A bearded prospector panning for gold shimmers a few feet away from a Tyrannosaurus Rex that raises and lowers its big, toothy head. The images appear animated but don't actually move. There's merely the illusion of movement. They are holograms: in this case, three-dimensional pictures produced with laser light on photographic film, then laminated to sheets of clear acrylic or glass. Part of the mystique is that they're only visible when directly illuminated. Their "creator" is John Perry, 60, a Massa-chusetts native who founded Holographics North two decades ago this summer. Essentially a one-man operation, the Burlington-based company boasts a client list that includes Chrysler, Pratt & Whitney and, by association, Buckingham Palace.
Much of Perry's work is used in commercial endeavors. But he also helps artists "sculpt with light," as he puts it. Other projects are geared to educational exhibits -- that prospector was for a museum in California's Gold Rush country. Another dazzling example of the technology hangs from the ceiling at Perry's sprawling basement lab on South Union Street. The 34-by-38-inch hologram imagines, in multicolored glory, what "the dark matter of the universe" might look like, based on a computer simulation done at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico.
Before Perry fell in love with holograms, he was smitten with stars. He's been teaching astronomy since the early 1970s. A conversation with him can range from fanciful musings about life on other planets to pure science. But his pragmatic explanations often have a certain lyricism: "Light waves from the sun or a bulb are like an angry mob rioting," Perry notes. "But a laser is like a well-ordered march."
SEVEN DAYS: Are holograms like trompe l'oeil that fool the eye?
JOHN PERRY: No, you're really seeing three dimensions.
SD: How is that possible?
JP: The first step is to put a subject, like the guy dressed up as a prospector, on a turntable that rotates slowly. We shoot 200 frames with a continuous roll of 35mm black-and-white film in a specialized camera. To get a master, we then use a laser beam to make another 200 exposures with that continuous roll onto a long strip of holographic film. That's an eight-hour process done overnight, when there are fewer vibrations in the building or from the traffic outside. The biggest difficulty is if anything moves during the exposure time. When that happens, we lose the microscopic pattern that is the hologram. Other subjects can be created, animated and rotated in the computer.
SD: What's the next step?
JP: We make a final transfer with a single exposure of the hologram image from the master. This has to be done in our vibration isolation chamber, which has a floor-level, 12-by-22-foot concrete table anchored 14 feet down into the ground.
SD: It's obviously more complicated than using a Fuji Quicksnap!
JP: The holographic film has a very high resolution. It's 44 inches wide and comes in gigantic rolls. The images can go up to 3.5-by-6 feet, with unlimited depth. This lab is known for making large-format holograms, a process we developed to shoot live things, animations or photographs. We're the only one working on that scale. Our nearest competition can do only 24-by-30 inches. We make bigger holograms than anybody in the world.
SD: Why don't other companies follow suit?
JP: It's a niche market, and large holograms are very labor-intensive because none of the equipment is mass-produced. We're the pioneering equivalent of [19th-century frontier photographer] Matthew Brady, but, luckily, I don't have to carry my stuff anywhere.
SD: How did you get into this field?
JP: In the 1960s I was a physics major at Pomona College in California. I went on to get a Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of Rochester. My plan was to go into astronomy and, parenthetically, stay out of the Vietnam War. I met my wife Barbara [now a Burlington City Councilor representing Ward 6] there. She was an undergraduate. In 1971 we moved to Strafford, Vermont, and had our kids -- two boys, who are both engineers.
SD: When did you relocate to Burlington?
JP: In 1979. I had been commuting to Castleton State to teach photography and to UVM to teach photography and astronomy. These were continuing-ed courses. Then, a job opened up in the photo co-op at UVM's Living/Learning Center. I worked there for seven years and started a holography program.
JP: In 1980 I invited two Toronto artists to show their holograms on campus and hold workshops, which sold out. I had to borrow equipment from the physics department. I was able to offer a holography course. I went to Canada and studied with some punky guys in the summer of 1981. After that, I set up a lab at Living/Learning. I'd never done this kind of thing before. It was really exciting, but I was figuring it out as I went along. I was only staying ahead of my students by three or four weeks.
SD: You still teach, but when did academics make room for commerce?
JP: Pratt & Whitney gave me a contract to make a hologram of a jet engine for the Paris Air Show in 1984. I began to set up this space, bought some very basic equipment and hired about eight of my students. I had confidence I could do it, but wasn't sure how. It was a leap of faith.
SD: And other gigs followed. . .
JP: Yes. To date, I've worked with maybe 50 artists around the world and with a lot of educational exhibits. For the St. Louis Zoo in 1988, I did a Homo sapiens in five different stages of evolution. A hologram titled "The Visible Woman," which shows organs and veins, has been at the American Museum of Natural History in New York since about 1990.
SD: More recently you captured Queen Elizabeth in 3D?
JP: I was in England four weeks ago to install an image of her in Buckingham Palace. I'm working with a British artist on this. In November the hologram will move to a castle in Edinburgh. I'm hoping we'll have a private audience with the Queen at that point.
SD: How much do holograms cost?
JP: They range from a few thousand dollars to, maybe, $20,000 for a complex project.
SD: Would you ever need to retire from this career?
JP: It's pretty physical, crawling on my hands and knees to set up the optics and load big pieces of film. But I'm OK. I play soccer twice a week.
SD: Do you consider holography an art or a craft?
JP: Well, it's a lot of science and a lot of business. I rarely produce images just for myself anymore. But I've exhibited some of my work at the South End Art Hop for the last two years and probably will again this month. I'm thinking of showing the dark matter of the universe.