “Where were we before we were born?” “How are all beings in the universe connected?” And importantly, how could we best distill these complex ideas into visuals that our kids will be able to relate to?

M83 first breathed life into the project when their music seemed to dovetail perfectly with SAND WATER FIRE (and subsequently with each of the other phases) not only by having created the perfect emotional and lyrical backdrop but also influencing the content visually.

Ultimately, we realized that SOULSCAPES needn’t begin with birth and end with death, and 6 phases emerged. Many of the phases are not far enough along to share in their entirety yet, but here are their general descriptions, along with some very rough sketches and visualizations.

SAND WATER FIRE is the journey from birth to death. (Film at top of this page).

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STELLAR SOUL is the phase where one’s identity shifts from their human form to energy. As she is drawn to a distant light, my daughter will witness her body disintegrate into particles and her true essence emerge from within.

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STELLAR SOUL is the phase where one’s identity shifts from their human form to energy. As she is drawn to a distant light, my daughter will witness her body disintegrate into particles and her true essence emerge from within.

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STELLAR SOUL is the phase where one’s identity shifts from their human form to energy. As she is drawn to a distant light, my daughter will witness her body disintegrate into particles and her true essence emerge from within.

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GROWING SOUL stems from the idea that an infinite omniscient omnipotent entity (“God”) is limited in its ability to grow, to learn, to experience. At some point (paraphrasing Alan Watts) It would play the game of hide and seek… a sort of self-induced amnesia where It forgets Its true, divine origin and is reborn as a limited being, capable of experiencing loss, love, fear, pain and joy; of being convinced it could die. Although this whole concept was foreign to me, it seemed to make sense. It will be a dialogue between my wife and daughter (as spiritual entities) along these same lines. It ends with my wife suggesting to my daughter that she tap into the universal database of experiences to witness her human father’s experience.

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BIRTH DANCE.

After deciding to experience being human, my daughter wakes up into a dream depicting my human journey — a loose reference to Carl Jung’s collective unconscious. Over the course of the film, she begins to lucid dream, at times interacting with me, until deciding to take the ultimate plunge.

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"Birth Dance"

This is a very rough work-in-progress.

HOW THE PROJECT CAME TO BE

I can connect the dots to see that the project began when I set my head on fire in December 1997. I had recently seen a clip from a German TV station ID showing a woman with Christmas ornaments in her hair, rotating her head back and forth.

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From somewhere, the idea came to me that it would be cool if those ornaments were candle flames — dancing across the face casting shadows. If... in the midst of chaos, there was peace.

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I set out to figure out how to bring this to life and quickly realized that (for obvious reasons) no one else would likely be willing to set their head on fire. I did some drawings of how I envisioned a photo shoot and shaved my head leaving 7 braids. After asking some co-workers to shoot the footage, we headed to Pismo Beach at sunset — bringing along with some glitter, a jar of rubber cement and a cow skull.

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Hair isn’t as flammable as I thought and after a few unsuccessful attempts, we took the bottle of rubber cement, poured it over my head and set it on fire.

The piercing heat of the flames blinded me and seared my skin.  With no fire extinguisher around, I instinctively dove to the ground while people kicked sand on me to put out the flames. 

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Deep breath.

Invigorated, I then used pipe cleaner to extend the 7 braids straight out and, in a more controlled manner, lit them up again, which (years later) came to symbolize keeping the ego at bay.

The next day, I went into work and edited the footage to “The Host of Seraphim,” a fantastic song by Dead Can Dance. For the first time, the idea that started with flames and shadows dancing on my face began to have a spiritual component. An unexpected narrative had emerged — essentially that of someone coming to terms with their own mortality. I showed a handful of friends but mostly kept the video to myself.

In 2012, while immersed in a personal project, Rebirth of Gaea, I heard M83’s “Outro” and was blown away. When time allowed, I began editing “Outro” with the footage of my head on fire and some recent home videos of a trip to the beach, and they seemed to fit together perfectly.

I had started listening to Alan Watts, a philosopher who has an incredible ability to articulate timeless ideas, and my spiritual beliefs began to come into sharper focus. What happens the moment after we take our last breath? How could I visually represent this experience as authentically as possible? SOULSCAPES began to expand to two pieces, Life and Death.

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I have always been a big fan of John Langdon, the ambigram master who designed the ambigrams in Angels and Demons and for whom the main character in Dan Brown’s series is named. Nothing quite represents this idea of duality better than ambigrams, and no one does that quite as well as John, as evidenced by his “EARTH AIR FIRE WATER” ambigram.

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In 2014, I reached out to John Langdon and was surprised to hear back from him. He couldn’t have been nicer and designed the Soulscapes logo for me.

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At the time, I was beginning to incorporate more 3D into my workflow and decided to turn the SOULSCAPES logo into a 360 VR animation, again set to “Undimmed by Time, Unbound by Death” by M83.


Since then, several serendipitous moments have helped bring clarity to the scope and content of SOULSCAPES. For example, around the time I was struggling to figure out how to describe the process of self-imposed amnesia as we choose to forget our divine identity (the game of “hide and seek” that Alan Watts describes), I saw a Facebook feed where someone posted a dialogue about choosing to be incarnated on Earth and realized… “Yes! That’s it!” And then, upon realizing this would be the new phase, selected M83 in Spotify, hit random and the first song was… perfect.

When searching for the footage of my head on fire from the 1990s, I remembered an unrelated project for my daughter from that time which included footage of me walking in sand dunes. It was a project I never finished and had completely forgotten about for over 20 years, but when I brought those shots into the edit for BIRTH DANCE, it was inexplicably seamless with M83’s “Intro,” which was released a decade after I had created those desert scenes.

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SOULSCAPES is at the point now where SAND WATER FIRE in a good place, BIRTH DANCE is edited with limited effects, and STELLAR SOUL is story-boarded. Still so much to do, but we’re making progress.

Stay tuned and… Enjoy!

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+01 201 707 9630
jessenewman@mac.com
@RebirthofGaea

© Jesse Michael Newman, 2021