Hologramica: Another Paintbrush at a Show Designer’s Disposal

Liz Berry looks back at her years working with holograms and outlines her hope of the technology becoming as ubiquitous within show designs as moving lights.

Known by many in the live events industry as the person responsible for creating the aesthetic for Robbie Williams’ live performances in the ’90s and ’00s, Liz Berry has straddled the line between the creative and technical throughout her career. As well as designing shows, she was one of the first Vari-Lite technicians when the company was established in the UK, when the ‘moving light fixture’ was seen very much as its own department on a live show. Now, of course, when you see any staging plot, the moving light has simply been absorbed into the general lighting rig. In Berry’s words, “they have become boring” in the sense that they are expected and it’s what is produced with these tools that has become the thing of interest. This is exactly what she wants to see happen with holograms; that this special effect becomes so well known and expected that it moves from a gimmick into yet another paintbrush at a show designer’s disposal.

Sitting in Hologramica’s new studio in Wandsworth, London, Berry gave an overview of holograms and the misnomer surrounding the term. “I always try to be as upfront as possible when I speak to a new customer about ‘holograms’,” she began, joking that in any pitch meeting she finds herself in, she often uses air quotes around the word ‘hologram’. “There are still people during a demo who half expect me to throw down some sort of metal frisbee and Princess Leia will appear. In some way, I wish we as an industry had come up with another term as it’s technically not a true hologram,  just another form of projection and I always try to make it clear that it’s essentially a magic trick , a visual illusion.”

It’s a trick that is very effective, as TPi discovered, as we sat through several pieces of content, from a dancer to a shark, that appeared in realistic 3D in front of our eyes.

In 2009, Berry struck out on her own, founding her company, Hologramica. “I had been working with Pepper’s Ghost systems – a method of producing a holographic effect by reflecting video in a sheet of tensioned Mylar foil hung at a 45º angle, and the hardware is quite cumbersome.” In other words, to have a hologram within a show took a long time to build and created quite an imposition on other departments – in Berry’s opinion, “frankly too many practical considerations”.

Nowadays, Pepper’s Ghost has mostly been replaced by projecting onto treated gauze screens. This is a lot faster and easier to do, but many of the products are too fragile to be practical out on the road, and have interference patterns from the gauze screen evident in the image. A major breakthroughs she had was creating a more robust hologram screen designed to deal with the rigours of the road.

Called 3D Holonet, the product can be hung in the same way you would hang a regular drape, while offering remarkable brightness and superb image quality. “I’ve been on far too many frantic builds and crazy load-outs so I know how hard it is to tour anything ‘delicate’, so one of the biggest jobs since founding the company is throwing myself into the R&D of 3D Holonet to make it as tourable as possible.”

In terms of making this solution more attainable to customers, Berry explained that a big part of her mission was educating people to use this solution. “In the past there have been people working in holograms that made it seem like some sort of dark art,” she explained. “It’s simply not true and if you’re a reasonable LD and you understand lighting, you can pick up the skills and techniques incredibly quickly.”

It has been one of the advantages that the team have found with their new studio space as they can work closely with clients to walk them through the procedures or collaborate on content to make sure it’s the best possible quality. “It’s great that people can create a hologram for the ‘wow’ effect on a show. However, I’d like to see it develop so more people understand how to use it and just see it as another tool.”

Berry mused on the future for holograms. “I see two areas where both we and our competitors may see some increased interest in the coming year,” she said. “In music, there have been numerous collaborations with artists who might have never worked together before doing duets and those songs are beginning to get released. When it comes to touring this new material, holograms offer a great solution to replicate these songs live. Most content creators, once they realise that this other option is now at their disposal, will come up with even more visually creative options to use them elsewhere in the show.” The other area that Hologramica has already seen a marked increase in interest is in the corporate world.

“With COVID-19, we have seen a lot of companies rapidly change their attitudes when it comes to travel. Suddenly, CEOs and directors of companies are less willing to travel due to the risk of infection or getting caught up in a border closure,” stated Berry.

“For the next year or so, we’re going to see fewer international conferences and more national events with CEOs being broadcast in – a format that holograms would fit into nicely.” She went on to suggest that the latter market was more likely to drive the hologram technology in the coming months than live events, at least for the short term. “The other area we’ve thankfully continued to work in is the install market, as many projects have continued to progress through lockdown.”

Although, as with every company, the past 18 months has been a struggle, Berry is optimistic about the future. “My hope is that some of the incredibly exciting conversations we’ve been having with our customers and partners come to fruition,” she commented.

“Throughout lockdown, we’ve really honed our offerings, including developing Holopops Ultra – a stand-alone hologram ‘booth’ capable of displaying a life-size human at 4K resolution in just a 3.1m by 2.5m footprint, and setting up a recording space to film live content of an individual to then stream them as a hologram to a Holopops or a stage-size 3D Holonet system, which has untold advantages for various applications.” Berry also commented on the benefit of having more players in the market. “It just leads us that step closer to making this solution common in the marketplace and, as I keep saying, makes them boring!”

This article originally appeared in issue #265 of TPi, which you can read here.