Mar 17, 2018

Exploratorium • Symposium • Laserium

Notes by Caroline Z. Oliveira 

Frame from Laserimage  (c)  Laser Images, Inc., 1972.

The little-known film experiment Laserimage (Ivan Dryer, 1971-72) is part of the session called Technophilia at the 11th Orphan Film Symposium. On April 13, Kathleen Maguire introduces the premiere screening of a new 16mm print, preserved by Bill Brand (BB Optics) and his students in NYU MIAP’s Film Preservation class. Coordinator of the Cinema Arts Program at The Exploratorium in San Francisco, Maguire (also a MIAP grad, ’08) brought attention to the film’s preservation needs. 

Ivan Dryer was the originator of commercial laser light shows in 1973, but he had also been an aspiring filmmaker. In the early 1970s, Dryer partnered with Dr. Elsa Garmire, a California Institute of Technology physicist, to create an hour-long show for the Griffith Observatory Planetarium in Los Angeles. As a pitch, Dryer shot Laserimage, an 11-minute 16mm film that attempted to capture the beauty and fluidity of laser lights. Shooting against a black background, he filmed colorful laser lights and synchronized their movement to instrumental music.

The film’s conception allowed Dryer to develop Laserium (“house of the laser”), the first laser display to be featured in planetariums. The show ended up becoming what the Laserium company’s website describes as “the longest-running theatrical attraction in Los Angeles,” remaining part of the Griffith’s attractions until 2001. Laserium shows traveled to cities internationally and has been referenced in Hollywood movies, television shows, comic books, and music videos. InLASERIUM In Popular Culture,” Dryer wrote that Laserium made its mark by appearing in:
TV shows from Mork and Mindy to The Simpsons and Two and a Half Men; in movies from Starman to Star Trek and Disclosure; in music videos for Madonna, Herbie Hancock and Def Leppard, among many others; in magazines such as People and National Geographic World. . . . And Laserium is a frequent metaphor for spectacle in reviews of everything from a Kenny Chesney concert to Tron: Legacy. It even shows up in a song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

In 2017, NYU MIAP student Melanie Miller drafted what became a successful proposal to the National Film Preservation Foundation, leading to a $3,380 NFPF grant to preserve Laserimage as a 16mm film. One print will be archived at the NYU Film Study Center, and another at the Exploratorium, where the preservation elements will also be stored. 

Laserimage, the film experiment, had limited circulation, but it helped launch a new art form and the visual-musical spectacle that revolutionized planetarium attractions in the 1970s. • 

Fun Fact: In the Marvel comic book The Amazing Spider-Man, issue 165 (1977), Peter Parker and Mary Jane discuss their relationship during a Laserium performance at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium in New York. “The Laserium is about to begin,” he says. Followed by this panel:

Photograph from Kathleen Maguire. 

The 2 rolls of 16mm film -- the master printing negative and a positive optical soundtrack -- that went to BB Optics for preservation. Maguire's Exploratorium colleague Ron Hipschman got them from Pyramid Media, a distributor deaccessioning the elements. For the completist: the NFPF grant to NYU Cinema Studies - MIAP Program was used to create a 16mm interpositive,  internegative, negative optical soundtrack, answer print, and release print. 

Registration and full program listing for the 11th Orphan Film Symposium.