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    A Complete Guide to

  Laser Shows



       This document was originally developed by
Audio Visual Imagineering,
       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 colors
Laser powers and visibility
Utility requirements
Other requirements
ILDA membership
Special laser uses
Lasers and 3D
Laser safety
     International regulations
     U.S. national regulations

State and local regulations
Fire watch not required 
Audience scanning
Aircraft safety
What to look for in a laser show company
How to find the right lasers for your event


A 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.


Using lasers at events

Lasers can be used at a variety of indoor and outdoor events, including:



aCorporate shows
aOpenings, such as player introductions at basketball and hockey games
aThemed parties
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
a“Laser searchlight”


What lasers can do


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 surface.


  • With beams, 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 video images.


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.

Laser 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 mountains.

(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 cloud cover.)


Laser show choices

Laser show producers have three general types of shows for you to choose from: stock, semi-custom, and custom.

  • 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 again.
         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

  • For 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.


Producing laser graphics

How laser graphics work


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.

Laser graphics are not TV


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.

Turning your artwork into laser graphics

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!


Laser colors

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 laser light.

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 white.

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 or red.

  • If 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 mixed-color version that uses two lasers, green and red. By mixing these, orange and yellow can also become available.

  • A full-color 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, yellow, green, cyan, blue, 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.


Laser powers and visibility

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.

  • Ambient light: Keep your event as dark as possible during the laser show. The laser won’t need extra wattage to “punch through” ambient light.

  • Laser beam 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.

  • Area projected: 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.


Utility requirements


Before 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.


Other requirements


Here 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 expect.

  • 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.

  • Equipment 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, kinked, etc.

  • Control positioning and setup time:   Lasers require roughly the same setup time and control console space requirements as lighting and audio.
        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.

  • Safety 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 performance.
         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 process.)

  • Ceiling heights: 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.

  • Reflective 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 audience reflections.

  • Safety setup: 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.

  • Communications: 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.

  • Interfacing with 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.

  • Interfacing with 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 director.
         Video projectors should be masked or turned off to prevent video “gray” from illuminating screens.


ILDA membership

You 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 at


Special laser uses

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 mountain.


Lasers and 3D

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 lasers:

  • True 3D. 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 the illusion.

  • 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.

  • Traditional “tricks”. At 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.


Laser safety

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 shows.

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 regulations.

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.

International regulations

Many countries 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.

U.S. national regulations

Laser 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.

One of 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.

All 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.

State and local regulations

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 regulations.

Again, the laser company should know about and meet all state and local regulations.

Fire watch not required

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 fogging period.

Audience scanning

Probably 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 (unsafe).

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 techniques.

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 audience safe.

Aircraft safety

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 camera flash).

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 too close.

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.


What to look for in a laser show company

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

  • Awards won from ILDA and similar industry organizations


How to find the right lasers for your event

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.

ILDA has an "Inquiries and Referral Service". Just email or phone your request to ILDA. It is then sent out by email to all members. Those who can 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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          Pre-conference information:
               Overview and registration
               Reservations and travel
      2009 June, Amsterdam
          Overview and photos
          Technology Workshop
           Pre-conference information:
               ILDA Member registration
               Non-member registration
 2008 Sept., cruise from Miami
            Post-conference report
            Tim Walsh's diary

            Pre-conference information:
                Photo preview
                Reservations and getting there
          Conference registration
       Sponsorship opportunities
                Logo contest (deadline 6/30)
      2007 March, Heshan, China:
           About the 2007 Conference
           List of attendees
2006 March, Rimini, Italy
List of past conferences

About conferences:
      Conferences: A general overview
      Conference hosting guide

   The ILDA Awards

2013 Award winners
2012 Award winners

Previous ILDA Award winners

List of all artistic & tech winners
     List of all Career Achievement Award winners
     Winners by year:
                              2013   2012   2011

2010  2009  2008  2007  2006
2005  2004  2003  2002  2001
2000  1999  1998  1997  1996
1995  1994  1993  1992  1991
1990  1989  1988     

Awards overview
Judging guidelines

2014 entry forms
2013 entry forms

2012 entry forms
2011 entry forms
ILDA Award trophy photos (Members only)


   The Laserist magazine