The Real and the Surreal: Volcanos and Solar Eclipses: Jody Gillerman and Rob Terry at the Berkeley Art Center October 28,2008
by Richard Whittaker, Jan 25, 2015
Gillerman and Terry stayed to talk with an audience on the last day of the Berkeley Art Center's Small Film Festival in 2008. The entire evening had been devoted to their films of lava flows and solar eclipses. Just a few weeks earlier, in a remote spot in Siberia, Gillerman and Terry had filmed a total solar eclipse. Besides material from that event, Gillerman and Terry’s videos included material from Hawaii, Libya and Turkey. The imagery was so striking it left the audience in an animated state and eager to hear more about the filmmakers’ experiences.
Richard Whittaker: Well, this was just magnificent imagery to watch. I wondered, Jody, what are some of the origins of your interest in solar eclipses and volcanoes and lava?
Jody Gillerman: Let’s start with lava. I’ve always been interested in geology, but what’s amazing to me is melted rock. You think you’re walking on solid ground and then you realize, it could melt! When you’re on the lava fields where it’s really hot—you feel it first—and then you start seeing these glowing little cracks and you realize it’s rock, but it’s fragile. You could just punch right through it and its all this liquid base. It’s amazing. I mean, it’s the core of the earth.
Rob Terry: That’s precisely the places you shouldn’t be standing on! [laughter] And often we were standing on these places! It’s pretty dramatic. It makes one feel so insignificant.
RW: Yes. Just looking at these images, besides being amazed, I noticed that something quieted down in me. So tell us more about what it’s like to be there.
Jody: You mean with the lava?
RW: Either of these primal things, the lava or the eclipses.
Rob: It’s a feeling of surrender because these are events you have no control over. If we were so unfortunate to stand on a spot we shouldn’t have, we’d be gone in a flash, basically.
With the eclipse, well, it’s similar to 2001, the Space Odyssey movie when the apes are there with their bones and there’s this gorgeous monolith of totally outrageous proportions. The apes, what can they do? Sit there with their bones and throw them up in the air. It’s kind of like that. You’re just there witnessing.
Jody: The light is extraordinary! At ninety eight percent, right before you get to the totality, all the colors happen. Over the years, every time we’ve done this—we’ve probably used different equipment every time—some of the cameras pick it up and some don’t. It’s very hard to capture that, but it’s an amazing phenomenon.
RW: All around the horizon—360 degrees—it has that glow?
Jody: Yes. And there are different colors. There are different colors in the corona, which is different with each one. The Siberian corona was square.
Rob: But that’s because of government regulations for a certain space and size… [general laughter] The one in Bolivia was just all over the place.
Jody: It actually has to do with the solar minimum and the solar maximum. We’re in a solar minimum now and that usually means that the corona is less predictable and less regular.
RW: As I was watching, I was back in touch for moments with a feeling of wonder, and it occurred to me how rare it is in ordinary life to feel any connection with this mysterious reality.
Rob: I also think there’s a connection with the surreal, the real and the unreal. This color of light, the flavor of these eclipses, at a certain point it’s almost as if you feel you’re awake inside of a dream. The air feels thick. The color is not normal. There’s this feeling of anticipation, that something’s happening. All the natural sounds around go into some unique mode.
We were in Venezuela around a lot of bird wildlife and all the pink flamingos gathered together and all at once, just walked into the water and went into sleep behavior. All the spoonbills just took off at once and flew away like they do at night. Then, a couple of minutes later, they’re all going, Hey, Wait! It’s morning again! What’s that all about? [general laughter] Everything just goes a little strange for a little bit.
RW: It must be compelling to be there.
Audience question: What do you mean by “the thick air”?
Rob: I’m not sure what I mean. There’s a feeling of something in the atmosphere. It’s denser. The colors are richer. You almost feel like you could move between it.
Jody: You’re in it. That’s what kind of interesting. Everything turns these weird colors. It’s not like you’re the observer looking at the weird colors on the horizon. Everything is bathed in these strange colors. It’s very fleeting. You do see it gradually getting darker and this really surreal light happens right before what is called the diamond ring when this big shoot of light comes out.
Audience: It occurs to me there’s a similarity between that kind of heaviness you talk about and what you see in a solarized photograph. You do get a reversal, but there’s a medium gray that dominates the entire photograph.
Rob: I think there’s a correlation. Maybe it’s the resolution of our perception. Maybe it gets to the point where nightfall happens more quickly and this is more dramatic and more dynamic. Because of the interaction of the sun and the moon, there’s a certain weather that’s being created: the temperature is dropping, the humidity is changing. Normally, these things are all happening slowly and, in a sense, imperceptibly. But in an eclipse they’re happening very rapidly. The darkness just comes on like in the tones of a developing photograph.
Audience: On the soundtrack you had a lot of noise, but as the eclipse happened, I noticed how the birds and sound got quiet. How could you improve that?
Jody: Well the wind was so strong. Then the wind died down. It almost stopped. That’s real sound that you were hearing. I didn’t pull the levels down, which I easily could have done. And the sky was very cloudy, which we were very freaked out about. All of our scouting told us to go south, but we wound up going north because the weather looked terrible to the south.
But the sounds… It’s hard to say. It was really windy. And afterwards, in the credits, that was the real wind that had picked up again.
Audience: [same person] But there were other sounds, seemingly…
Jody: Yes. What happens is that it just goes completely black. And when that happens the birds, insects, whatever, are more audible. It’s like night. Insects, birds, all the animals, they just go into their night behavior. And then they get totally confused.
Audience: A lot of us have never experienced this and I was wondering if there was a chamber or some kind of interactive thing where people can go in and experience that? It’s hard to feel exactly what you’re talking about. It sounds unique.
Jody: I’ll tell you what we were thinking about. We had, between the two of us, six or seven cameras. Every time we’ve done a different set up, but this time we tried to get a large view. The idea is to recreate an eclipse on a planetarium dome. So that you could, essentially, experience it.
Audience: Will it get colder and quieter?
Jody: That would be great! [laughter] A lot of times on TV you see the eclipse, you see the sun, but you don’t see the environment so much. I think that’s because it’s really hard to get. We always shoot with multiple cameras and try to get that. It’s amazing when you think of how short the actual totality is and, in our case, how much we’re trying to do in a very short time. And this time, I got to look at the eclipse! Wow! I actually saw it! That’s because we had things a little more automated this time. When you’re constantly trying to shoot it, it’s very hard to actually experience it very much. It’s a real treat to experience.
Rob: The object is to experience it. I don’t know how you could recreate the experience without having been there. It’s just a facsimile to give you some sense of it. But really there are so many things happening, it’s really indescribable.
Jody: And it’s different each time.
Rob: People ask, why do you go to so many of them? They should all be the same. But honestly, they’re not—the environment, the culture, the atmosphere, the light, the place.
RW: That’s so interesting. Well, every one of your films clearly involves an adventure so can you tell us about a memorable moment from any of these adventures?
Jody: Bolivia. Bolivia, which we didn’t show because it’s a longer video. We were in the foothills of the Andes. We do a lot of scouting a few days ahead.
Rob: We were at fifteen thousand feet.
Jody: So you’re barely standing up! We were about two hours above Potasi. We picked the place we were going to be during the eclipse; this was the day before, and we came back for the eclipse. We didn’t even realize that we were about a half-mile from a Quechuan Indian dwelling. There was an entire extended family there.
Rob: Because they build their structures from the same stone that’s everywhere around.
Jody: They just blend in. It’s just beautiful up there. And when the eclipse happened, all of the sudden, we heard all this commotion, beating on pots and pans and dogs barking; they lit two huge bonfires. We didn’t know where to look. Do we look at the eclipse or at what is going on right nearby suddenly all around us? Whoa! This was one of their myths, what they were acting out in response to the eclipse. I don’t know they even knew there was going to be one.
Rob: No. They had no electricity. They’re a total throwback. Literally, there was nobody around where we were except the cab driver who had taken us up there. And at the end of the eclipse out of nowhere we see this straggly dog and this old man who comes up to us and we didn’t understand him. He was speaking Quechuan. Our driver spoke a little Quechuan and told us that the old man was worried that it was the end of the world. We told him, no, it was okay. We told him the sun was coming back and we tried to show him the monitor for one of our telescopes, but he didn’t want to look at that. He was very concerned about whether he could let his llamas out. So we gave him some candy and a solar filter and said it was okay.
Jody: It’s a spooky thing and, in a lot of cultures, it’s ominous. Not in all. It’s lovemaking in Australia and lovemaking in Tahiti.
Rob: But in India, there’s a…
Jody: …A demon, Rahu, who steals some elixir from the Gods to make himself immortal. But Surya, the Sun God, catches him and cuts off his head. Rahu’s head flies up into the heavens and the body dies on the ground. So Rahu is always trying to catch Surya the sun, and occasionally he does. When that happens, there’s an eclipse, but since he has no body, the sun just comes right back out of his body-less head.
Rob: When we were in India, this schoolteacher came up to us with his class and told us that story. He told us how this myth was used to explain the science of an eclipse —the orbits of the sun and the moon. It’s interesting, in India, they do feel that an eclipse is a bad thing. They advise people not to be in the path of an eclipse.
Jody: I think there are a lot of places like that. They think you’ll be “dewed on.” If there was something in the atmosphere that was going to coat you, that would not be a good thing.
Rob: So, if you were pregnant, you should be inside your house with the doors and windows locked. It was also interesting, because on our way to Libya, Jody had a speaking engagement in Turkey. We were in Turkey a couple of years earlier for an eclipse. And right after that eclipse, there was this huge earthquake, a lot of destruction. So when she was speaking in Turkey, there was a big discussion about whether there would be another huge earthquake after the eclipse.
Jody: They asked me if I thought there would be another huge earthquake after this eclipse. You don’t want to say, absolutely not! Even though there is reportedly no connection between the two.
Audience: How do you fund these trips?
Jody: We’ve done it all ourselves. We risk it.
Rob: It’s an enriching experience. Depleting from the bank account, but an enriching experience. [laughter]
RW: I love the way you included the man in sun museum in Russia playing that instrument. Tell us a little about that, the Sun Museum you found.
Jody: That was amazing. We were driving around in circles. Andre, this wonderful driver we’d found, whenever we’d hit a city, we’d get lost. Every single time this happened.
Rob: I asked Andre, “How long have you been driving?” And he’d say, “Oh, four months! Two months this year, two months last year!” [laughter]
Jody: But he was a really good driver!
Rob: That’s what she says!
Jody: He was! He got us there in one piece, and he went anywhere we wanted him to go. The Sun Museum turned out to be someone’s private apartment and Andre managed to find it for us, which was amazing. So we went upstairs and knocked on the door, which was locked, and they let us in. They have this collection of suns from all over the world. The guy who runs it, gives this performance on that instrument, if you’re lucky. It’s almost like tubular bells, but they’re flat. And he did it for us. You’re walking through his kitchen and his bathroom to get to other rooms that are filled with images. And he carves some of the pieces himself. He’s an artist. He collects pieces from all over the world, he and his wife.
RW: From where I sit, you two are intrepid adventurers. You described walking on a lava shelf and the next day it had fallen.
Rob: A week later. But it was unfortunate, because someone did get killed. It was from the footage of the second piece that we showed, which we called “Bubbles and Splash,” which is this absolutely incredible spot! We were right on the shelf at the same level as the ocean. Just totally mesmerized. As it got dark, I realized we were on one of those areas she was talking about. We were on little tiles and underneath was hot, glowing lava.
Jody: We always say, “We’re not going to be the last ones there.” We always are.
Rob: We were the last ones there. So we finally get back to what we think is solid ground. What a feeling of relief! And then, out of nowhere, this ranger comes and tells us “There’s a huge forest fire that’s coming this direction and the best posture is to dig a hole in the sand and put your face down in it to breath. So we followed him to get away from the fire and we got trapped with him and some other people up against this cliff with the ocean and a fire coming on.
RW: You’ve had some white-knuckle moments.
Jody: We were trapped there up against the cliff for two or three hours. What Rob left out was that we asked the ranger about the area we’d just come from. He said, “Nobody goes there. Why would you be stupid enough to go there?” But we’d already been there. So anyway, now we were on solid ground and this seemed…
Rob: Yeah. No problem. Then the Fire.
RW: And I know you had an interesting boat ride, too. Tell us a little about that.
Jody: The last time we were in Hawaii, the only way to get to a spot we wanted to see where lava was flowing at the ocean’s edge was to take a boat. So we took a twenty-two foot boat at dawn. It was pretty amazing footage that we got. The sea was very rough. We were the only ones in the boat.
RW: What was the captain’s name again?
Jody: Captain Crazy. [laughter]
Rob: At dawn we take off from a surfing beach. And you think, “surfing beach”… Why? Because there are HUGE WAVES!
Jody: So he says, “Hang on to the handles.” I look around. What handles?? We were sitting on a box with the safety equipment inside of it.
Rob: Underneath us. Not on us. So the little boat takes off really fast over these huge swells, and when we finally make it around to where the lava was coming down, it was incredible! Some places you’d hear this popping noise. And the captain would say, “Yep. That’s boiling water were floating on!” Being out there was pretty amazing.
RW: Well, I’m afraid it’s late and I think we have to wrap it up here. Thank you very much for a wonderful evening.