Van Royko, co-director of ‘Let There Be Light’ sheds some light on fusion

I had the opportunity to talk to Van Royko, co-director and cinematographer of Let There Be Light, an uplifting documentary about fusion technology.

Together, director Mila Aung-Thwin and Royko created a visually stunning, but very human documentary about a complex technology and the clean energy hope of the future. Thanks to Royko, I was given an in-depth look at the making of the documentary and the process behind it.

How much interest did you have in fusion, if any at all, before beginning this project?

I’m a bit of a techy guy – I don’t have any background in science that’s for sure, but I’m into it – not just from a science fiction perspective, but also from a technology perspective. I’ve always enjoyed technology a lot and so does Mila. But when he brought fusion to me I didn’t really know much – I knew what the principle of fusion was and I think I knew that’s how the sun worked, but I didn’t know anything about fusion technology.

There was a New Yorker article about ITER (International Tokamak Experimental Reactor) and Mila gave it to me to read and I was like “wow, this is happening?” I had heard about the large hadron collider in Switzerland, but I had never heard about this giant machine. A contact of Mila’s from NASA told him about it and he had the same reaction, like he had no idea that this thing was being built. And I think you can tell from the film – well, I don’t know if you can tell from this film – but no one really knows that this giant thing is being built and no one really knows about the magnitude of the project. So I think we were the same as most people. We really had no idea about what was going on with this technology in the world.

How did you get involved with Let There Be Light and at what stage did you become a part of the project?

I got involved really early. The film began as a more general film about the future of energy for humanity. We were kind of kicking around different things we were going to do. At first we were thinking of maybe doing a survey doc about different possible energy sources that could help out humanity with the fossil fuel crisis. And so when we first started working on the fusion aspect of it, we were given an invitation to ITER to go there on a press junket. They invite the press to go there every year and tour the facilities and understand what was going on so they brought us to the south of France and we stayed there for three days and over those three days we kind of realized what was going on and how vast and huge it was and that’s how it sort of started.

We were kind of almost in a research stage at that point – we were still figuring out what the film was going to be about and we were looking for characters and it might not have only been about fusion, but after those first few trips we decided there’s enough here that we’re going to do it about fusion.

So it was after that trip that you got that idea that you could just focus on fusion?

Yeah it was more Mila that pushed it that way, I was still sort of interested in the idea of discussing energy in general – but he had the clarity of vision to say, “no, I don’t want to make another documentary that’s sort of a survey doc of all these different things” because it becomes sort of topical in that way – in so far that you’re treating every little thing very quickly. It almost becomes something you’d see on the science channel or on the daily whatever.

Mila was the main researcher, but he’d give me all the research. He’d find a book on fusion, and he’d pass me another book on fusion and we realized there’s this long and wily history of this technology. He said I think we can just do this about fusion. And I was like okay, well sure. And he was right. There was enough of a story there for sure.

Absolutely. I had no idea about ITER, the Stellarator or the Tokamak so Let There Be Light was really eye opening for me.

I felt the same way – there’s a massive endeavor happening.

It’s interesting too how the documentary juxtaposed the $12 billion project against Focus Fusion in a rented space and how big one search for fusion can be compared to another.

Yeah and that’s kind of the nature of it right now. I mean – most fusion scientists I’ve spoken to, when you talk to them about those small projects they don’t disregard them, they don’t say that they’re worthless, but in the fusion community there’s a sort of consensus: the best bet right now is a large scale thing. You need a larger scale machine to get the temperatures and confinement needed to actually make fusion happen. So, it’s not impossible for those small projects to work, but it’s quite unlikely in the view of a lot of scientists we’ve spoken too.

But at the same time, Michel Laberge in Vancouver, he’s gotten millions and millions of dollars’ worth of venture capital. And that investment has been vetted by real scientists so there’s nothing fake about his science. It’s just that it’s really in the research stage – like fully in the research stage right now. So no one knows what will really work. But obviously the people that have $20 billion and all that support – I think there’s a bigger chance it’s going to happen there.

At the beginning of the documentary we’re confronted with an almost a grisly metaphor from Mark Henderson when he compares the human race to yeast. So I was wondering, what are your thoughts on the current fossil fuel consumption and our journey and search for clean energy? Would you consider yourself an environmentalist?

I find it hard that there’s anybody that can’t consider themselves an environmentalist when you keep up to date even with a small amount of news.

It’s pretty black and white that we’re eating up the world’s resources faster than we can recycle or replenish them. I think Mark makes that pretty clear. I think his analysis of that, with the whole yeast thing, is pretty bang on.

On the other hand, something that isn’t mentioned in the film that I mention often is that energy consumption is not necessarily in and of itself a bad thing; it’s just a bad thing if you don’t have a clean source for it. And that’s why Mark keeps talking about a clean renewable source for it, right? Energy consumption in and of itself is great if it means that we can feed people or make them more healthy or keep them warm or do all this crazy stuff that we do with computers and continue to evolve. So it’s good that we’ve learned to use fossil fuels, it’s just bad that they’re so polluted and that there’s going to be an end to them. Something like fusion would be amazing because who knows what we can do with the surplus of energy we can make, right?

You touched on this a little bit earlier, but what was the timing like of Let There Be Light? As in the time preparing, the time Mila spent researching and you spent reading, and the time gaining contacts and meeting the scientists verse the actual filming and travelling?

The process of making it – I think if you had to count the whole timeline of the film it would be about five or six years from the time that Mila decided we’re making a science film to the time that he did a final cut. It’s a long process – the films we do are usually a long process because they’re kind of – how would I explain it? A lot of documentary filmmakers kind of write their documentaries before they make them and there’s a certain aspect of that that you have to do, but our process tends to be a little bit more meandering and tends to be a little bit more process of discovery. So, from the first time we went back to ITER – over three years – and we went to Germany and we only discovered that the Stellarator existed right before – we were scrambling to get access to that place and to do the bit with Angela Merkel. And in that sense it kind of unfolded slowly. The reason we can do this process of discovery and this slow form of documentary film making is that we’re a really small team. It’s usually me and Mila or me by myself out in the field and so we can stretch our resources out longer because we don’t have crews of four or five people and we’re allowed to be a little bit more inefficient and a little bit more discovery, which was to our advantage in this particular film.

There’s so many people at ITER, there’s like a thousand people there or something so there’s many possible people you can meet. So many scientists. And by and large, nuclear physicists are not the most stimulating people so you have to meet a lot of people before you can find the ones that express themselves very well on camera. And so we met a lot of people and we shot with a lot of people before we found those few of them that are great on camera – not that they’re not brilliant and interesting to talk to. It’s just different meeting someone that’s fun to have a conversation with and someone that when you turn the camera on is as interesting as or more interesting than they are in real life. So that takes time. So that was good from that perspective.

You were co-director and cinematographer on this – does that make things better or easier or does it present its own challenges?

No, I think it’s good. I mean, Mila and I started working together maybe 10 years, not that long ago actually – it seems like 10 years ago – maybe seven or eight years ago. And he’s a pretty easy person to collaborate with and we were both coming at it from, it was almost like this movie was made like a road trip. We were just constantly going from one place to another. Sometimes we’d drive across Europe to go from one location to another and we’d just discuss how we thought we could express something, or how we could get these ideas out along the way.

I actually really relished the opportunity to have a bigger role than just a cinematographer and there was that room because there was nobody else – Mila was the producer and director when we started out and as we went along and I started helping with the research and kind of being more involved, he’s like “well, you’ve been co-directing this; you’re co-director on this now.” It was sort of an organic response to the fact that we were both putting our all into this and we were the creative nexus of this film all throughout the process.

I thought it was stunning. It could have been quite dense, I mean we’re talking about physics and fusion, but I thought the way you and Mila put it together was really beautiful. I was kind of caught off guard the first time I saw the little animations that explain the history of fusion, but they really worked well in the film. So sort of related to that, as cinematographer and with such a massive construction site that was ITER, what was your process like deciding where, when and how to film?

The process was pretty, once again, kind of like happenstance discovery. We spent a lot of time there we met different people and they were really open. The communications director and his assistant wanted to facilitate our access in any way they could. They were really sweet that way and they saw the kind of value in the documentary being made. So they just asked us where we wanted to go and when we wanted to go there. There’s rarely anything they closed on us, they even brought us to Washington with them to go behind the scene. Like you know the scene with the American congress. Stuff like that that was all at their invitation and all at their behest.

So in terms of the specifics of the cinematographer, I just had all my toys and I just tried any chance I got to do interesting things. And whenever I saw an opportunity I pushed for it to try to make something more interesting. It didn’t seem as interesting when we were there as it does in the final film. That’s to the credit of Mila for choosing the great shots and the way we sort of framed and coloured them.

This is sort of leading to something else, but he had so many science fiction references when he was doing this film, like he has his computer to edit and he also has a big screen on the wall where we’d watch edits and films on it and it just has this slide show of all these curated science fiction shots. Even science fiction paintings and all kinds of stuff and so I think you see a lot of that in the film – the way we coloured it, the way we framed it, we were both really geeky in that sense. We’ll talk about new technologies, we’ll talk about batteries, we’ll talk about all kinds of techy stuff on our sort of low level. Neither of us are engineers or scientists. But I think that was constantly feeding in and it was really explicitly feeding in when he did the editing. You mentioned the animation and he directed the animations and the animations were always his idea. I wasn’t really sure about them, but I think they brought so much to the film. If it wasn’t for those animations so much of it would have just been maybe photos or recreations. But they just brought this life and colour to things and they really explained things and they really brought this kind of poetry to the film that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. So that was totally his brilliance.

And basically he did all the editing. And he edited himself which is really hard for a director to do. I mean I came in and I looked at cuts and I criticized them and got him really upset, but he responded with better cuts again and again. I get the kind of easy part. There’s stresses with my job to be on time or to make a character say something. But in the field, it’s always kind of enjoyable in a sense, you’re always on an adventure and it’s active. But to be stuck in this dark room with this pile of footage, this big puzzle, it’s really tough. And this goes on for months and sometimes I’d show up and open the door and the light would come in and he’d be like “ah!” and I’d look at him and be like “It should be half as long” and he’d be like “what do you mean half as long!? How am I going to explain this concept in half as much time?” and I’m like “well it needs to be half as long” and he’d just be upset and I would just leave and I’d come back two weeks later and suddenly it’d be half as long and it’d be really great. It’s easy to say cut it down, but it’s so hard to do it.

So up until the point when this film was 90 per cent complete – we were in the fine cut stage – and we were ready to release it I was feeling very, not ambivalent – I was still feeling that we’d done a good job and I was still happy about the film, but it was bittersweet. I think we’d done a good thing, we’d made a film about this technology, but I just felt that, it hadn’t become a great film in and of itself at that point.

And the animation wasn’t quite finished and there was still a little bit of tweaking to do. And then we got accepted to South by Southwest (SXSW). And it was sort of like a last minute slip-in that we got into SXSW and that re-inspired him to make it even better and I think he spent another two or three weeks at it and cut out another 10 or so minutes and at that point, when I saw that version of the film, I was like holy wow! I really felt proud about it at that time. It was 80 minutes long and I’d be at the end of the film and be like, it’s over, but I want to see more.

Before when I was seeing the longer cut of the film I thought it was interesting but really slow at parts. But now I was like oh my god, why is it over already? A lot of documentaries ride on sort of two or three really good moments. And one thing I’m really proud of (and I did have a part of) in this film I think that there’s more than two or three good moments. There’s a lot of funny things and a lot of great moments that we catch. The brilliance is that Mila managed to find them and cut them together in such a way that they retain their humour and they’re fun. But for what could have been a really long, boring, like you say dense documentary, I find that it’s lighthearted and funny. Like whenever I watch it with an audience and people are laughing every five or ten minutes I’m like wow, we made a film about the most complex technological endeavour on earth and people are laughing and that’s great.

I found that there was so much hope about Let There Be Light, although you and Mila definitely didn’t shy away from suggesting that this might not turn out or that it could be a scientific failure of great expense. You mentioned the past failures and disappointments, but it still had a very uplifting mood to it. Watching it you (the audience) felt that this could work and let’s keep believing in it. It had a very human element and I really liked that scene where Mark Henderson talks to the workers on the ITER project and they give him their feedback. It brought it back around from the pure physicist side of things.

That was a good moment. That moment almost never happened. We were down there in the pit and one of the guys mentioned you should come up here, it’s a nicer view. And Mark wasn’t, not shy, but he didn’t know if he could go up and Mila was like I don’t know, I’m not sure, or whatever, but I saw the opportunity right away and I was like yes, we’re going. Go now. Shoot first ask questions later. It’s often a good thing because by the time the scene’s over and somebody’s decided you’re not allowed to go there you’ve got it shot and usually you get to keep it. So yeah, when I saw the possibility of that and when I saw those workers and I saw Mark and I knew how good Mark was with people and how inviting he was, I was like this could be interesting. And sure enough he went up there and explained to them what it was and it was a really beautiful moment.

This is kind of an odd question, but if you could show this documentary to only one person, who would it be and why?

Oh my god, that’s a hard one. I mean I think someone would want to say some politician or something like that, but it’s not like politicians don’t know about fusion. I think it’s…it’s hard.

I mean like Elon Musk already knows about fusion and knows it’s far away and Bill Gates is already investing in fusion so I guess if it was one person then maybe the next richest person in line like Jeff Bezos or something like that. But I think what’s more important and it has to be emphasized, but I think what’s more important than any one person seeing it is many people seeing it. And that’s what really gives me hope, when we show it to audiences. Mila has this anecdote from when he was in Poland and he showed it one day and did a Q&A and the next day this little ten-year-old boy came up to him and said “I saw your documentary on fusion yesterday and it was amazing, it inspired me so much, and I never knew it existed and wow”, you know, kind of like what your response was.

And that’s what’s super important: that you get kids interested in this technology and other technologies too, because the thing fusion needs the most, as much as continued money for research, is people that are interested, people that are going to give their lives for it. Because it’s going to take x number of peoples’ life work to make it happen.

Basically the gap between us and limitless energy is just a certain number of people hours. People slaving over desks, doing calculations, coming up with ideas, failing, succeeding, failing, succeeding; that’s the scientific process. It just takes a lot of people with a lot of concentration. So essentially the person I want to show it to is every person, every person that’s going to study something or every person that’s going to have a kid and wants their kid to do something with their life or any of that.

I think it’s much more important that every-man or every-person sees this film than any one individual.

For you, what would success for this documentary look like? Although, I think you’ve kind of covered that: to have everyone see it and inspire the next generation or even the current generation to be the people that continue on the journey of fusion.

I think having people see your documentary should be the final point of success for any documentarian. It’s always nice to get some kind of reward (we don’t make money in documentaries, or at least not a lot of it). That’s always nice, but I think what’s the nicest is when people are genuinely interested and inspired by what you do and when they respond and when it enlightens them. That’s the advantage of documentaries, when it’s done well it has the chance to enlighten people in such a short amount of time. You can expose someone to a whole new subject or a whole new way of thinking or a whole new perspective on the world and you can do that in 90 minutes or 70 minutes while most other mediums take a little bit more time and are less accessible.

If you can make an entertaining documentary that’s fun to watch and can give people a new perspective on the world than that’s kind of the end-all-be-all of our work. And that’s what I want to go for. And that’s why I’m so excited about this film.

I’m not this excited about all the films I work on by any means. A lot of times they’re fine or sometimes there’s disappointments. But this one…specifically because people come up to us after the screenings and they’re excited that they learned something new. That’s so gratifying.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed.

Let There Be Light is currently playing in limited theaters across North America.

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