Teaching the Light Fantastic : The Art of the Laser at the Los Angeles School of Holography

From photography, you get photographs. From holography, you get holo grams. Don't expect logic from science.

I knew what holograms looked like, from museum shows. They looked like ghostly apparitions in thin air--pallid faces, three-dimensional and true to life down to the last hair; locomotives that charged out of frames; telescopes with eyepieces, fabricated only of light, that jutted 13 inches out of walls. They seemed miraculous and slightly scary. I knew that laser beams were used in their creation, and that laser beams are also used in surgery. Wasn't there perhaps something dangerous about a hologram?

A press release landed on my desk from the Los Angeles School of Holography in Calabasas--an institution that teaches you how to make holograms. Jerry Fox and David Schmidt, who run the school, don't earn their main income from it. On the same Calabasas premises they run a company called White Light Works Inc., which exploits the commercial possibilities of holography. Holograms are increasingly used in advertising, promotion and commerce: in metallic plastic on the covers of lurid paperbacks such as "Texas Tigress" by Sonya T. Pelton (Zebra Books); on the packages of a Ralston Purina cereal called Ghostbusters; on credit cards; in neck pendants and other morale-boosting gifts for executives of big companies such as General Electric.

Fox was a concert promoter when he saw his first hologram at the Hollywood Palladium in 1973. It was a motion hologram of a girl who winked and blew a kiss. "It stopped me flat; I was absolutely amazed by it," he says. "I put my career in the music industry behind me, searched out the sources for the hologram and became involved full-time. From that point on I did nothing but eat and sleep holography." In 1975 Fox formed his own company, People Stopper ("which is what the hologram did for me from the very beginning"), to develop the use of holograms for attracting attention at trade shows and in stores.

Early in 1986, Fox joined forces with Schmidt and founded White Light Works. The two men had been friends since 1974, when Schmidt was co-owner of the San Francisco-based Multiplex Co., creators of the first motion holograms. Last August, Fox and Schmidt decided to start the Los Angeles School of Holography, to give "hands-on experience" in the art to professionals--such as graphic artists from advertising agencies--and to amateurs who wanted to make holograms as a hobby. The professional rate for the weekend course is $450; the amateur rate is $375. (Professionals are given extra materials.)

Up to 10 people can take part in one class; more would be unmanageable. The course begins on a Friday evening, when Fox talks about the history and applications of holography (invented in 1947 by Dr. Dennis Gabor, who was later awarded a Nobel Prize for his discovery). On Saturday, Schmidt begins teaching the technical side. "What makes a hologram different from a photograph," he says, "is that in a photograph, generally, you're recording a focused image of the object through a lens onto a piece of film. In holography, you have no lens between the object and the photographic plate that you're recording on. All holograms need a coherent light source--a single frequency of light that stays in constant phase--and the only coherent light source we know of is the laser." Schmidt puts my fears to rest: The lasers used by surgeons are much more sharply focused than the beam used in holography, through which you can run your hand without harm.

Like most people who set out to explain something complicated, Schmidt compares holography with something else. The laser beam, he says, is divided into two: One part of it, known as the object beam , goes directly to the object and is reflected off the object onto the photographic film. The other part, known as the reference beam , is shined directly onto the plate. Schmidt compares the coincidence of the beams to the ripples of two rocks dropped into the same pool: "Where the two ripples interfere, we freeze them; and if you shine light off that ripple pattern, it will reflect back to those points where the rocks originated." Get it? Well, the students seem to.

Also on Saturday, the students bring along objects to turn into holograms. Kim Michaels, 26, who had given up a flagging career as an actress and was looking for a different art to practice, made a hologram of a china mask with pearls behind it.

Dan Shepherd, who sells professional audio equipment, had set his heart on making a hologram of a microphone--a mainstay and symbol of his business. His first attempt was a failure. "I was off by some inches with the reference beam," he says, "and I developed the whole project but it did not come out (as a) hologram. I had to go back and do it again. But I learned from my mistake. I know how to never do that again. Your measurements have to be accurate."

For information write: Los Angeles School of Holography, P.O. Box 851, Woodland Hills 91365.

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