Arthur Johns' 10-minute experimental film is a personal essay on colour effects, set to a hypnotic soundtrack by Robert Wyatt. Although his initial art training was in painting, Johns quickly realised that his favourite medium was film. He made Solar Flares in the early 1970s, shortly after graduating from London's Royal College of Art, where he had already made a number of award-winning experimental shorts.
The film was made on equipment rented cheaply from the college (including an Oxberry process camera for the special effects), and the production process was largely organic, as Johns remembers: "the film made itself.... I didn't know it was going to be a film about landscapes until it was finished." The film doesn't follow a linear narrative, consisting instead of four distinct sections whose material has highly personal connotations for the filmmaker: "Solar Flares was about landscape, but there were two landscapes in me. And as much as I grew up in a village in Cornwall, when I made a film, I was working in Soho.... I was the village boy but I was also the film-maker. And so Solar Flares is the portrayal of both those inner landscapes". The successive scenes include a strange street mime involving a paper bird in Islington's Camden Passage; crowded streets around Piccadilly; a domestic scene (printed stop-frame) in which the filmmaker is seen rolling a joint in his bedroom and haunting shots of Cornish moorland clay-pits and the surrounding natural landscapes. In this striking psychedelic finale, the film develops complex superimpositions of negatives and positives of similar tracking shots, while creating unique colour effects through the use of primary colour filters in a variety of combinations.
Ex-Soft Machine musician Robert Wyatt was involved at an early stage, so that the music became an integral part of the project. Recorded at the home studio of Pink Floyd's Nick Mason in Spring 1973, this multi-instrumental experiment sits between Wyatt's solo debut, End Of An Ear, and his seminal Rock Bottom, with its distinctive use of toy organ. The music itself would reappear, in a more 'digestible' form, on his 1975 album Ruth Is Stranger than Richard.
Solar Flares was completed in 1973 thanks to a small grant from the BFI Production Board, and was Johns' calling card into the film industry. He subsequently specialised in special effects and went on to work on films like the Superman series.