Useful, beautiful, infinitely variable, glass is made of the basest elements - sand and fire. But in the right hands, fire transforms sand into something more precious than gold - a work of art. A pair of the "right hands" belongs to Dale Chihuly, one of the world's greatest glass artists, as the new PBS documentary "Chihuly Over Venice" (Nov. 9, 9-10:30 p.m., check local listings) amply demonstrates - and in high-definition television (HDTV), no less.
The program launches the national PBS Digital Week (Nov. 9 through 12), which will also include Ken Burns's documentary on American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
"Chihuly" has the distinction of being the first-ever HDTV show broadcast nationally. And it is well suited to the 3-D quality of HDTV. "The characteristics of [the medium] are brightness and richness of color," says Burnie Clark, president and chief executive officer of KCTS in Seattle, which produced the film. "Chihuly is our first experiment with an artistic subject. The color of the glass sculpture is even richer in HDTV than it is in person."
He points out that in HDTV the motion-picture shape of the screen, the better-than-motion-picture film quality, and the excellent stereo sound make concerts and other performances much more exciting.
KCTS is a leader in HDTV, producing programming for the past 10 years (some of which has been shown locally) and slowly building a library of programming and panoramic stock footage that will come in handy as HDTV technology becomes more available. Mr. Clark estimates that sometime in the next 10 years a majority of American households will be equipped to receive the high-definition signal.
HDTV may be the wave of the future, but for now only a handful will be able to watch "Chihuly Over Venice" at its most spectacular. For the rest of us, though, the documentary works well enough on ordinary television sets.
Chihuly is a legendary figure. With a patch over one eye and a lion's mane of hair framing his cherubic features, he cuts quite a figure of artistic intelligence and force. The film's director, Gary Gibson, has been careful not to make a saint of Chihuly, though, and what we see is a colorful, generous, funny, and sometimes petulant man whose extraordinary abilities have drawn fine artists to him.
Not that he strikes the viewer as an egotist. One of his great gifts is his ability to collaborate with and inspire a veritable army of artists and artisans. He himself no longer blows or shapes the glass. He draws abstract images, and his fellow artists seem to know exactly what he wants.
"There is a great respect for what is being done [in his hot shop]," director Gibson says. "He has an ability to gather talented people around him and then push stuff as far as it will go."
In this film, we watch him oversee the blowing and shaping of the pieces, dictate the color, and direct the constructions of elaborate sculptures he calls "chandeliers" - presumably because they capture light and shed it back revealing exuberant color so rich and exciting it positively lights up the surroundings.
Chihuly embarked on an international adventure, much of his home team in tow, building sculptures in several of the glass capitals of the world. It was crucial to the adventure to work closely with glass artisans and hot shops in Italy, Ireland, Finland, and Mexico. Chihuly and his people even taught their techniques to artists at Ireland's Waterford Crystal works - who delighted in Chihuly's vibrant colors and the experience of working with him for the first time. And it is a treat to see Chihuly himself learning techniques of crystal cutting from the Irish artisans.
Perhaps nothing is more delightful than watching the glass being formed, blown, shaped, and decorated. It's so malleable, and cools so fast, that the desired forms must evolve quickly. But then when a piece is accidentally dropped to the ground and shatters, the fragility of the medium comes home.
The forms created under Chihuly's direction seem organic - inspired by nature - yet nonreferential; carefully made, yet always with a chance element to lend a little surprise.