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General Articles

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A Brief History of Laser Light Shows
Condensed from "Laser F/X: The Light Show Handbook"


    Writing about laser light shows requires that we first define what a laser light show is. Most of the original "laser shows" that exposed the public to the beauty and pure colours of lasers were in the form of art, sculpture and holography exhibitions. This does not meet today's definition of a laser light show.
    It is defined here as a show where the laser is the main attraction. It is as an event where the audience expects the laser to be the major component of the show. For example, lasers at a rock concert would not qualify as a laser light show as the audience came to see the band not the lasers (except possibly in the case of a Pink Floyd's tour). Laser light shows typically choreograph projected scanned laser images (abstract, representational and optically generated) and beam effects with a music soundtrack for a complete entertainment experience.

    Once lasers moved from the laboratory to production and became widely available, they generated a great deal of interest and excitement especially amongst the artistic community. Early laser "shows" were often static beam array sculptures and did not use the scanned imagery we are familiar with in today's shows.
    Lasers were first used in many art exhibitions which do not qualify as "pure" laser light shows since the lasers were an element of the show along with other art works. These laser art shows were the precursors of today's laser light shows. They exposed the public to the lasers pure colours and light as an art/entertainment form.
    Much of the early artistic use of lasers was in the creation and display of holograms. Exhibits of holography as an art form are reported as early as April 1970, the "N-Dimensional Space" exhibit at the Finch College Museum of Art, New York City included works by Emmet Leith, Bruce Nauman, Lloyd Cross (early light show pioneer) and others. Holograms continue to be a popular art form and many cities now have museums and galleries devoted to holography. The original and most famous of which is "The Museum of Holography" on Mercer street in New York City, founded in 1976 (now closed).
    Optical transforms (diffraction patterns) were a very popular form of laser art in the early seventies. An optical transform is created by projecting laser light through an aperture and observing the results on a screen. The aperture used for the transforms was typically a black and white image recorded onto high contrast 35 mm film. The resulting projected patterns were often very complex and artistic. To make a permanent record of the transform, the laser can be projected onto photosensitive paper or photographed with a regular camera.
    One of the first exhibitions of optical transforms was presented by Canadian photographer Lawrence Weissmann at the International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, Rochester, NY in 1971. Mr. Weissmann's work differs from most other creators of optical transforms in that he uses images of people and objects rather than geometric shapes.


Early laser art shows

    Leo Beiser began experimenting in the sixties with what was called Co-Op-Art (for Coherent-Optical-Art). Swedish artist Carl Frederick Reutersward used lasers in a performance of "Faust" in Stockholm in 1968. Around the same time Joel Stein, a French artist, designed a system for projecting laser images onto the stage for a ballet at the Opera Comique in Paris.
    In 1968 Lloyd G. Cross, then of Ann Arbor, Michigan, invented "Sonovision" which used lasers to project "a visual display of sound" and patented it (U.S. Patent no. 779,510,27 Nov. 1968). This device consisted of a loudspeaker with a reflective membrane stretched over it. A HeNe laser pointed at the reflective surface produced patterns on a wall or screen in time to the music fed to the loudspeaker. A krypton laser powered version was also built with separate "sonic deflectors" for red, blue, green and yellow. A self-contained 2 mW version in a futuristic-looking moulded case was offered for $1,095.00.
    Joel Stein exhibited laser works in 1969 at the "Sigma" exhibition in Bordeaux, France. The main work, powered by a 5 mW HeNe laser, was described by Stein: "A beam passes through a 2 m long hollow prism made of polished steel and strikes a corner mirror which is mounted on ball bearings to permit it to be given an oscillatory motion. The laser beam is reflected by the mirror back through the smoke-filled hollow prism as points and intersecting lines of light."
    The first major US laser art exhibition, "Laser Light: A New Visual Art", was organised by Dr. Leon Goldman at the Cincinnati Art Museum in December 1969. Mike Campbell, Baron Kody and Rockne Krebs constructed environmental rooms with mirrors and smoke to make the laser beams visible. Rockne Krebs created "Day Passage" in 1971 for the "Art and Technology" exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The work used argon and HeNe lasers to create a multi-coloured, 3D light sculpture.
    Rockne Krebs also applied (in September 1969) for a patent that covered the use of multiple reflections of laser beams to produce visible effects. The patent was granted in 1977 (number 3,622,228) and led to a suit against the producers of laser effects (Brad Ferrer Association, of Wainscott NY) for the Broadway play "Sunday in the Park with George".

    In the late 1960's and early 1970's, a laser Physicist at the California Institute of Technology, Dr. Elsa Garmire, experimented with the artistic possibilities of laser light. In the words of Elsa Garmire -- the first lady of lasers -- "I was very much interested in the art and technology movement through a number of activities. I was involved in making a laser film and laser photography." By passing a laser beam through various materials mounted in a black box, she was able to project images onto a screen, photographic film, or sensitised printing paper to create black-and-white and colour "Lasergrams".
    Film maker Ivan Dryer worked with her to capture the laser images on colour film and set the images to music. The film was called "Laserimage". You may still be able to find it at libraries that have 16 mm films.


The Birth of X-Y Scanning

    Early light shows relied on images created by mirrors attached to loudspeakers (Sonovision and others), scanning of the laser beam with motorised spinning mirrors, electromagnet-controlled springs and other techniques. While the early methods produced interesting and often repeatable scanned patters, they lack the precise control necessary to accurately position the beam.
    The heart of the modern laser light show projector is the X-Y scanning system which allows for drawing with light to create abstract and cycloid effects. With today's precision, high-speed, position-detecting galvanometers, scanned graphics and animations are possible.
    Lowell Cross, an electronic music composer, used X-Y images created on an oscilloscope tube to augment his music compositions while a graduate music student at the University of Toronto electronic music lab. The images were often created by modifying and displaying the actual sounds in the musical composition.
    In an interview with the author, Cross stated, "I wanted to make the electronic music reproduction experience more involving for the audience than simply sitting watching the reels turn on the tape deck". To make the oscilloscope images larger and more interesting, he experimented first with black and white and later colour television sets modified for display of X-Y images.
    A black and white television projector was also modified in 1965 to create a large size vector display. The projector only lasted one evening as the X-Y patterns became permanently etched on the CRT owing to the high intensity of the brightness levels permitted by Cross's modifications.
    In 1968 Lowell Cross became acquainted with Carson Jeffries a sculptor of kinetic art systems (incorporating lasers) and a professor of physics. Cross and Jeffries set about building a laser projection system to display large scale images. On May 9, 1969 David Tudor, Carson Jeffries and Lowell Cross gave a concert at Mills College (Oakland California) with a multicolour X-Y laser projection system programmed by electronic music.
    This very primitive (by today's standards) laser system used optical galvanometers from a Bell & Howell strip chart recorder, driven by Honeywell electronics and a Coherent CR-MG argon/krypton laser to project X-Y scanned images. Cross named his system Video/Laser. The images were programmed by the electronic music and the performance at Mills College was called Audio/Video/Laser. This is amongst the first true laser light shows. The promotion for the event stressed the laser content and Cross feels that as many people attended for the laser as for the music.


Early Laser Light Shows

    Lowell Cross took his improved Video/Laser II to the Pepsi-Cola Pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka Japan. The four colour, four head system used a Coherent mixed gas laser, custom machined mounting and alignment system (by Jeffries) and an electronic control system (by Cross). The system was located in the "clam room" where the images were projected onto three large plane mirrors and reflected onto the floor of the room.
    The Pepsi Pavilion also included other interesting and unusual applications of art and technology. A book "Pavilion" by Experiments in Art and Technology edited by Billy Kluver, Julie Martin, and Barbara Rose (E.P.Dutton & Co., Inc. New York, 1972) was published documenting the Pepsi Pavilion. The book contains articles on laser systems by Elsa Garmire and Lowell Cross, including pictures of the laser effects and equipment.
    "There were other laser light shows at Osaka in 1970," recalled Elsa Garmire, "I remember seeing sumo wrestling on a full colour laser television over 8 feet high; it was really impressive. One other show was an amazing piece by a Japanese artist who built a scanning device that had a lot of solenoids in it, you could hear them clicking. The people sat up the sides of a cubic pavilion. There were argon lasers around the top and some kryptons that were beamed down into the centre onto this machine that threw beams of light all around the space. It was a very 3D experience."
    1971 saw the first large-scale laser projections when Willard Van De Bogart created laser images in concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. The images were projected onto a 40 by 40 ft screen and generated by a complex of optical glass, fibre optics, rippled plastics and mirrors.



    Ivan Dryer realised that movie film could not capture the pure, intense colours, the scale and the delicacy of the laser images created by Dr. Elsa Garmire. Only live projection of these effects with a laser could capture the excitement.
    Elsa Garmire told the author, "Dale Pelton, Ivan and I worked together and it was his idea to take the Cal Tech laser, which we did, to the Griffith Observatory. We demonstrated it to them and they liked it! We were among the first laser light shows. Actually, the first laser light show was Lowell Cross, way before the Osaka show which I was involved in."
    Dryer, Garmire and Pelton (who both later departed) formed "Laser Images Inc." using the then-young technology of X-Y scanning, plus several layers of lumia and various "sunglasses" performed the first Laserium® Show at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles in November 1973. Laserium® was the first company to commercialise the laser light show as a form of entertainment. Ivan Dryer is acknowledged as the father of the laser light show industry.
    The early Laserium® shows were a mixture of non-representational scanned colour modulated abstract and cycloid effects, with optical effects, created by lumia and diffraction gratings. The shows were choreographed to recorded music and the laser portion was performed live by the laserist. They typically took place in planetariums as the star field projections could be used as a very effective background. Since the laserist had full control of the system and could react to the audience, no two shows were exactly alike. This probably explained why many in the audiences were repeat customers.



    With the advent of position-detecting galvos and microcomputers, it became possible to accurately position the beam, thus allowing for the projection of words, pictures and animations with the laser. Early systems used images created with a digitising pad and stored in PROMs for X-Y playback. This gave a limited number of graphic images in the show to complement the mostly non-representational imagery.
    The first automated laser show was "Lovelight" which opened Feb. 4, 1977 at Boston's Hayden Planetarium. This was a ground breaking show as it had an original soundtrack (including lyrics for some selections) created to illustrate the entire history of life on earth. It began with the Big Bang, progressing through primordial life-forms, early cultures, and proceeding to a humorously-depicted space launch.
    Jennifer Morris recalls, "Somewhere in there was the message that love is the energy that motivates all life, and that recognising self-love is the only way to become one with the rest of creation. This was the show that brought Walter and I together, and we fell in love. I have always thought that whatever emotional energy the show communicated came from the highly reactive relationship at its centre, glowing in the basement "laserlab" that charged the tube at both ends for endless weeks..."
    The show was produced by Interscan, an organisation formed by General Scanning and Intermedia Systems Corporation. Gerd Stern was president and show producer of Intermedia, while animation illustrations and providing electronically-generated laser graphics was the role of Jennifer Morris with Walter Gundy as director of production (both later founders of Image Engineering). Other illustrators/artists/digitisers involved were Linda VonHelwig and Carolyn Rufo.
    Most of the optical and scanning equipment was supplied by General Scanning. Valerie (Dean) Paulson was responsible for much of the mechanical design with special designs by Coco Montague (now president of General Scanning). Both Bruce Rohr and Ed Grenda (later founders of Cambridge Technology) were with General Scanning at the time and had some involvement with the project.
    Some of the original circuit designs on which this system was based were done by Peter Silverstone; later contributions were made by Brian O'Brien and Gareth Williams (both independent contractors -- O'Brien played a role in some later laser show productions and even designed scan amps; Williams, an MIT grad student, went on to Bell Labs). Steve Savage (Sky Skan), did a great deal of the final installation and system maintenance.
    The projection system was based on a multimode krypton laser and used separate blue, green, yellow and red scan heads with acousto-optic intensity control (which was an innovation at the time). Control tracks were multiplexed (X-Y to one track) and FM-modulated onto an 8 track instrumentation recorder -- a device, said Morris, that lacked several amenities, such as an erase head, making a programmers job a real brain buster.


Star Wars

    The immensely popular "Star Wars" movie generated public interest in symphony concerts with "Music from Outer Space" or "Symphonies of the Stars" themes. The orchestras performed the musical selections in conjunction with lighting, lasers and special effects. The first of these concerts was performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with music from the movie and lasers supplied by Laser Media.
    Soleil was also involved with many of these concerts and provided krypton lasers for the red beams, and argon lasers for the blue and green beams. Two high-power xenon slide projectors with a dissolver unit were also used to project images onto the three-story backdrop/screen behind the symphony. Other special effects included mirror balls, strobe lights, flame throwers and flashpots.


Other Pioneering Shows

     In the summer of 1978 the Smithsonian Institution in cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sponsored "Icarus", a sky opera seen nightly over Washington DC. The music for the show was composed by Paul Earls and the images by Otto Piene both of MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies. The laser images which included flying birds were projected onto steam screens which rose from a 52.5 meter (175-foot) array of perforated pipes dubbed "Centerbeam". The array of pipes formed the centrepiece of the show and was used to display sculptures and art works created by others from MIT including 10 solar-tracked holograms by Harriet Casdin-Silver.
    "Artfest '78" in the fall of 1978 was sponsored by the Arts Council of Knoxville Tennessee. Laser Displays of Boston produced a laser show projected onto an 80' X 20' screen suspended between two buildings. Laser Displays under president Bart Johnson was one of the first laser companies to offer PROM based image synthesisers for sale to other laser show companies.
    Laser Displays were among the first to offer multicolour laser graphics projections from a single scan head, as opposed to the previous technique of using a scan pair for each colour. Even though the system was primitive by today's standards (using stepper motor driven indexed colour wheels) the results were quite impressive.


Steroscopic Laser 3D

    Another milestone in the development of laser light show technology was the first presentation of stereoscopic laser 3D. Commercialised by Laser Fantasy International, the first public performance was at Boeing headquarters in Seattle, Washington in 1986.
    To project the separate left and right eye views required for perception of a 3D image, the laser projection system used one scan pair for each of the left and right eye images. Polarising material was mounted in front of each scan head in an orthogonal orientation. The audience viewed the presentation using orthogonally polarised glasses. Since the polarised material transmits all laser lines, this technique allowed for the perception of full colour images in 3D.


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