Every living thing in this world has the same origin. We share more than we know, and the photographer and filmmaker Jan van IJken has set out to capture the fleeting moment that shows us how life, in any form, can come to be in front of our own eyes. His extraordinary time-lapse movie documents a transformation of chief importance. The transformation from a single-cell to a living, breathing being. Watch the birth of existence!
Capturing the transitory moments that make up life development is no easy task. Recording and truthfully representing the emergence of existence requires proper research and the most modern technology out there. But one man had a vision, and he was about to make it all happen.
The Dutch photographer and filmmaker Jan van IJken has an obsession with nature, microscopy, and the way humans and animals interact. He is passionate about encapsulating the mysteries of life in his work, and nowhere is this more apparent than in his masterpiece documentary movie from 2018. It reveals nature in its full force.
‘Becoming’ is the title of the movie, which since its release, has been screened at more than a couple dozen international film festivals, mentioned in numerous press features, and gathered prizes from prestigious awards. In 2019, the movie went viral, with millions of people watching and sharing it. What was all the fuss about?
To shoot ‘Becoming,’ Jan van IJken used a combination of time-lapse photography and video to showcase the beginning of life from unprecedented proximity and angle. By harnessing his own knowledge, research, and the power of modern technology, he was able to bring a fascinating movie to the world. And one revelation laid at the start of it all.
Jan van IJken wanted to film the origin of life in its entirety. He wanted to delve into the subject on a scientific basis and make it accessible to the wider public. But he had limited resources, and it looked like documenting a single cell transforming into pulsating life would prove impossible. And then he discovered that frogs and salamanders lay transparent eggs. His project was back on.
Realizing that the beginning of life would, in the end, be possible to film, Jan van IJken had to team up with an amphibian breeder to help him with the timing of the shoot. What van IJken needed to capture was the process that was jump-started by the fertilization of the laid eggs. And one day, he finally got the call from the breeder. The eggs were ready.
Filming the beginnings of life happening inside of a fertilized egg is something that requires much more than usual camera setups. Jan van IJken had to film through a microscope, a revolutionary technique, which would, however, allow him to get what he needed on film. But he was trying to catch one very specific and very fleeting moment. Things could prove tricky.
Jan van IJken wanted to show the very first cleavage. The cleavage is the original split of the single-cell organism, which divides for the first time ever. This was a herculean task, and van IJken knew he would be up against a lot of variables out of his control. But he was more determined than ever. Until things went wrong.
Although van IJken was as prepared as he could have been, he still wasn’t managing to get the shots he needed. Once, he was too late to capture the first cleavage, then he was filming at the wrong side of the embryo, which obstructed the cleavage view. And another time, his camera equipment couldn’t focus well enough on the action. It looked like all his efforts went to waste. But then, a miracle happened.
After more than half a year of frustration and failed shooting, van IJken was finally able to get what he was after. Four weeks at the very beginning of life captured in the scope of six minutes. His movie was a product of an almost otherworldly act. He caught the very origin of life. And he was ready to share it with the world.
Van IJken managed to catch the first cleavage, and it was even more extraordinary and rewarding than he could have imagined. The single cell in the salamander egg became alive for the first time, setting out on a beautiful process of subsequential splitting that would eventually lead to the ultimate miracle. And the process was not all that different from the human one.
The formation of the so-called blastopore can be observed after about three days of the embryo’s development. Van IJken caught this moment, which is essential for all vertebrates as it leads to the development of the gut tube. Once this process is complete, the embryo is well on its way to become a bonafide living creature. But the transformation continues.
The fifth day of embryo development brings about the migration of individual cells which have already split from the one original single cell. These cells move around to become the tissue the salamander will be made out of. And then the essence of life comes into light right in front of our eyes.
The embryo continues on its transformational journey until it reaches the stage when it’s time to develop a beating heart and blood cells. Van IJken’s movie captures this beautifully in a way the naked human eye would never get to see. But the process can end there at any moment.
If van IJken’s movie shows us anything besides the arresting beauty of life, it is the extreme fragility of it. He came to understand that embryos can, unfortunately, stop developing without any real cause. The eggs are more susceptible to their environment than one might think, and even the slightest change can bring about the sudden end of life development in its fragile state.
Van IJken’s movie is an extraordinary feat of scientific work. It manages to bring the otherwise unnoticeable beginning of life to the eyes of the public, and by doing so, it shows them the beauty and the vulnerability of existence. Seeing this movie should inspire us all to protect the delicate nature we live in, as it is the basis of all life.