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Designing a Pepper's Ghost: how on earth do you make a hologram on stage?

Director Patrick Eakin Young explains the process behind creating realistic holograms onstage

Toujours et Près de Moi

Toujours et Près de Moi is a piece about a man and a woman who find themselves reliving their troubled past by watching ghostly images of their younger selves romp around on a table-top stage. The show uses a 19th century illusion called a Pepper's Ghost to create the holographic figures who move, fight, love, and tumble in and out of two wooden boxes manipulated by the performers.

Although I am a director, I tend to design or co-design the sets for most of my productions. My work usually has strong structural or technical requirements that dictate the form the piece will take on stage. A project will use ten movable speakers, for example, or in this case, a giant mirror that produces an illusion. In this way, my designs are often a kind of anti-design, consisting primarily of the technical elements that the piece requires. Of course, there are always choices to be made, which are about aesthetic and storytelling, but fundamentally the design arises from the form of the piece itself.

The giant hanging mirror in Toujours et Près de Moi

In this project, the major technical element is the holographic illusion and how it is created. Spoiler alert: it's a two-way mirror! You project video onto a surface, and then reflect that image off a two-way mirror. If you light behind the mirror just right, then the audience sees both the reflection and whatever is on the other side, and it looks as if the video image is actually in the space behind. Rather than masking the screen and trying to hide the source of the images, I chose to expose the entire illusion and how it is made.

When the audience enters, the space is dominated by a huge hanging mirror and a long strip of white paper on the floor. Behind the mirror, there is a wooden table and two boxes. These are the bare essentials to create the piece, the rest is conjured through lighting, video projection, and sound design.

A working model of the design for Toujours et Près de Moi

I taught myself how to make a Pepper's Ghost through internet research and trial-and-error, making table-top installations before moving on to larger-scale works. The one innovation that I seem to have stumbled on in my tinkering is how to make the holograms interact with objects. Every other Pepper's Ghost I've ever seen, the image always appears in a black space. But I discovered that if you place objects in the right place in relation to the projected image, they can look like they are touching. It gives the illusions a real sense of weight and presence, even though you know they are not really there.

Part of the pleasure of illusions is that we know they aren't real. It's for this reason that I project the video itself directly onto the floor, so that as you're watching the piece, you can see how the illusion is being created. I don't want to hide the process. In fact, I find it more magical when you can see how you are being fooled, but you can't help being drawn into it.

Toujours et Près de Moi is at Assembly Roxy, 15:00, every day apart from 13 and 20 August.

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