Picture of Light

Canada / 1994 / 83 minutes

A mesmerizing tale about a filmmaker’s journey to Canada’s arctic in search of one of Earth’s greatest natural wonders: the aurora borealis, or northern lights. While combining glimpses of the characters who live in this remote environment with the crew’s comic and absurd attempts to deal with the extreme cold, the film reveals the paradoxes involved in trying to capture the natural wonder of the northern lights on celluloid. Exploring the tension between nature and technology and between science and myth, Picture of Light reveals how our increasingly connected world threatens to render obsolete our individual and authentic experiences.

“We live in a time where things do not seem to exist if they are not captured as an image. But if you look into darkness you may see the lights of your own retina – not unlike the northern lights, not unlike the movements of thought. Like a shapeless accumulation of everything we have ever seen.”

...aurora borealis... the lights with no bodies, pouring colours from the sky...

…a film exploring the capture of images from nature, images more special than any special effect...

After strenuous and complicated technical preparations (including devising methods to protect the camera against -40˚C temperatures), and with 50 pounds of batteries packed in their luggage, the crew sets out on a 3000-mile train journey through uninhabited snowy landscapes to the end of the civilized world: Churchill, Manitoba. Violent snowstorms force them to settle down to wait for a clear night in which the lights might appear. The TV set gains importance as the only link between the town’s inhabitants and the outside world. Residents are interviewed about their life under the northern lights: the Croatian hotel owner hardly takes any notice of them; the priest is reminded of searchlights during World War II; an Inuit elder speaks of their hypnotizing effect and recalls that people used to tell the weather forecast by them; another enthuses over the beauty of their colours. A member of Spacelab 3 reports from outer space about his observations of the polar lights, explaining the effects of their enormous sources of energy on the earth's magnetosphere. Amidst all this, Mettler himself provides a diary-like voice-over, augmenting the film’s images with anecdotes and Inuit legends, while simultaneously questioning the act and responsibility of creating filmic representations of natural phenomena.

Over the course of a one-year editing process, the film gradually took shape out of 18 hours of film material collected during two trips to Churchill. The aurora could only be made visible by shooting three frames per minute and later expanding time via optical printing. Mettler was aware that the images presented to the audience would suggest a reality completely different from the actual experience, and had already begun to question the impulse to collect images during the long and cold nights in Churchill. For this reason, in Picture of Light he decided for the first time to use voice-over, with which he self-critically tests the powerful potential and authority of the ‘invisible’ voice.

Like Mettler’s earlier films, Picture of Light deals with the tension between nature and technology, science and mythology. It reflects upon the desire to track down the wonders of the world and capture them on film, questioning the ways in which perceptions molded by media forms increasingly threaten to replace our individual authentic experiences.

One of Canada’s Essential 150 Films, TIFF
La Sarraz Prize, Locarno Film Festival
Grand Prize, Figueira da Foz Festival
Best Film, Cinematography, and Writing, Hot Docs


“An extraordinary piece of filmmaking. In an era when only one movie in a hundred has a single moment of visionary power, Peter Mettler’s Picture of Light is bursting with them… this is a film that takes you places you have never been.” – John Powers, Vogue

“Mettler is slowly but surely affirming his presence as one of the most original cineastes of his generation. He is an auteur of the utmost importance… his adventurous cinema displays the veritable images of today.” – Norbert Cruetz, Journal de Genève

Picture of Light is the most beautiful fusion of art and science I've seen since Michael Snow's La Région Centrale." – Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

“With his masterful new film about the aurora borealis, Picture of Light, a breathtaking investigation of the powers and limits of film language, Mettler should assume his rightful, prominent place in contemporary Canadian cinema… From its title onward, Picture of Light articulates the paradox of the extraordinary film unspooling before us. In a voice over that at once affirms and questions its authoritative role in the documentary tradition, Mettler reminds us that his tools are inadequate and falsifying. We know he is right. We also know, as he does, that these picture of light, these simulacra, do inspire wonder, do remind us that for all our scientific marvels and technological advances, we remain unfinished and searching. In its meditative, marvelous simplicity, Picture of Light unmasks its frames, and demands that we look beyond them." – Tom McSorley, Take One

“One of the most provocative and mesmerizing works at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.” – Craig Macinnis, Toronto Star

Picture of Light has the narrative innovation and aesthetic brilliance of a good drama. Hypnotic displays of the aurora borealis... are the gold at the end of Mettler’s rainbow, but getting there is more than half the fun. The film is an existential meditation on snow and space and cold, undercut by an absurdist wit... Mettler goes to a world where cameras freeze and tries to film nothingness, unbroken patterns of land and sky. He achieves amazing results. In the context of Canadian cinema, where characters often live in uneasy tension with their environment, for once there is no contest: the weather wins, hands down.” – Brian D. Johnson, Macleans

Picture of Light is luminous and genuinely transcendent.” – Gerald Peary, The Globe & Mail

“An extraordinary achievement… an existential quest.” – Peter Harcourt, Point of View

“One of the most original and breathtaking documentaries of the year. Neither conventional nor experimental, Picture of Light compels on a multitude of levels... one of this country’s most immaculate image makers points his camera toward the most spectacular special effect the natural world has to offer, and brings back a piece of heaven. Highly recommended.” – Geoff Pevere, The Globe & Mail

“You sense you're watching a new art form in the process of creation… Among the very best documentaries to come along in years… Picture of Light is an elegantly framed lyric by Peter Mettler about the North and the northern lights. At the very outset, the director hints there's deeper music to be heard here by introducing us to a camera designed especially for the deep cold. Spurred on by thoughts of a man he met at a party ‘who watches the sky,’ Mettler's Picture of Light is as much a meditation on documentary filmmaking as it is on the North." – Peter Goddard, Toronto Star

Picture of Light confronts the ontological status of film, brandishing profundity, humour and many extraordinarily beautiful images, concluding finally that film's relationship to reality and experience is, in the best cases, rather like all of life's Big Questions – puzzling, troubling, awe-inspiring." – Peter Urquhart, Reverse Shot

“Personal, quirky, inquisitive and visually sophisticated.” – David Armstrong, San Francisco Examiner

“Part science project, part journal, part hallucination, this lyrical, sometimes hilarious 1994 film takes us to Churchill, Manitoba, the ‘meeting place of edges,’ where Mettler meditates on the modern tyranny of the image, on light and darkness, art and nature, and, in general, the state of man… Ravishing and constantly surprising.” – Hal Hinson, The Washington Post

“Like the curtains of light, like a thousand fractured searchlights in the night sky, like a halogen haze, like a neon fog… Peter Mettler’s camera has accelerated the meteorological phenomena; out of the majestic glow develops a squirrely light of insanity… an impression of endlessness, of no borders, of flight and the immaterial.” – Martin Schaub, Das Magazin

“This film plunges us into a kind of cosmic shock… catapulted into space via a desert of ice with a ballet of ribbons in the sky. Picture of Light tells us not to trust images, but to go out and discover the world.” – Claire Delubac, Journal de Geneve

“[Mettler makes] films that work with insinuation, films that speak to the heart of the viewer, to their memories and dreams by addressing their emotions and senses.” – Martin Schaub, Zürich Tages-Anzeiger

“Mettler weaves into an artistic whole various layers and places as is only possible through film. He experiments again and again, creating something new and from the new, again and again, surprising.” – Walter Ruggle, Zürich Tages-Anzeiger

“Mettler points at the world… engaging us in poetry and imagination… Like the first gestures of cinema, he is always perceiving the world as an object of endless fascination… Peter Mettler dreams with his eyes open, and in wanting to convey the elusive aurora borealis, he takes measure of the infinite as no camera has ever done before.” – Jean Perret, Locarno Semaine de la Critique

Picture of Light is spellbinding – a magical walk through the world of light which contains a universality, a timelessness anchored in the reality of today. An innovative visual exploration, simultaneously examining the medium of film and questioning the reality of images.” – Locarno International Film Festival Jury, 1994

Excerpt #1 – Escaping The Electrical World

Excerpt #2 – “Look Up There!”

Excerpt #3 – Modern Day Hunters




A Grimthorpe Film and Andreas Züst production

Director and Text: Peter Mettler
Camera: Peter Mettler
Additional Camera:  Gerald Packer, Mark Cyre
Sound Recording: Leon Johnson, Gaston Kyriazi
Picture Editing: Peter Mettler, Mike Munn
Additional Picture Editing: Catherine Martin, Alexandra Gill
Sound Editing: Peter Mettler, Peter Braeker, Alexandra Gill
Original Music: Jim O’Rourke
Sound Mix: Hans Kuenzi
Producers: Andreas Züst, Peter Mettler, Alexandra Gill

Appearing in the film: Andreas Züst, (Snowdrift sculptor), Charles Bagnall (“It’s in the hands of God”), Steve Bosnjak (Motel Owner), Gavin Conner (rifle man), Alex Ouskun/Flora S.N. Beardy (“His grandfather said…”), Gerald Packer (“It’s a little deep over here”), Ed Bazlik (“They’re greenish…”), Father Kees Verspeek (“They remind me of the wartime”), Dr. Don Lind (Spacelab), Hugh Haqpi (Lost in the storm), Dr. Alex Tolton (Frostbite evaluation), Joseph Natakok (Inuk elder), Brian Ladoon (Dog trainer), Atlas I Mission STS 45 Crew.

Shooting Location: Churchill, Manitoba, Canada


Selected by Toronto International Film Festival as one of Canada’s Essential 150 Films and digitally remastered in 2017.
La Sarraz Prize
, Locarno International Film Festival
Grand Prize – Images & Documents, Figueira da Foz Festival
Best Film, Best Cinematography, Best Writing, Hot Docs
Best Writing, Best Cinematography, Best Film – Science, Technology & Environment, Canadian Independent Film Caucus Documentary Awards
Award for Excellence in the Arts, Swiss Ministry of Culture
Award for Excellence, Yamagata International Documentary Festival
Best Ontario Film, MCTV Award
Golden Gate Award, San Francisco International Film Festival
Certificate of Merit, Chicago International Film Festival

Screened at numerous international film festivals including Locarno, Rotterdam, Sydney, Toronto International Film Festival, Festival du nouveau cinema, Vancouver International Film Festival, Portland International Film Festival, SXSW, Sundance Film Festival.

Released theatrically and broadcast on television.

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