Burning Man, Art on Fire : The Enthusiasm Splashes from The Screen

Friday, August 28, 2020
Burning Man, Art on Fire : The Enthusiasm Splashes from The Screen

An inspirational insight into the spectacular art at the center of this annual celebration, BURNING MAN: ART ON FIRE follows the unpredictable journey of the artists who defy reason to bring their massive installations and sculptures to the punishing Nevada desert. Filmed just after Burning Man’s legendary founder suddenly died, the community of artists is challenged by impossible timing and blinding dust storms.

Photo by Jonathan Clark


An inspirational insight into the spectacular art at the center of this annual celebration, BURNING MAN: ART ON FIRE follows the unpredictable journey of the artists who defy reason to bring their massive installations and sculptures to the punishing Nevada desert. Filmed just after Burning Man’s legendary founder suddenly died, the community of artists is challenged by impossible timing and blinding dust storms. This richly cinematic, multi- character narrative unfolds over months as they imagine, build and ultimately burn the extraordinary main structures in this temporary city of dreams...a poignant and uplifting feel-good movie!

About the Film

The Burning Man event pops up in the barren Black Rock Desert, Nevada, for one week each August. 75,000 ‘Burners’ – young and old, hippie and techie, ascetic and luxuriant – all converge on seven square miles of arid landscape to create the craziest, wildest, most avant-garde celebration of radical self-expression on the planet. They express their creativity in the form of costumes, theme camps, art cars, and the largest array of large- scale participatory art in the world.

There’s no money, electricity, or running water; there are no trash cans or permanent structures. Participants bring everything they need to sleep, eat, survive, and celebrate in extreme desert conditions. They also bring costumes, gifts, music, and experiences to delight their fellow Burners – the ‘program’ is entirely comprised of creative activities provided by participants themselves. As this film will reveal, Burning Man has also become an international destination for big art, big ideas, and big experiences. There are over 400 pieces of large- scale sculpture to discover and appreciate. For one week a year Burning Man is the largest art gallery in the world. Then it’s all packed up, leaving not a trace.


Photo Jonathan Clark


Since the inception of Burning Man in 1986, more and more makers and artists, both professional and aspiring, have brought their most creative pieces to Black Rock City. They express their wildest ideas in the form of giant sculptures: great wooden towers, monumental human forms, computer-controlled light and sound installations, and many pieces that use fire as a medium. Anyone can bring art, so long as it is interactive in some way. Art is often built by collectives, or teams of volunteers who participate in crafting, installing, and funding. There is no curatorial judgement, no gallery or museum sponsorship, and nothing is for sale. The installations must be able to withstand brutal environmental conditions, up to 80mph winds, and extreme heat and cold temperatures. Some are deliberately burned as a final expression of the artists’ purpose.


Artist Peter Hazel and his jellyfish sculpture, Photo Jonathan Clark


Directed by BAFTA and Grierson award-winning arts film director, Gerald Fox, Burning Man: Art on Fire is a 90 minute feature-length documentary following the high-risk, unpredictable journeys of the major artists of the Burning Man as they build and deliver their monumental works in the wake of the passing of the inspirational founder, Larry Harvey. The main characters are London-based, French architect and visionary, Arthur Mamou- Mani, San Francisco-based Scottish Man-Base artist, Andrew Johnstone and longstanding American “Burner” artists, Kate Raudenbush, Dana Albany, Peter Hazel and Flash Hopkins. Shot in an intimate, handheld, fly- on-the-wall fashion, the narrative unfolds through the artists’ eyes and voices. They battle and eventually overcome insufficient resources, a hostile dusty environment, insane time pressures and sheer exhaustion. The film follows the extreme highs and lows of their journeys on the “playa” every step of the way until the fiery end, interweaving these different narratives in a free-flowing portrait of the energy, creativity and dynamism that goes into this annual celebration of art.


Michael “Flash” Hopkins and artist Dana Albany share a moment, photo Jonathan Clark


The film begins with beautiful aerial images of the empty Black Rock Desert interwoven with spectacular shots of the same desert mid-event, full of light and colour. It cuts to the Temple builders who are arriving in the desert to start the build with an emotional flag planting ceremony. We meet the French architect Arthur Mamou-Mani in his London office some months before the event. He has been selected to design and build Burning Man’s Temple for 2018, named “Galaxia.” Arthur is attempting to achieve the impossible: constructing a vast cathedral in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, in just 3 short weeks. The journey will push him to the very edge of his abilities as an architect and as a leader. If he and his 170 volunteers can build the temple on time, he will marry his fiancé Sandy here. We meet larger-than-life Flash Hopkins early on the Playa. One of the original Burners from the early days with founder Larry Harvey, he provides a dose of irreverent humor even as he reveals Burning Man's deepest truths. He introduces us to his partner Dana Albany, who brings her sculpture to the playa, and his special-needs adoptive son, Tommy. Tommy unexpectedly dies during the event, and is movingly commemorated by Flash, Dana, and Andrew in the Temple, towards the end of the film.

We are introduced to a range of colourful artists as they arrive to assemble their monumental sculptures.Peter Hazel is attempting to re-create an enormous jellyfish sculpture, which failed the previous year.Christian Ristow is building a Hindu-style robot deity. Shane Evans is erecting two fire-breathing giants including a 28 feet tall recycled Robot Resurrection. We circle back to sculptor Kate Raudenbush, as she installs a sculpture in memory of Larry Harvey. She discusses the growth of Burning Man in the context of contemporary art in America.

Studio Drift fulfills Larry Harvey's dying wish of a 1000-strong drone display with Franchise Freedom, which explores the boundaries of technology, art and nature. Masterful British writer, Geoff Dyerreflects on the originality and spirituality of the art and architecture of Black Rock City. Author and Burning Man art expert, Jennifer Raiser, introduces us to the most coveted artworks. We get a taste of Burning Man principles from the organization’s CEOMarian Goodell, and learn about the creative process from Nora Atkinson, curator of the Burning Man exhibit at the Smithsonian.

The film employs the full panoply of cinematic tools

to bring alive the visual intensity and surreal qualities of this event: slow motion photography, time lapse sequences, drone imagery, handheld photography, floating gimbal images, night vision shots, different filters which enhance the dust-layered qualities of the desert are used to create a dreamlike vision and feel. We film the empty desert prior to the build, the build itself, the week-long spectacular event, the majestic burning of the Man and Temple, the embers and the ashes. We close with film with drone footage of the vast, empty desert that has been cleansed of all trace of the city that rose just a few weeks prior. The stunningly evocative musical soundtrack combining haunting electronic, instrumental and vocal textures is by the brilliant, innovative composer, musician and longtime Burner, HÄANA.

Unique Access

Burning Man is notoriously difficult to access for all forms of media, particularly television. The founders and executives fiercely guard film rights and use of the Burning Man name, and few films have been made over the past 32 years of the event. Most have focused on the transformational journeys of Burning Man ‘virgins’ over the course of the week. This film, which has Burning Man approval, tells a deeper story of art and the artists at Burning Man, with unique access to behind-the-scenes action. Our documentary film proposal had a letter of support for the film-makers from the CEO of Burning Man, which is unprecedented.

Directors Statement

My directorial ambition for Art on Fire was to create an intimate, but cinematic film which interweaves the different stories of the central characters, as they build their art in the desert. To give greater depth, understanding and context to the artists, I cut back to them preparing for the build in their workshops, discussing art with Larry Harvey, or attending memorial services after he died.

I very much admire the work of the director, Robert Altman. So much so,Ihadmadea documentary about him. I felt that, by continually intercutting between the characters in the style of Altman’s Short Cuts, I could build a multi- faceted portrait of a place and community. Intertwining the storylines and narratives of this tightly-knit group of creatives who collaborate on both an artistic and personal level, I hoped to bring the relationships to the fore.


Gerald Fox – Director, photo Jonathan Clark


Over a period of the year in the edit, I worked with six different editors of different ages, genders, backgrounds and experience. I tried to assemble the material to convey what it takes to build works of art in these harsh conditions. I also tried to inform viewers about the burgeoning Burning Man art movement, which has become a rich new touchstone in contemporary American art.

My other directorial aim was to create a poetic vision of Burning Man. As one who had never experienced it before, my vision of this famous event was fresh and unencumbered. I wanted to be objective about the characters, the event and the art on display. As filming progressed, I realised that the event had a stunning, surreal, beauty and l became equally determined to bring this to the film. I felt this was a unique opportunity to express my deep passion for the work of visionary, dreamlike, directors such as Federico Fellini, Rene Clair, Luis Bunuel, and Gaspar Noe.

The oneiric, disorientating montages of bizarre, colourful imagery, invite viewers on a sensorial journey, as if they are experiencing the Burning Man event, themselves. Dynamically edited sequences use dramatic slow motion and hyper/time-lapse photography, moving images shot from drones, set to Burning Man music. Travelling through these dreamlike environments, viewers can experience Burning Man, almost physiologically.

The sequences aim to enhance the emotional journey of the film, climaxing with the dramatic, visually stunning burning of the Man and Temple, at the close of the film. I aim to bring the art of Burning Man alive, in a visceral, stunning, immersive way, to share the power of the art and to capture the soul of this extraordinary event and its creators.

The film was probably the most challenging I have ever made, given the constraints of time, resources, and the hostile working conditions. What we managed to pull off, is nothing short of a miracle. And it is thanks to the artists and volunteers - and of course to the indefatigable efforts of my colleagues, who worked day and night, through dust-storms and gale-force winds, to bring you this film.



Gerald Fox – Director


Director: Gerald Fox Producer: Sophia Swire Associate Producer: Jennifer Raiser Director of Photography: Jonathan Clark Music: HÄANA


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