Photo by Peter Terren
From experiments he begun as a schoolboy, electrical engineer Carlos Van Camp has created a world-leading visual spectacular using highvoltage machines he develops in Auckland.
His Lords of Lightning show features two men in metal suits standing on 2.3-metre plinths generating up to three million volts of electricity and arcs up to five metres long.
He debuted at Britain’s famous Glastonbury festival last year, and the audience reaction speaks for itself.
"I was scared, it was stunning. Best thing I've ever seen," one audience member posted on YouTube, where video of the show has received thousands of hits.
Van Camp has discovered a global audience, performing at major festivals in Australia, Japan and Europe. He’s done smaller corporate gigs in New Zealand but the big show has rarely been seen here as our outdoor festivals lack big budgets for largescale special effects.
Van Camp teamed up with Britain’s groundbreaking special effects company Arcadia Spectacular at Glastonbury, and they have since formed a 50/50 partnership to stage Lords of Lightning in Europe. Two new machines have been shipped to the UK, where Van Camp will train the Arcadia crew in June.
“It’s a theatre production at the end of the day,” says Van Camp. “It’s all about perceived danger, rather than real danger. The secret is in the suits and how to use the gear safely.”
Based on the 19th-century experiments of Nikola Tesla, Van Camp built his first machine when he was 14, following instructions from a science magazine. He used a car ignition coil for the transformer and a capacitor made from a lump of glass and aluminium foil. “My first Tesla coil produced sparks about two or three inches long and I was transfixed,” he says.
Van Camp saved money to build more powerful coils using neon sign transformers. At 18, he designed his own transformer, which he had wound at Transformer Specialities in Massey. The firm promptly recruited him as a transformer design engineer.
After doing a stunt for the filming of Xena: Warrior Princess, word soon spread and Van Camp was asked to do a Tesla coil show at the Splore festival in 2002.
By then, he was experimenting with metal suits to allow him to interact with the arcs. His first suit was a wire harness, generating arcs from metal rods that he held high above his head.
“Electricity always takes the easiest route and finds the sharpest or highest point—so if I dropped my arms, the lightning would try to come off my head.”
That’s what happened the first time he stood on the machine, with his girlfriend, now wife, Trisha turning the dial. “I had six-inch arcs coming off my bare head, nose and ears. The machine was not very powerful but we had to turn it off quickly.”
Wanting more spectacular arcs, Van Camp developed a full body suit so he could increase the power. Trisha sewed the first three suits, initially from fly-screen material, then various metallic weaves that creased with movement and soon failed due to metal fatigue. Eventually Van Camp settled on chain mesh. “Chain mesh is free flowing, you can move easily Lords of Lightning performing at the Perth Big Day Out, February 2011 and it clings to the body.”
With several European bookings and an order for sound-modulated Tesla coils for Australia’s Big Day Out series, Van Camp has plans to develop the show further.
“Currently we’re short, so we’re just the side show. We want to become a main act, and to do that we need to develop bigger machines to support a longer performance.”