Inventor builds optical system that can bring performers of the past back to life on stage
Musion Eyeliner is based on a Victorian-era light projections system called Pepper's Ghost
New system uses an invisible polymer foil to offer a more substantial image
Frank Sinatra is back, crooning ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ live in his trademark suit and fedora as if he had never left the stage. A decade and a half after Ol’ Blue Eyes passed away, this unexpected new appearance has been made possible with an optical technology called Musion Eyeliner.
Based on a Victorian-era light projection system called ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ which was developed by two inventors – Henry Dircks and John Pepper – in the 1860s, Musion Eyeliner offers a range of spectacular stage effects that, in addition to bringing Frank Sinatra back to life, have been used to reanimate Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley.
Uwe Maass, the inventor or Musion Eyeliner, explains that when it was first developed in the 19th century, Pepper’s Ghost was quite straightforward: “The Pepper’s Ghost system is relatively simple. It is a piece of foil in a 45 degree angle and it reflects the image from the floor onto the stage.” From the audience’s perspective the light projection can offer all kinds of effects including making realistic 3-D people appear on stage.”
Maass – an accomplished electronic engineer with 30 years experience in optics – advanced the concept of Pepper’s Ghost with modern video projection and animation techniques that serve to update the old technology.
Maass’s main innovation is to replace the glass used in original systems with an invisible polymer foil to offer a more substantial image while also allowing the stage behind to remain visible. Maass’s developments quickly attracted interest from senior figures around the entertainment industry:
“I first thought of it 15 years ago and I filed a patent application using foil for a Pepper’s Ghost system and two weeks later I got phone calls from Steven Spielberg’s people. They came to my office (as well as representatives) from Disney and Siegfried and Roy … David Copperfield came personally,” Maass says.
Even though it has been around since the 90s, Musion Eyeliner really came to prominence in 2006 when Madonna performed alongside the animated British band Gorillaz at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards. Since then the technology has been used by Universal Studios, Disney, and Sony, as well as performers including ABBA, Will.i.am, Mick Jagger, and Mariah Carey, as well as Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre in their famous performance alongside Tupac at Coachella in 2012.
Maass is also working with artists to help create shows that bring together members whose schedules clash: “We got a lot of good response from the artists Black Eyed Peas (and) Will.i.am,” Maass says. “They’re really pleased with the system because in France they couldn’t travel all together, so we had two of the group members virtually on stage and performing together, interacting together with the rest of the group who were real on stage.”
The system has also been used to simulcast events and performances around the world:
“Another application is teleconferencing … You can have one performance on one stage that is live and then you can have a hundred performances at the same time all over the world with the same concert,” says Maass.
Resurrecting performers of the past comes with a complex of legal, technical and ethical questions, but has nevertheless been proving popular with audiences around the world. Maass says that his company’s next main project is to help Cirque du Soleil bring the work of Michael Jackson back to life in the ‘Immortal World Tour’.
In an interview with Ebony Magazine in 2007 Michael Jackson said “Music has been my outlet, my gift to all of the lovers in this world. Through it — my music – I know I will live forever.”
With the help of Musion Eyeliner, Jackson may be immortalized in a more literal way than he could ever have imagined.
Matthew Ponsford and Andrew Stewart contributed to this article