The Man Who Photographed the Brightest Light in the Universe

The story of formerly-homeless photographer Robert Shults is captured in a new documentary.

by Hannah Stouffer
Jan 3 2017, 6:10pm

Actor, Nicholas Saenz, portrays photographer Robert Shults photographing the brightest light source in the known universe, The Texas Petawatt Laser in Austin, TX. Photo credit: Robert Shults

The brightest light source in the universe is located in the basement of the Physics department at the University of Texas in Austin. This high-powered laser, called the Texas Petawatt, inspired the short documentary film The Superlative Light from director Ben Steinbauer. “I couldn’t believe that something so powerful and magnificent lived in the same city as me,” Steinbauer tells The Creators Project. He quickly became inspired to learn more about the light source. Googling the laser lead to his next discovery, a series of luminescent images captured by a photographer who would become the subject of his film.

The Superlative Light tells the story of documentary photographer Robert Shults, who went from being a homeless dreamer to a home-owning artist after photographing this brightest light source. The film follows Shults as he comes to terms with his own hardships and eventually overcomes them through photographic ventures. Unlike most documentaries, The Superlative Light is viewable in 2D as well as in 360 degrees of virtual reality. “It's pretty amazing to be able to experience a story in two very different ways,” Steinbauer explains, having produced the film in both formats.


Actor, Nicholas Saenz, portrays photographer Robert Shults near Ladybird Lake in Austin, TX. photo credit: Robert Shults

While in pre-production for the film, Steinbauer had a meeting with Dox, a startup specializing in VR. “They loved the story and offered us half the production budget if we shot the film in VR as well as 2D. We wanted to shoot a short doc in VR that mirrored the story we wanted to tell in 2D,” Steinbauer says.  While most VR content is experiential rather than story driven, Steinbauer and his team wanted to create something different. They pushed themselves to make both versions of the story as narratively dynamic as possible. “The production was slower and the days were longer, but we think the result was worth the effort,” Steinbauer reveals.


Actor, Nicholas Saenz, portrays photographer Robert Shults under the bridge where Shults slept while homeless in Austin, TX. Photo credit: Robert Shults

VR allows viewers to experience the landscape, settings, and enormity of a character’s world, approximating the experience of actually being there. In The Superlative Light, Shults’s story is full of dynamic locations which lend themselves to this immersive visual output perfectly.  The fully virtual format takes you under bridges where Shults used to sleep, in photo studios where he worked, and inside the home of the Texas Petawatt laser, where he made his most iconic images.


Actor, Nicholas Saenz, portrays photographer Robert Shults aboard a Greyhound bus. Photo credit: Robert Shults

“Viewers have loved experiencing the film in two different formats,” Steinbauer says. “A lot of people are still unfamiliar with VR, and to be able to watch a short film in traditional 2D, and then see that same film in VR, helps them understand the scope of virtual reality.” While they have had multiple screenings of both versions, the most notable was their premiere at SXSW 2016. “I would definitely like to keep making films in VR; the technology literally puts the viewer in someone else’s shoes. Creating empathy between the characters in a film and the audience can lead to an emotional shift in the viewer and deeper understanding between people. That’s the essence of why storytelling is important to me.”


Actor, Nicholas Saenz, portrays photographer Robert Shults changing clothes under the bridge where Shults took shelter while homeless in Austin, TX. Photo credit: Robert Shults

Learn more and watch The Superlative Light in its entirety, here.


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virtual reality
Ben Steinbauer
Robert Shults
The Superlative Light
The Texas Petawatt