Aurora – Lights of Wonder

Kwon O Chul / Metaspace, Republic of South Korea

Film review by Volkmar Schorcht, Jena

A movie bound to make polar light addicts.


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The way we get to know auroras, aka polar lights, is rarely ever from our own experience. We look at them on photos or watch them dancing in a time-lapse video. To know what makes these magic lights in the heavens so attractive, however, you need to have seen this movie. Kwon O Chul puts them onto the dome for us – authentically, in real time, emotively – und stirs up our desire to experience them in nature. The film answers many questions. What thoughts may these heavenly dancers have provoked in people generations before now, who had no explanation for the green and red glows? What actually causes them and their display of colors? Where on Earth could one watch them best? By the way, auroras can be found on other planets, too: Saturn, Jupiter and even Mars adorn their atmospheres with glowing rings.

Though presumably unintentional, it is apt nevertheless, for the subject of auroras to be directly related to „High and Round“, this year’s festival motto. Anyway, the aurora zone forms a large oval area above the poles in the upper atmosphere.

»Aurora – Lights of Wonder« is a convincing documentation with many outreaches into the genre of scientific edutainment. Done in an exceedingly professional manner, it is a fulldome experience that engraves itself on one’s memory. It is not by mere chance that auroras have become a subject of current interest that is capturing planetarium domes: camera technology is at last capable of recording those filigree light curtains in digital form. With the solar activity maximum diminishing again, the chances to see spectacular polar lights will diminish – a fact that has added to the present zeal of photographers and moviemakers.

The Film is informally divided into chapters, which are linked by a professional narrator with a pleasant, sonorous voice. The impressive movie records of northern lights were shot at Yellowknife, Canada. The night-time scenes are apt to whet the viewer’s appetite for the spectacle in the original. Seldom does a documentary fulldome film emanate as much emotionality: „The impression of this striking display may touch your heart and stay with you for ever.“

A distinct change in the imagery heralds a chapter that looks back at the folklore and worldviews of indigenous peoples that have no knowledge of how northern lights originate. Two-dimensional animations, arranged in several depth planes, tell us about the faith of North American tribes who see in northern lights the dance of the ghosts of the dead, or snow swept to heaven and made to glow by the tail of the Arctic fox, while people in the Middle Ages believed them to be messages from God. Auroras were given their scientific name by Galileo Galilei, who related the red light, rarely seen in Europe, to the reddened sky at dawn and called it „Aurora Borealis“ after the Roman goddess of dawn. Sensibly, the animations make use of medieval and renaissance drawings and paintings.

The chapter on the origin of polar lights starts with the Sun with its chromosphere emerging behind the visitors‘ backs. In a simple graphic animation, the viewer is immersed into a stream of high-energy particles and follows it on its path towards Earth. This part of the animations is less effective. A bluish Mercury and a rather pale Venus disappoint the viewer who elsewhere has seen excellent images of these planets. Moreover, the crawling movement of the particle stream can hardly represent the original. It is a pity also that the stream is restricted to the diameter of the Earth’s magnetic field, which may impart a faulty image of particle radiation. At least, the animation makes it clear that an interruption of that radiation is responsible for Aurora’s quick and discreet vanishing.

From a cosmic viewpoint, it is easy to locate places on Earth that are eligible for observing northern lights. The auroral zone extends from the north of Canada via Iceland to the north of Scandinavia. The animation of the ring of auroras encircling the Earth’s North Pole is exceeded, though, by the luminous phenomenon itself as recorded in simply admirable movie shots, which are accompanied by tranquil, melodious vocal music. By the way, all shots are completely free of stitching faults.

Northern lights change in appearance much quicker than is commonly expected. Watching them is worthwhile throughout the night, even though the most wondrous spectacles last a few minutes only.

Der 11-year cycle of sunspots, known for a long time, was soon interpreted as a change in solar activity.  This interpretation is verified by contemporary space probes observing the Sun. Though merely touched upon by the movie, the satellite animations are worth seeing. The last chapter takes the visitor almost unawares to a vantage point above Saturn and its polar lights and, finally, in a most original flight „below“ Jupiter, to the bright aurora surrounding the pole of this giant planet. Auroras, we learn, are not something exclusive to Earth.

After convincing 25 minutes, the script suffers an inconsistency at the end. The flight across the Milky Way into intergalactic space is out of place – just as inappropriate as the assertion „We signal our presence to the universe with the radiant lights of Aurora – the lights of wonder“. Here, the author of the text seems to have got out of his depth.

Still, without ifs and buts, the film excellently visualizes the phenomenon of polar lights and enlightens us about their nature. Despite a few graphic shortcomings, every visitor of age ten or over will grasp the essential patterns of their formation and appearance, and will take home a considerable gain in understanding.

»Aurora« has been produced explicitly for dome projection and with masterly consideration of its critical aspects. While oriented to a main viewing direction, the script does not fail to integrate the entire dome and to surprise viewers with action behind their backs. The film’s special esthetic appeal and authenticity is largely due to the nature shots with illuminated tepees, supported by the original sounds of heavy footsteps in the snow, barking dogs, and the cheers from the people enjoying the celestial spectacle. No doubt, the movie culminates in the bright, crown-shaped lights of an auroral substorm, captured in unrivalled shots that ought to fascinate every viewer. Consciously or unconsciously, these scenes profit from their emotional appeal, an artistic element that is rarely found in educative documentations.

The polar light shots are based on a specially developed multi-camera technology, which for the first time permitted recording in real time and 4k. Perfect stitching and postproduction to diminish noise, enhance color saturation and deblur the images certainly constituted an enormous challenge. That the postproduction left visible traces casts the only cloud on the film, as seen by the reviewer. What, on the one hand, is absolutely necessary to lend beauty and special attraction to this movie takes away some of its magic, on the other.

The musical background, with motifs in the style of classical film soundtracks, is well chosen: Restrained in explanatory scenes, sensitive and pleasing in the nature shots, distinctive but unobtrusive throughout – a harmonic whole.

»Aurora – Lights of Wonder« ought to be shown in every planetarium, and as soon as possible at that, not only because of its popular science content but even more because of its spellbinding imagery.

11th FullDome Festival, May 18, 2017 [/three_fourth_last]

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