Aug 27, 2012

Double Peppers Ghost

You know how sometimes you get ideas that just won’t leave your head? Well this is one of those.

For the Laser Lace Letters, I’ve been writing a lot about a magician called Caelen the Magnificent (formerly, The Great Ralpholio) and so I’ve been thinking a lot about different styles of Victorian magic.  We think of old timey magic like a play, on a big stage in front of a big audience, but when I was 15 or 16 I read an old book about a different kind of presentation that took place in a set of smaller parlors.  Guests walked from room to room, taking in each illusion, and each room was built to pull off a certain effect.

Now I’m 31, and the name of the act and the name of the book I read about it in have long since vanished from my memory.  But I love the idea of walk-through illusion attraction, and in fact a few of these sort-of exist, as the entryways and queues for big attractions at amusement parks.  For example, as you make your way through Hogwarts in the queue for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, you pass through a series of rooms where the characters appear and speak to you from balconies and behind barricades.  In the pre-show for the Universal Studios show “Disaster!” a facsimile of Christopher Walken terrorizes his assistant onstage for a short time.  Both of those experiences make use of a very old illusion known as Peppers Ghost.

Peppers Ghost was first formulated in the 16th century by the same guy who invented the camera obscura.  It originally included a big plate of angled glass and a set of real objects, but since then we’ve figured out how to do it with thin piece of fabric and a high resolution projector.  Which is where we get this.

That’s 500 years of stagecraft in the making right there.

It takes a lot to make a Peppers Ghost illusion look good; but if the projected image matches the lighting conditions onstage, it can look very real indeed.  Or at least, close enough that we call it a hologram.

Anyway, that’s all background.  Here’s the idea that’s trying to work its way out of my brain.  I call it the Double Peppers Ghost, and it would take advantage of high res projectors, tightly controlled staging, a well trained staff with impeccable timing, and realtime image processing a little like the kind you see in Double Fine Happy Action Theater.

The illusion works like this – an audience of 6 to 10 people is let into the parlor by twos.  For each duo, a magician performs a quick illusion.  The parlor has a stage and a seating area, and some of the illusions are parlor tricks done in the seating area, while others take place on a tall but relatively small stage.  The magician and the sets of audience members move in and out of the stage area, and the illusions involve physical objects with no particular special effects.

When it comes time for the final duo to enter the room, the magician ushers them straight onto the stage and performs an impossible feat – before the eyes of the seated spectators, their compatriots go flat – they turn into paper cutouts of themselves which then collapse to the stage floor.  The magician folds their friends up and stuffs them in his jacket, promising to restore them by the end of their journey.

Meanwhile, from the point of view of the final duo, they have been ushered onto the stage and the magician has promised an amazing feat.  He will make the audience disappear.  As the two watch, and the magician chants, their friends vanish in a puff of smoke one by one.  After the illusion, they can go down into the seating area and touch the empty seats for themselves.

What’s happening here is that we have two separate rooms with cameras, two separate Peppers Ghost illusions, and in reality, two separate magicians giving different sets of patter.  The camera is capturing the guests from each room and projecting them into the proper place in the other room – in one case, the guests are on the stage in one room, being projected onto the stage in the other room; and in the other case, the guests are in the seating area, being projected onto the seating area as viewed by the guests on the stage.

The effect can be enhanced by a video feed that allows the waiting guests to see what’s going on in the first room before they go in, giving the final duo the impression that they have walked into the correct room.  The scrim (the thin piece of fabric onto which the images are projected) is set up differently for each room, but is concealed well enough that it, allows both the magician and guests to pass through holes in the mesh – in the guests’ case, without knowing it is even there.  The previous spate of illusions give the two audience members a reason to be on stage, and also set up an element of surprise when a digital effect is used at the end of a string of practical effects.

At the end of the parlor attraction, the groups are reunited through a similarly duplicitous restoration illusion.  Then they can trade stories of their experience afterward, and perhaps figure out how it all was done.

I wish I could have Caelen the Magnificent perform this trick, but the camera and projector technology is far out of his league, even for the Clockwork Watch universe where all manner of other fictional tech thrives.

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