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Pepper’s Ghost Illusion

In 1862, English scientist John Pepper, developed the now popular concept known as the ‘Pepper’s Ghost Illusion’.

There was a fascination at the time in the theatres for introducing new technologies, many of which continue to this day.

Inspired by his scientific approach, Pepper then demonstrated the creation of a ‘ghost’ on stage, and from this launched a ghost-inspired plethora of plays around the world. Modern industries use this effect on a daily basis, for example, every time we watch the news to see our newsreader using a teleprompt.

From transformation illusions, to carnival side-shows, this simple, yet beautiful art has moved from a single sheet of glass to a full pyramid. No matter what idea is used, the secret lies in the eyes of the beholder.

Our brain is incredibly sophisticated, although being able to suspend belief for something we know really isn’t there, is one of the greatest challenges for our creative teams.

Figure 1 The Herman Grid Illusion 1870

The Hermann grid was first discovered by a physiologist named Ludimar Hermann in 1870. When the viewer looks at the grid, the white dots and the centre of each ‘corridor’ seem to shift between white and grey. If you focus your attention on a specific dot, it is obvious that it is white. But as soon as attention is shifted away, the dot shifts to a grey colour.

In this next image, what do you see?

A Rabbit, a duck, or both?

In the amazing world of theatre production, playing with an audience’s perception of something, or building on an inner fear such as ghosts, are what inspire us to tell stories on stage, and often create magic.

Is it real?

In part, yes, the ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ illusion involves real scenery, people and lighting, and so on. Together these real objects create the unreal, an illusion. A sleight-of-hand is a magician’s best friend, and a visual spectacle is a director’s and performer’s delight.

The principle of ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ manifests itself in everyday activities, such as leaving something on your dashboard when you drive and seeing this reflected in your windscreen. Or the office door next to you is ajar and you can clearly see the activities of your colleague reflected onto the glass panel. It is real!

Does ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ actually work?

As with many things we see on stage, the simplest things are often the most effective.

Figure 2 Le Monde Illustré 1862

In this image you can see an actor on stage, in front of him is a sheet of plate glass, suspended at a critical angle. In the orchestra pit is another actor dressed as the ghost. On illuminating the ghost, the eerie image is reflected on the glass, to the wonder and amazement of the crowd. Can you hear this 1860’s audience take a collective inward breath, possibly the odd scream as the apparition is revealed?

Figure 3 Jamie Allan’s ‘Peppers iGhost’

Magician, Jamie Allan, a client at The Backstage Centre, has mastered the combination of styles and techniques. He fuses magic with technology, performing and designing incredible modern illusions with iPads, Holograms, Laser Beams, Facebook and Twitter. In 2014 Jamie created a very modern interpretation of the ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ routine. A highly polished routine combining an elevation illusion working with an excellent integration of the essential spectacular elements required for ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, or in his example – ‘iGhost’!

Clever orientation upstage of a reflective surface on stage helps the performer to locate their positions in relation to the audience’s view, and because glass screens are less reflective than mirrors, they do not reflect matt-black objects in the area hidden from the audience. It was not unusual for shows to use an invisible black-clad actor in an unlit area to manipulate brightly lit, light-coloured objects, which can thus appear to float in air, a technique also common in UV or Black Light theatre.

In his first outing, Pepper used a shrouded skeleton, behind which was a performer in ‘full blacks’ who could effectively work as a puppeteer to manipulate the limbs of the skeleton. An actor in the pit would often play just the head of the skeleton and mysteriously elevate away from the body on stage. Allowing the glass on stage to do its work to seal the illusion!

This illusion maybe 160 years old, but to us it is timeless, and will continue to be used for a very long time to come. Now you have an idea of how the illusion works, keep it to yourself!

Happy World Theatre Day!