From my youngest days, I have always been fascinated by the story of Icarus.
In Greek mythology, Icarus was the son of the craftsman Daedalus, who had created the Labyrinth, a huge maze located under the court of King Minos of Crete. To keep the Labyrinth’s existence a secret, Minos imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus in a tower. There, Daedalus hatched an ingenious plan: He would collect the feathers of the numerous birds that roosted in the tower, and using candlewax and thread to hold the feathers in place, he would fashion wings for himself and his son.
When the wings were complete, Daedalus and Icarus prepared to jump from the tower and fly to freedom. First, though, Daedalus warned his son not to fly too low to the sea, where his wings would be weighed down by the spray; he also urged Icarus not to fly too high, as the warmth from the sun would melt the wax that held the feathers.
Daedalus and his son leaped from the tower. As they soared across the land and toward the sea, the citizens of Crete thought that the pair must be gods.
Soon, though, despite his father’s warning, Icarus flew too high, and the heat from the sun began to melt the wax, sending Icarus plummeting down through the air, his wings no longer able to carry him. He splashed into the sea and drowned.
Hailing from a country where sunlight is a rare phenomenon — at one point the Netherlands endured 345 days of cloud cover in a one-year span — I have always regarded sunlight as a symbol of freedom and adventure. Though the so-called “Dutch light” has inspired centuries of painters, as a photographer and a cinematographer, I find that sunlight represents not only warmth but inspiration as it changes throughout the day, reflecting off of a body of water, creating varied and dramatic patterns through mists and clouds, providing crimson sunsets, and more.
The mythological tale of Icarus is often recounted in the context of youth flying too high, ignoring advice and taking unnecessary risks. In other words: “Listen to your elders.”
That interpretation, however, has never sat well with me. Instead, I’ve always been drawn to the more adventurous side of the tale. Discover the world, push your boundaries, take risks, engulf yourself in the warm and glorious light of the sun. And, yes, let the heat of the sun melt the wax, and let the feathers go! Only then can you experience a free-fall back to Earth, the momentary weightlessness as you rush through the air, and the deep, cold dive into the ocean that breaks your fall.
There’s another part of the myth that’s often ignored. Icarus was also warned not to fly too low lest the seawater ruin his wings. Indeed, flying too low is even more dangerous than flying too high because it feels deceptively safe.
Through this lens, we see that conformity does not lead to comfort. When creativity is at stake, the more desirable option is to be unpredictable and brave.
As cinematographers, we adapt. The goal is to satisfy our hunger to seize new ground, to make powerful imagery, and to work without a map — or a net. If you do those things, you’re an artist, and you can fly both high and low in order to bring your best self to your work.
After Icarus’ fall, Daedalus searched for his son and finally found his body floating in the waves, his feathers scattered by the surf. Daedalus buried Icarus nearby, in a land he named Icaria, a tribute to his son.
Fortunately for all of us, humanity’s youth — and, of course, those of us who remain young at heart — do take risks. Had Icarus not dared to fly higher than he was cautioned, there would have been no myth, no inspiration and no Icarian Sea.
“I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, ‘don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as ‘forget the wax and feathers, and do a better job on the wings.’” — Stanley Kubrick
Kees van Oostrum
Kees van Oostrum