A Complete Guide to
This document was originally developed by
a founding member of
ILDA, and is reprinted with permission.
Original version ©2002, Audio Visual Imagineering Inc. All rights
reserved. Used by permission.
ILDA version ©2006-2007,
International Laser Display Association. All rights reserved.
Table of contents
Click to jump to a section:
Using lasers at events
What lasers can do
Laser show choices
Producing laser graphics
How laser graphics work
Laser graphics are not TV
Turning your artwork into laser graphics
Laser powers and visibility
Special laser uses
Lasers and 3D
U.S. national regulations
State and local regulations
Fire watch not required
What to look for in a laser show company
How to find the right lasers for your event
Complete Guide to Laser Shows
asers are the most powerful
light source on earth. With their thin shafts of light and rainbow-pure
colors, “Star Wars”-style laser beams are a dazzling cross between
theatrical lighting and fireworks. Another technique, animated laser
graphics, communicates exciting messages using a medium more
eye-catching than conventional slides or video.
The unique features of lasers
help put the “spectacle” in spectaculars, and the “special” in special
events. This document will help event producers understand the benefits
and requirements of laser displays.
Lasers can be used at a variety
of indoor and outdoor events, including:
aOpenings, such as player introductions at basketball and hockey games
aParties held in planetariums
aBeacons and displays in trade shows
aMajor special events such as the
Super Bowl or Olympics
aPremieres, grand openings, launch parties
There are many creative ways
lasers can be used in a production. Most of these uses fall into the two
broad categories of seeing beams in mid-air, and seeing graphics on a
the audience sees “structures” in mid-air, such as fans,
cones and shafts of light. Usually theatrical fog or haze is required
to make the light shapes more visible.
Beams can be fast or slow; they can give an event a “Star Wars”
excitement, or a New Age mystical calm. In many countries, beams
routinely (and safely) scan the crowd, literally "touching" the audience members.
Laser graphics can
display a client’s logo, animate their product, tell a story, or
simply entertain. Because of technology requirements, these images are
cartoon-like outlines, without any interior fill or detail.
This can be a limitation, but it also helps
make laser graphic shows very different and attention-getting,
compared with ubiquitous
Often beams and graphics are
combined. For example, “screen and beam” shows use graphics on a single
center screen or two side screens, with beams coming from below the
screen(s) and over the audience.
graphics can be seen on just about any relatively smooth, relatively
light surface. You can use conventional projection screens, an indoor or
outdoor wall, water screens, inflatable screens, buildings and even
(Incidentally, laser companies
are sometimes asked to project logos on clouds. This is impractical;
Mother Nature does not often provide the required smooth, low, dense
Laser show producers have three
general types of shows for you to choose from: stock, semi-custom, and
Stock shows have
already been produced. They have general themes such as patriotism,
achievement, holidays (e.g., Christmas), etc.
If an audience is not familiar with laser
shows, these may work fine. But some stock shows are very well known
in the laser industry and thus they have been shown over and over
Therefore, you may want to ask about the source of the stock
show. Did it come with the laser software (meaning that many laser
companies could be using it), or was it done by a single laser company
only for its clients’ use?
Semi-custom shows can
be the best value. Your logos, or perhaps custom animation sequences,
are added to a stock show. If the already-existing show is appropriate
to your event, this gives a custom look at stock price
custom shows, the
music, the storyboard, the images, are all created for you. While some
sequences may be from stock and thus are very common (flying eagles,
rotating earths, shaking hands), all elements of the production are
designed for your needs. The cost of producing custom artwork for a
4-minute song can add anywhere from $1000 to over $10,000, depending
on artistic complexity.
To make a laser graphic, two tiny
computer-controlled mirrors aim the beam at a screen. The beam bounces
first off of one mirror moving horizontally, then off another at right
angles, moving vertically.
The computer literally “connects
the dots”, aiming the mirrors from one place to another fast enough that
the viewer sees a single outline drawing. This process is called
“scanning”. The computer-controlled mirrors are galvanometer “scanners”.
The scanners move from point to
point, at a rate of roughly 50,000 points per second. Due to technical
limitations, it is not possible to go significantly faster. This limits how complex a single image can be.
To add more detail to a scene, additional sets of
scanners can be used.
It is important to realize
that laser graphics normally are not TV-like raster images.
Instead, they are like a connect-the-dots drawing. Most laser graphics
are cartoon-like outline. This means that you just can’t hand a photo or
videotape to a laser company, and immediately have it be projected as a
cartoon-like outline. Otherwise, it would just be a standard video
projector with a laser as the light source.
Instead, the laser company will
use artists or a computer program to determine the outline of your
image, and then turn that into a series of dots. The scanners smoothly
move the laser beam from dot to dot. This happens fast enough and
smoothly enough that you see a steady outline of the object.
From a production standpoint,
this means that any custom laser show images need to be processed by a
laser artist. You can’t do this yourself. The artist has to translate
any existing artwork into laser imagery.
There are a few programs that
make it easier. One is a converter for standard computer graphics
programs such as Adobe Flash and Autodesk 3D Studio Max. A computer artist can
design a scene with objects that translate well into
laser, and can then render it into laser as an outline, or an outline
with contour lines. But again, this is still a situation where the laser
company must produce the final laser artwork for you.
Another program to convert
artwork is able to turn photographs or video into TV-like raster images.
However, the resolution is only about 60 pixels wide by 60 lines high.
This is about 80 times less detailed than standard NTSC television
resolution (based on the total number of pixels).
These laser raster images are
good for certain uses, like showing a close-up of a familiar face. But
in general they are limited to special effects. And for good reason: if
you were to do an entire laser show with raster images, it would
essentially be low-resolution TV. Just use a video projector instead!
One of the attractions of lasers
is their brilliant colors – the purest in the universe. When planning
with lasers, color is a key consideration.
Your event may need a certain
color, which then dictates using a particular type of laser. Or, you may
not care about color, and you simply want the easiest and most visible
If one color is sufficient,
lime-green is the most common and economical. One benefit is
that lime-green (532 nanometer wavelength) is much more visible to the
eye than blue or red. One watt of lime-green light looks 2-3 times
brighter than one watt of red or blue light. A disadvantage is that this
color is so commonly used, that audiences may not find it special.
Some clients need specific
colors, to match logos or products. And many clients want the
flexibility of full-color.
In both these cases, a full-color laser is called for. This is also
called an "RGB" or "white-light" laser. Usually the laser has three
beams internally: red, green and blue. Adjusting the level of each
internal beam allows the final output beam to be any desired color. If
all internal beams are at full power, the resulting output beam is
Full-color lasers are more
expensive than single-color lasers with equivalent power. Thus, if you
want the most power for your money, choose a single-color laser (usually
green is most economical). This is often the case for beam shows.
Note that if you are buying a
laser projector -- for a disco, for example -- the same projector may be
available with many different laser options:
The lowest cost version
will have a single color beam, usually green
blue is available, it will be at a
higher cost and/or lower output power. This is because it is more
difficult to produce blue laser light.
There may be a
version that uses two lasers, green
and red. By mixing these,
yellow can also become available.
version uses red, green and blue beams.
-- The least expensive full-color projector will have 7
colors produced by simply turning on or off each of the RGB beams. The
colors are: red,
violet and white.
-- Top-of-the-line full-color projectors allow shades
of the individual RGB beams, so that just about any color or intensity
can be produced. Be careful that the colors are well-balanced.
Sometimes, the green overpowers the other two colors, so that the
laser's "white" light is more greenish.
A laser beam is only visible
if there is particulate matter in the air, such as dust, fog and smoke.
This photo also uses a slightly misaligned laser to show how separate
red, green and blue beams combine to form a "white light" beam. Photo
courtesy Dave Nash, FFP Laser Systems.
The power of a laser beam is
measured in watts and milliwatts (1/1000 watt). The minimum power needed for a laser light show in a
dark, medium-sized room (like a hotel ballroom) is about 500 milliwatts
to 1 watt.
Somewhere between 5 and 20 watts is typical for indoor use. In large
arenas and outdoors, 10 to 80 watts is common.
Wattage alone does not determine
how visible the beam will be. For example, a 1 watt green laser beam can
appear as bright as a 3 watt red beam, since the eye sees green light
better than red or green. Therefore, when deciding how much laser power
to use for your show, there are many factors the laser company will
consider. These include:
Laser color: Green is most visible You can use a less powerful (and thus
easier-to-use and less expensive) laser if green is acceptable.
Keep your event as dark as possible during the laser show. The laser
won’t need extra wattage to “punch through” ambient light.
divergence: Some types of lasers have tighter beams than others.
Low-divergence beams look brighter since the light is concentrated in
a smaller area.
Amount of fog and
smoke: Fog helps the laser beams be more visible. If you can’t use
a lot of fog, then you’ll need a more powerful laser.
If the audience is spread out, then the laser’s power will be spread
over a larger area. A higher wattage laser is required.
Audience safety: In many parts of
the world, the audience is scanned with laser beams. The beam power
and divergence must be sufficient that the beam and scanned effects
are visible, but that there is no eye hazard. One solution is to have
the beam be at full power when above the audience, but at a lower
power when scanning the audience.
2000, most large laser shows used bulky argon or krypton gas lasers
which required 220 to 440 volts, and around 2 gallons of water per
minute for cooling.
Fortunately, in recent years new
solid-state lasers such as "DPSS" and "YAG" types have become
widespread. The lasers themselves are small enough to be easily carried
by one person. Some have a form factor and features similar to
conventional lighting instruments. They can run from a standard wall
outlet (e.g., 110 volts in the U.S.), and are air-cooled by simple fans.
These new lasers have
revolutionized shows. They make all aspects of show production easier,
from freight to location flexibility. It has also made it easier for
venues and lighting companies to own and run their own laser equipment,
rather than needing specialists in electricity, tubes and plumbing.
are some other factors to consider when you add lasers to your
production. All of these should be very familiar to a laser show
company. These factors are mentioned here so you have an idea of what to
Beam direction: For beams, the laser equipment is usually positioned in front of the
audience. Beams will be aimed over their heads.
This is because laser beams appear brightest when they come
straight towards you (the light scatters forward when it hits dust and
smoke particles). They appear second-brightest when they come from
straight behind you, and least bright when they are crossing your
field of vision.
Graphics screen: For graphics, rear-projection is generally preferred over
front-projection. The images seem a bit more “magic” because the
audience does not see the beams that create the graphics.
The graphics projector should be no closer than the largest
dimension of the screen area. For example, if projecting onto a 20’ x
30’ screen, the laser should be no closer than 30’. The farthest
distance is roughly 100 feet. These dimensions can vary if lenses are
used for wide-angle or beam sharpening. They can also vary depending
on how close the audience is to the screen.
positioning: Direct-feed projectors join the laser and
scanners as a single "laser projector" unit. These may be compact enough that the entire projector can be mounted
on a stand or flown in the rigging.
Fiber-fed projectors (where a fiber-optic cable brings
laser light to a remote scan head) have even more flexibility in
positioning. They can be put on a stand or flown. One hundred feet is
a typical distance for the cable run. Because the fiber-optic cable is
delicate it must be prevented from being run over, severely bent,
positioning and setup time: Lasers require roughly the same
setup time and control console space requirements as lighting and
The control console location should allow the laser operator to see
the audience. If this is not possible, a laser safety observer must be
in front, with a headset or walkie-talkie for immediate communication
with the laser operator.
regulations: As listed below, both the show and the
projector must comply with generally recognized laser safety requirements as
well as government laws. In the U.S., this means compliance with
federal laws and having a valid variance. Some
states and localities may also have requirements. If lasers are used
outdoors, then the appropriate aviation authority (FAA in the U.S.,
CAA in the U.K.) must be notified. In the U.S. this is required even if the beams are
terminated on nearby buildings. The aviation authority will review the
show and (hopefully!) will issue a letter of non-objection to the show
The laser show company must take care of these reporting
requirements. They cannot be put off onto the producer or venue (For
fixed installations, the venue may be the variance holder but almost
always it is the laser show company which handles the application
In the U.S., normally the beam is required to be 3 meters (10 feet)
above where the audience could stand, and 2.5 meters (8 feet)
laterally from where the audience could reach sideways.
In practical terms, this means the venue ceiling must be a
minimum 12 feet high (giving a foot or so for the beam effects). It
also means that if a projection is coming from behind the audience,
towards a screen, the beam must always be at least 10 feet above the
floor where the audience is seated.
surfaces: Many facilities have reflective surfaces such as mirror
strips and chandeliers. Other reflective surfaces may be present, such as mirrors
on intelligent lights and silver truss.
If the laser projection could bounce off these surfaces, into
audience areas, then the beam must be masked to prevent any stray
Time should be built into the production schedule for aiming and
fine-tuning the laser projections. There should be no one in the laser
areas except the laser company’s technicians. A good time for setup is
when the other crews are taking a meal break, or after they have
finished their calls.
Ideally, each person manning a laser location will be on headset.
If this is not possible, then the operator at the main laser controls
must be on headset with the producer; the other laser technicians can
be on walkie-talkies with the laser operator.
audio: Some laser companies take their audio from the main
production; SMPTE or other methods are used for sync. Other laser
companies provide their own audio which is fed (as a line-level
signal) to the main mixer.
lighting: Lights should be off, or as low as possible during the
show. Some laser companies prefer to add some complementary lighting,
such as a low red wash when green lasers are used. This is usually
done with existing fixtures, simply by coordinating with the lighting
Video projectors should be masked or turned off to prevent video
“gray” from illuminating screens.
may want to ask if a laser company is a current member of ILDA, the
International Laser Display Association. Membership can help indicate
that the company has a professional artistic and business approach.
ILDA runs an annual awards
competition. Ask if your company enters (indicating confidence in their
quality) and what ILDA Awards they may have won. More information on ILDA is
Lasers are such a unique light
source, they often go beyond “screen and beams”. A projector used in a
planetarium for 360º X 180º scanning can also be used in a tent or party
environment, to produce a ceiling-filling spray of laser beams.
The same projector, put at the
mouth of a lighting balloon, can display an in-the-round laser
show on the entire surface of the balloon. (Remember that the laser beam
is always in focus, unlike a video projector that would be hard to keep
in focus onto a sphere.) This is a unique effect that is hard to
duplicate in any other animated medium.
Lasers have projected fish
inside an empty aquarium, and animated graphics on the side of a
While lasers can do a lot of
amazing things, it is not yet possible to create a mid-air floating
hologram like the “Princess Leia” projection from R2-D2 in the original
Star Wars movie. Despite this, you can achieve various 3D effects with
Many people are
familiar with 3D movies and theme park attractions that use polarized or
shutter lenses. Laser shows can be made in the same way, so that when
wearing glasses, the audience sees truly three-dimensional images.
Chromatic 3D. Chromadepth
glasses make red images appear closer while yellow, green and blue
images appear successively farther. The laser show is created with
smaller red foreground images and larger background images to enhance
Scrims. By projecting
laser graphics onto dark scrims in a dark room, images can hang in
mid-air. Each scrim is a flat screen so it is a sequence of flat planes
that is not truly 3D. However, by making the image itself look
three-dimensional (e.g., a rotating 3D object), a convincing simulation
of mid-air holography can be achieved.
Mid-air beam effects.
These are mentioned here because lasers can project planes, cones, fans,
etc. of laser light. These are truly 3D, even though it is not possible
to “stop” the light in mid-air to create complex floating objects.
Disney’s Haunted Mansion, many of the 3D effects are done using mirrors.
These tricks can be done with lasers as well, so a laser image appears
superimposed on a scene or set.
Lasers have an admirable safety
record, especially considering the millions of people who have attended
laser shows in the past quarter-century. One reason for this excellent
record is that laserists understand the vital importance of having safe
There are three main aspects of
laser show safety:
Eye and skin safety – the laser beam
must not harm anyone.
For outdoor shows,
aircraft safety is important. The beam
must not distract a pilot.
Regulatory compliance must be
considered. The show must comply with all applicable health and aviation
The laser company normally takes
care of all safety and regulatory concerns. If you have any questions,
feel free to inquire about their preparations and ask to see the
regulatory paperwork. You should only deal with companies that have the
legally-required paperwork for a show (including any federal, state and
local licenses or "variances").
One other thing to keep in mind:
Safety is paramount. Although the laser company’s goal is “the show must
go on”, the company must stop lasing if an unforeseen hazard arises. For
example, if an aircraft buzzes an outdoor show, or an unruly audience
member climbs onto a chair, the laser company may need to shut down the
show until the hazard is past.
have safety regulations limiting the power of laser light that can go
near or into an audience. In general, the limited amount (MPE or
"Maximum Permissible Exposure") is the same in all countries, including
the U.S. However, specific regulations and enforcement differ from
country to country.
This is why
laser shows with audience scanning, that may be common in Europe or
Asia, have until recently (2007) been very rare in the United States.
Companies in the U.S. need to provide federal regulators with more
stringent proof that their equipment and procedures are safe.
companies in the United States must
certify both their equipment (the laser and projector) and the actual
laser show (where the audience is in relation to the lasers, how the
equipment is used, etc.). Anyone doing a laser show or demonstration
must apply for a “variance” to the Center for Devices and Regulatory
Health (CDRH), a division of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As
its name implies, a variance gives the holder permission to vary from
the FDA’s laser safety regulations.
the variance conditions is that the beams are kept 3 meters (10 feet)
above where the audience can stand, and 2.5 meters (8 feet) laterally
from where the audience could reach out. Performers can have lasers on
them under specified conditions. But in the U.S., audiences cannot
normally be exposed to direct or reflected laser light. CDRH variances
cover these and other conditions.
reputable laser companies will have current, updated, valid variances
for their equipment and shows. As part of the variance, they must also
inform the CDRH of the date and location of each show. You should insist
on this paperwork for your show. Ask to see it. If it is not
forthcoming, this indicates 1) the company may not be following safe
procedures and 2) you may be liable should a laser safety issue arise.
Some states have additional
regulations. In New York, a NY-licensed laser operator must supervise
the laser show. Texas has an active regulatory division that requires
annual registrations. Other states and localities may have their own
the laser company should know about and meet all state and local
Sometimes there is a
misperception that a “fire watch” is required when using lasers indoors
at sites like hotels. This is not true; there are no special fire
requirements for the laser per se.
If fog machines are
used to help make the laser beams visible, then a fire watch may be
required. The facility’s smoke detectors are often turned off to prevent
false alarms from the fog. A fire watch is then needed during the
the most stunning laser effect is deliberate audience scanning. Beams
and shapes are intentionally projected directly onto the audience. It is
beautiful – like swimming in an ocean of light.
Audience scanning is actually safe if various factors are met: the beam
must have a relatively large diameter, and the power must be relatively
low. Should you happen to be in audience-scanned beams, a quick check is
whether the light level feels pretty comfortable (generally safe), or if
you instinctively close your eyes, turn away or have long afterimages
Some people falsely believe that deliberate audience scanning is banned in the
U.S., or that there are differences between U.S. light levels and
overseas light levels. These statements are untrue. Audience
scanning is legal in just about every country -- including the U.S. Safe and unsafe exposure
levels are about the same in every country.
However, U.S. regulators insist on extra safety measures such as
redundant backups and detailed analyses. This is why there are only a few
approved U.S. variances for deliberate audience scanning. (For example,
at LDI 2007 in Orlando, ILDA will demonstrate safe, legal audience
scanning.) Most overseas regulators do not require the same level
of redundancy and caution as U.S. regulators. This explains why U.S.
viewers have not been treated to the spectacular beauty of laser beams,
until the recent (2006) approval of FDA-reviewed audience-scanning
It should be noted that
deliberate audience scanning has a very safe record. There are very few
reports of accidents or even incidents after two decades of scanning on
millions of people worldwide. If you want to scan the audience, even in
the U.S., you can be confident that responsible companies will keep the
Outdoors, lasers need to be kept
away from aircraft. At very close ranges the beam may be an eye hazard.
At longer distances the brief but bright flash as the plane flies
through the beam could temporarily flashblind a pilot (like a bright
To remain safe, laser show
operators take into account the direction and power of beams, as they
relate to airports and air routes. They also plan for control measures
such as spotters, who turn off the laser temporarily if aircraft come
In the U.S., this
pre-planning is submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration at
least 30 days in advance of the outdoor show. If the FAA does not object
to the shows, and other CDRH requirements are met, then the CDRH will
grant a variance to allow the use of laser displays outdoors.
Picking a laser show company is
much like choosing a video or production house. Cost is a factor, but
even more important is reliability, equipment, and production quality.
Ask about the following:
Years in business
References from satisfied clients
(and check the references)
Variety of lasers available
Other equipment available –
screens, audio, lighting (if you need these as well)
Artwork production: Done in house?
Using clip art?
Membership and activity in ILDA
and similar industry organizations
from ILDA and similar industry organizations
Pencil-thin shafts of laser
light, and brilliantly colored unique laser graphics will always have a
place in the arsenal of special effects:
Laser beams create fantastic
mid-air shapes and patterns. Beams can even reach out and
touch the audience. Just as placing a hand on someone else's shoulder
creates an emotional bond, having lasers scan the audience helps bring
them emotionally into the event.
Laser graphics have an
eye-catching futuristic look very
different from the dozens of TV screens we see each day.
If you're in the U.S., don't
forget that it now is possible to do European-style audience scanning.
This will be brand-new to most Americans. They'll love being inside of
safe "laser fireworks" choreographed to music.
To get started with laser
lighting, the first place to check is with the International Laser
Display Association. ILDA's Code of Ethics and professional members help
you find the best laser producers and equipment for your budget. They
are the experts who literally wrote the book on creating with lasers.
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answer your query, and/or who have the capability to provide what you
need, will contact you directly. It has never been easier to find the
right people to make your next event extra-special!
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