Pin It
Rick Braukis
Rick BraukisCourtesy Rick Braukis

Rick Braukis is the firestarter behind SZA’s hypnotic visual effects

The pyro producer talks ‘accessible chemistry’, EDM, and getting a load of white powder through international customs

Picture a ‘scientist’ or ‘chemist’ and your brain might (unfairly) imagine the visual equivalent of a ‘total nerd’, probably wearing a lab coat or something. It’s almost definitely not Rick Braukis, a chemical specialist who carries out experiments in Prada dresses and heels, and handles flaming compounds in her underwear. Her Instagram is an enigmatic blend of quad bikes, awe-inspiring nature, horses and high fashion: plants with iridescent leaves, neon stripper heels, and flaming knives.

Braukis was recently credited as handling “fire and glow” on SZA’s “PSA”, the first teaser of new music around her much-hyped SOS album. In it, SZA lays atop a motorbike while a green ring of fire glows around her, and slowly pours a bright blue luminescent liquid over her nude body, a bit like the stuff that trickles out when you snap a glow stick in two.

Based between LA and Phoenix, Arizona, Braukis (real name Erika Braukis) is a self-described “science nerd,” and first got into playing around with synthesised materials after studying biochemistry at college. While enrolled there, she found the financial burden too great, so dropped out and packed off to Hollywood, where she found a niche in the private floral industry, making large flower installations for hotel lobbies and Beverly Hills homes. After a few years of that, the pull of science found her joining a community college to do an associate of science degree.

While at school I took a job cleaning the college chemistry labs so I had unlimited time – and almost no supervision – in the lab and with the chemicals,” she tells Dazed. “It was amazing. I would take what I was learning in my microbiology and chemistry classes and then expand on it in the lab after hours. My boss knew what I was doing and was very supportive, he gave me my own fumigation hood in the lab to play around in so I could run experiments and not have to tear them down right away.

Part of my job was also keeping track of what chemicals needed to be ordered and developing my language skills around ordering chemicals from distributors and knowing what they were used for,” she continues. “Later I started realising that a lot of what we were ordering for the lab were things I could actually just buy on my own off the internet, and once I started buying my own chemicals I started doing all my experiments in my bathroom or garage at home.” 

Below, we spoke to Rick Braukis about working with SZA, sci-fi, Skrillex, and making things burn from her backyard.

Can you tell me about some of your favourite substances that you work with?

Rick Braukis: I like setting metal salts on fire best, the colour of the flames are so beautiful. It’s a basic experiment you learn in chemistry called a “flame test”, and it teaches you to discern between different elements by what colour they burn. It’s similar to the science behind how NASA tells what different stars are made of by the colour they emit. 

People always think the fires I make must be so toxic because of the colour, and granted some of them can be, but mostly not, they are just metal salts burning. For example: table salt is sodium chloride (NaCl) – sodium is a shiny silver metal, and chlorine is a very toxic gas, but together they are just table salt. The same goes for a lot of the metals I use: boron, lithium, potassium, strontium. When you understand how the world is only made up of 90 elements all just arranged and rearranged with each other, chemistry seems a lot more accessible.  

Who and what are some of your biggest influences on what you create?

Rick Braukis: Dmitri Mendeleev, the genius who invented my favourite thing in the world: the periodic table of elements. He figured out how all the elements relate to each other from a dream he had while asleep at his desk.   

Also, I grew up very exposed to anime, thanks to my mother who was an engineer and a huge fan of Japanese culture. I think anime imagery was the first art I really remember immersing myself in as a child. Not watching it, but looking at it in old 90s Newtype magazines that we had in the house. Newtype magazine was like the Reader's Digest of anime in Japan, and full of colour stills from all the new anime that came out in the 90s. None of it was in English, so I would spend hours poring over them and making up backstories for all the imagery I saw. I still collect vintage Newtype issues today and still pore over them for ideas. I also watched a lot of anime when I was younger – my favourites are Vampire Hunter D and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

Have any other visual ideas influenced what you do?

Rick Braukis: There was an art installation in 2008 that had a really profound effect on me that I still reflect on. It was called Hello Meth Lab In The Sun, and it was a totally fake and artistic version of a home meth lab. I never actually even saw the exhibit in person, but I saw a lot of imagery of it on the internet while I was still studying biochemistry at a private university and I remember seeing those images and then looking at the lab at school and thinking there had to be a middle ground somewhere between the two, and that was where I actually belonged. 

I also read and watch a ridiculous amount of sci-fi. It’s my absolute favourite genre for everything. Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dune (1984) and Aliens (1986) are my favourites to watch. My favourite sci-fi books are a whole can of worms for me to open where I could go on for hours, but I’ve really been hyping The Three-Body Problem trilogy for the last couple of years, and haven’t stopped hyping it because it’s truly amazing.

What helps with your work, which I imagine can be very technical?

Rick Braukis: I’ve been into EDM music for as long as I can remember and still listen to it when I study. Whenever I have to solve maths equations I put on Skrillex and it helps me concentrate. When I had to take college calculus, I would blast dubstep so loud my room would shake and I would just be in there solving derivatives for eight hours straight and drinking Red Bull. It was honestly a really cool period of my life that I loved, even though it was super stressful. I would post pictures of my homework that were just massively long maths equations and I thought they were really beautiful.

How did SZA approach you to work with her on the ‘PSA’ teaser?

Rick Braukis: She honestly just slid into my DMs one day and asked if I could set her on fire. I responded with “of course!”, and that was that. Working with SZA was – and is – incredible. She’s a legend. We originally shot all her album promo on my iPhone and I believe her record label had a panic attack about it, so we did a reshoot with a cinematographer, and thank god we did because that ended up being the video for “PSA”. We still used all my janky iPhone footage as well though. SZA and I still have a few more ideas we are going to work on together in the future, and I’m so grateful for that because she really has become my muse.

Have you got any other projects in the works?

Rick Braukis: I just recently got to do chemical effects for [photographer] Renell Medrano in Jamaica. It was my first time bringing my chemicals through international customs, and that was a whole experience in itself. I believe the crew and my friends at home were all waiting for the news that I had been arrested at the airport for trying to bring over 10,000 grams of white powder into the country! But obviously it was fine. I also did liquid and fire effects for the Blumarine Spring 2023 campaign shot by Petra Collins, which will be coming out soon. Me and Petra go way back socially, but it was our first time working together and I’m so happy we did because she was amazing to work with!

What would be your dream collaboration?

Rick Braukis: To do effects for the [Black equestrian group] Compton Cowboys and their horses – they are real hometown heroes and I’ve been a fan for a long time.

Join Dazed Club and be part of our world! You get exclusive access to events, parties, festivals and our editors, as well as a free subscription to Dazed for a year. Join for £5/month today.