Patterns of Life Emerge in Petri Dish Macro Videography

Images courtesy the artist

In the ocean’s crushing depths, tiny protozoa called radiolaria leave intricate, highly geometric and patterned mineral skeletons. So fascinating are these little creatures that 19th century illustrator and biologist Ernst Haeckel, known for his colorfully hypnotic lithographs, even did a book of illustrations on them. Macro videographer Roman De Giuli’s latest video, Radiolarians, showcases similar organic patterns created by ink decomposing into thousands of microscopic dots. As eclectic as Haeckel’s lithographs, De Giuli’s microscopic entities are set in motion, fanning out into meshes before resting and finally disappearing into black voids.

De Giuli discovered this “organic pattern machine” quite by accident. Typically when working with liquids and colors for macro video projects, he has no concrete plan—it’s all a trial and error process that he hopes will yield something visually and conceptually interesting. De Giuli’s eureka moment, in this instance, came at the end of an evening session.

“With a pipette I added a last drop of ink into a messed up petri dish and saw this single drop expanding from the midpoint through to the edge of the petri dish before contracting in a fast reaction and decomposing into a mesh of thousands of microscopic dots,” De Giuli explains. “The dots were forming kind of dome, a complex mesh structure which transformed more over time and finally dissolved like stardust. But what I saw did not only remind me of a spangled sky and outer space: every single dot of the mesh was slowly moving before finding a rest position.”

While these fluids were in motion, De Giuli also noticed that the mixture showed complex shapes transforming one into another. Each new shape reminded him more and more of Haeckel’s radiolaria illustrations. Though he initially failed to repeat the effect, De Giuli eventually discovered that the trigger was rapeseed oil combined with a layer of special ink and a layer of alcohol.

Additional experimentation allowed him to “direct” a scene by using alcohol and water to initiate movements, while slightly tilting the petri dishes to give the liquids a particular directional movement. Video capture, however, proved a challenge, as the mesh of dots would begin subsiding into the oil immediately after the chemical reaction, making it impossible to focus properly.

“I had to decide whether I wanted to focus on the layer on top which was the first part of the reaction, or the dots which were sinking into the oil before dissolving,” De Giuli explains. “As I was not successful [in nailing] focus no matter what f-stop I tried, I decided to reduce the depth of the scene and started working with a sheen of oil covering the bottom of the petri dish.”

But color correction and grading did nothing to make the visuals pop. So De Giuli inverted the luminance and color channels, leading to the vibrant imagery in the video. Even with this process, di Giuli says a lot of sessions didn’t yield a single usable shot. While De Giuli’s process sounds incredibly time-consuming, the results are definitely beautiful and wondrous to behold.

RADIOLARIANS from Roman De Giuli on Vimeo.

Click here to see more of Roman De Giuli’s video work.

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