A brilliant inventor who was more motivated by curiosity and benevolence than profit, Nikolai Tesla has become almost a mythical figure in recent years. After decades of relative obscurity, he’s now been immortalized in comics, films, songs, board games, and just about anything that nods even slightly towards steampunk.
It’s not hard to see why. Some highly questionable beliefs aside, he comes across as a sympathetic, romantic figure, the anti-capitalist antithesis of greedy, manipulative men like Thomas Edison. The most grandiose of his unmade inventions, which allegedly included a method of producing free, wireless electricity for the whole world, make for perfect sci-fi fodder. Even his less benevolent side, like the powerful death ray he claimed to have created, fit in with the idea of a genius who has been repeatedly taken advantage of. His life leaves plenty of room for artistic license, and plenty of artists have indulged in exactly that.
Matthew Rankin’s The Tesla World Light doesn’t stretch the Serbian inventor’s story into fiction, but it does make it mythic, in a grandly tragic sort of way. Based on letters Tesla wrote to JP Morgan after the banker stopped funding his free energy project–along with other strange-but-true details like Tesla’s love affair with a pigeon–the film documents the inventor’s descent into despair and madness in beautifully abstracted terms. The film bristles with energy throughout, from the crackling backgrounds in its early scenes to the pulsing LEDs and spinning sparklers that paint the modernist patterns that become increasingly prominent throughout the film. The less obviously representational it gets, the more emotionally immediate it becomes, culminating in a frenzied climax that’s thrilling and depressing all at once.
In the two years since its release, The Tesla World Light has racked up at least 10 major animation awards and made its way around dozens of festivals, and if anything, it feels even more relevant now than when it first came out. A visionary scientist whose world-changing invention is thwarted by short-sighted rent-seekers, Tesla’s tale feels like an inflection point, the moment the west ultimately chose between utopia and profit. By rendering it in such a wonderfully anachronistic way, Rankin’s film makes it timeless: more than one man’s story, it is the modern age in miniature, equal parts brilliance, madness and despair.
The Tesla World Light
Dir: Matthew Rankin
Syn: New York, 1905. Visionary inventor Nikola Tesla makes one final appeal to J.P. Morgan, his erstwhile benefactor. Inspired by real events, this electrifying short is a spectacular burst of image and sound that draws as much from the tradition of avant-garde cinema as it does from animated documentary.