In the begining…

By Laser Fantasy founder Floyd Rollefstad

If you’re reading this you probably are in the laser entertainment business to some degree (or have been) and your roots are in Laser Fantasy. How we get to where we are in life comes down to a myriad of events and crossing paths, many of which have interesting stories. I’ve been asked to write a memoir of sorts about the beginnings of LFI and I hope some of you find it interesting to see how you ended up following the entertaining aspects of coherent light. So here goes a synopsis of how LFI became to be and of its early years.

Growing up in a small town in North Dakota one would have never dreamed I’d one day pioneer a techno-artistic field. My school classes had maybe 60 people in them and in school I didn’t have an interest in science, got poor grades up until about my high school sophomore year, and certainly was far from nerd status. Nobody in my family had ever gone to a 4-year college and were mostly Midwest farmers, as were most of their friends and my friends as well. But my interest changed about my freshman year. I started hanging out with a friend, John Fuller, who is a brilliant thinker and musician, and he was also into electronics and science. Those talks awakened in me a dormant interest in science (especially light) as well as artistic expression through technology. And I was hooked from there on. 

 Starting about my sophomore year I began to take an interest in the combination of light and sound. While I didn’t have the resources to research and follow or expand upon the earlier works of combining light with sound, I experimented with different techniques of projecting abstract images to music. Of course it was quite crude but I was being pretty creative and I was following my own path. I later learned a bit of the history of this discipline and for reference sake, let me digress into its early history (I’m thinking you might find it interesting to learn a little about the very root of light shows).

The most prominent pioneer of the concept was the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin in the later 1800s early 1900s. He introduced the term color organ and composed and performed light and sound events based on his interpretations of various colors to music. (From Wikipedia – “This color organ It was played like a piano, but projected coloured light on a screen in the concert hall rather than sound. Most performances of the piece (including the premiere) have not included this light element, although a performance in New York City in 1915 projected colours onto a screen”. (Others like Alexander Rimington also developed color organ techniques about that time, and the concept had even more humbler beginnings far earlier that that – for those interested check out “color organ” in Wikipedia).

Lastly in the history lesson is the beginning of the term “lumia”. Again pasted from Wikipedia – “In the 1920s, Danish-born Thomas Wilfred created the Clavilux, [2] a color organ, ultimately patenting seven versions. By 1930, he had produced 16 “Home Clavilux” units. Glass disks bearing art were sold with these “Clavilux Juniors.” Wilfred coined the word lumia to describe the art. Significantly, Wilfred’s instruments were designed to project colored imagery, not just fields of colored light as with earlier instruments. Ok – that’s it for the history lesson.

My early days of light shows consisted of developing color organs that, through a circuit, caused light to pulse to the music, along with my own versions of lumia where I heated aluminized mylar to warp it and to reflect colored lights off rotating pieces of it creating the flowing “lumia”. I worked on this and had shows for my friends all through high school and college. I also played with fiber optics and my science project my sophomore year was on that technology. I focused on its artistic potential where I made several artistic pieces using various glass and plastic fibers. I ended up getting first place in the state science fair and went on to the International science fair that year. At that fair another student had a helium neon laser and it was perhaps there that I saw my first coherent light. I remember vividly shining that red spot on the sidewalk from our upper level hotel room and tormenting unsuspecting passersby who had never seen such a thing before (a little like with cats these days, but… different😊).

That was 1970. So now lasers were in my blood. I somehow got my hands on a helium laser (the only laser available to laymen in that day) and made my first laser light show by attaching a mirror to a speaker, reflecting the laser off it as it wobbled to the music. Very crude but my friends and I thought it was pretty cool. Soon I significantly refined it by mixing in low frequency tones to the speaker and tuning the frequency to oscillate the mirror in harmonics so the reflected patterns would form ovals, figure 8s, etc. Then by playing music through the speaker those patterns would be modulated to form much cooler patterns. With that setup we’d watch for hours as Pink Floyd and the like would be listened to and seen in laser light.

My senior year science project was an insanely ambitious project on lasers. Its title was “Microspectroscopic Analysis by High Energy Ruby and Dye Lasers”. Here I attempted to build both a ruby and a dye laser, and once built I’d use them to vaporize small samples of materials where I’d analyze the vapor they emitted, which when viewed through a spectrometer would show the Fraunhofer spectra lines (colors) unique to each element – whew! – I know😊.

I had some plans from Scientific American and got Union Carbide to supply me with Ruby rods, etc., and worked like crazy on it for a good chunk of the year. While I never did get either laser to work it did get me a 1st place at the state science fair and a 4th place at the international science fair. The closest it ever came to working was when trying to fire the ruby laser it blew up and started on fire in my bedroom. Aghast, my mom came to the rescue and said “Lets throw it in the snow bank!” so that’s what we did and firing it was never attempted again. What was I thinking by attempting such a thing? Which in hindsight was virtually impossible to pull off, I’ll never know. And I can’t blame it on drugs because that wasn’t part of my world back then in the least.

Undergraduate and graduate college days

And now it’s off to college to study physics.  I really didn’t do a lot more with laser light show development work during college, other than doing shows for friends with what I’d developed in high school.  I was headlong into academia and really concentrated my studies and work in the light/optics branches of physics.  I did spend some time in the field of holography – which is an artistic application of lasers.  A sidebar story I tell is of my optics class.  As profs often are, this one was particularly eccentric and had the habit of putting questions on his exams that had absolutely nothing to do with what we were studying.  But I knew quite a bit about holograms, spectroscopy, lasers, fiber optics etc. and long story short, I was the only one to get an A in the class.  I don’t remember if my fellow students hated me or the prof more in that class.

My master’s thesis was in optics, although not directly associated with lasers.  Its title was “Infrared Reflectivity Studies of Bismuth Tellurium Oxide”, if memory serves me correctly.  That work and other lab work and experiments through my undergraduate and graduate work gained me a lot of knowledge of the use of lasers, optoelectronics, etc. and lay the ground work for a career in laser entertainment.

Up to this point, the only laser color I’d ever seen was the red of the helium neon laser.  But a prof at the school was doing Raman spectroscopy studies and was using an argon laser with a Littrow prism set up (so its various blues and green could be tuned).  Rao had a basement lab all to his own and he loved his cigars.  I would come down to see him work just to see those beautiful blue beams cross his lab, glowing brightly in the slight cigar smoke filled air.  (This was my first experience with beams as well as other laser colors).

As with so many students, I still wasn’t completely sure what to do upon graduation.  However I was pretty convinced that I wanted to go into the up and coming new field of the use of lasers in medicine.  Lasers were used in a few areas such as detached retinas, light scalpels, etc. but I knew it was just the beginning.  Until that path presented itself, I figured the best thing for me as preparation for that career was to round out my science background by taking some biology and anatomy type classes.  And I wanted a break from North Dakota so that spring semester upon graduation with my MS I enrolled at the Univ of New Mexico as a “non degree” status – taking a fairly heavy load of biology classes. And I have to give a big thank you to my sister for boarding and supporting me during that development time.

Post North Dakota college and my fork in the road moment:

Nothing further developed for me along the lasers in medicine direction right away and then came spring break and my trip to LA to see “Laserium”.  I’d heard that Griffith Park was hosting laser light shows and so seeing it was the main impetus for the excursion.  Myself and three friends (Mike Padilla was one) took a bus from our hotel up to Griffith Park one evening for the show. 

I was pretty excited to see my first “professional” laser show.  And I experienced lasers in entertainment on a scale I never imagined.  Full color – my God! After so many years of red only, and in a planetarium setting that made it so “perfect”.  And of course using galvos and thus precise scanning along with multiple lumia tricks.  The planetarium was packed and there’s no denying that they rocked it.

Leaving the show we encountered the long, very very long line of people waiting for the next show,  Our bus was waiting and we had to get around this long line to barely make it on time and THAT was my epiphany moment – the precise moment when it hit me -laser light shows as a, not just viable, but profitable business – something that never, not even once, occurred to me before.

I had no doubt that my technical background could get me up to speed pretty quickly on the technology behind it all, and I knew I had a flair for the art involved in light shows.  Back to the UNM and to my biology classes I went.  Well – not really.  I went back but never went to another class, holed up in my dorm room figuring out the techniques, business, etc. of my enfolding career.  A couple weeks of this and it became way too late to turn back, so off I went back to ND to begin my new career.  1977 was the year.

The formulation of the earliest Laser Fantasy

My best friend in college (Jerry Hastings) also graduated with me (he was an EE major) and was in limbo on the career front.  We got together and formed “Coherent Innovations Inc” and began the tasks of starting a business – raising money, getting warehouse space, etc.  Banks were just not going to help us, but our families stepped up and we were off and running.  (Years later I would be contacted by Coherent Inc. who had come out with an “Innova” model laser and had it trademarked, so I had to change the company name to Laser Fantasy)

We developed the optics and analog electronic circuits (lots of op amps, oscillators, multipliers, sample and holds, etc).  Jerry helped with a lot of that and spent a lot of time building a computer that we wanted to incorporate, but that never came to be.  There were areas where our techniques and the technology we developed differed and in many cases was superior, I feel, to Laserium.  Examples are:  I opted for the use of an 8 track recorder to lay our scanning signals on – 2 tracks for music and 6 for 3 channels of xy.  In this way complex signal patches could be rehearsed and laid down until they were totally in sync with the music.  Laserium used live oscillators or something like that and, you’ve got to hand it to them, did a fantastic job of performing that way.  I knew about acousto-optic modulators for very high speed chopping effects, Laserium did not.  Perhaps they didn’t because the hard science behind them insisted that they must be tuned and would only work for one wavelength.  But I wasn’t going to let that stop me from incorporating such a great effect – it doesn’t have to be 90% efficient – 60% average for all colors would be just fine.  And we used a mixed gas laser (ArKr which gave more blues and higher power than straight Krypton that Laserium used, and I felt this was better for shows).  The first console was a modified 8 channel audio mixer – 6xys and 2 audio while some other controls were added for shutters, dc offsets, the acousto-optic signals, etc.  The scanners were General Scanning open loop and the scan amps were modified audio amps (we DC coupled the typically AC coupled audio amps). The laser was a 1.5 watt Control Laser.

Floyd in the studio.

 I developed my own “laser synthesizer” to program the shows.  It involved a myriad of analog electronic circuits where xy signals were generated (in both random frequencies as well as sine/cosine pairs that could be amplitude modulated, frequency modulated, sample and hold modulated, etc.).  For example, to amplitude modulate the images to the music the technique used was to rectify the music signal, put it through a controllable RC circuit to create the “envelope” of the music, and feed that signal to multiplier circuits to AM the image to the exact beat of the music.  I opted for a patch system where signals could be mixed in an endless variety of configurations.  Refinements to that system continued for most of the life of LFI.

As you all know, optical effects (lumia, diffraction, etc.) play a big role in laser shows.  I would go on searches for optical materials that would produce interesting and beautiful effects when laser light passes thru them.  A lot of materials were used but what I found and what became the standard lumia in projectors was textured plexiglass, with one main rotating plexi and an insertable second material (plexi, fuzz filter, etc).  I remember a lot of store clerks wondering about me, and why I was peering through transparent items.  And perhaps the most famous of these is the Wendy’s baked potato diffused plastic cover – which worked perfectly as a “fuzz filter”.  This style of finding what works for laser effects, along with the aforementioned acousto-optic chopping I incorporated were perhaps the very first examples of “Floydian” – a term introduced much later that was to mean, primarily I guess, the unusual or unorthodox approach I took to my work.

The First show

Floyd eagerly awaiting an audience.

My first show was titled “Laser Odyssey”.  I remember it was in 3 Acts as the 8 track tapes were only 32 minutes long so between Acts 1 and 2 we had to rewind and put on a new tape.  Synthesizer music was just coming to the music world in the later 70s and it was inspiring to add visuals to that “abstract” genre.  My influences were Synergy (Larry Fast), Jean Michel Jarre, and Tomita (and I used selections from each of their first albums in that show.  Alan Parsons just came out with his first album “Tales of Mystery and Imagination” and my very first laser graphics song in the show: “A Dream Within A Dream” was also his very first song of his career (by coincidence).  I still to this day feel that the choreography to the first song of my first show was, hands down, the best I’d ever done.   Also interspersed were pieces by Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues, ELO, ELP.  I had a sacrificial disco song in there (Cosmic Wind – it had a spacy twist so, hey, it wasn’t all that bad) and Dueling Banjoes offered further variety.  I still think about this show a lot.  In creating it I only used music that was extremely well suited for laser choreography and to which I could envision a particular choreography.  And an artist’s first “creation” is inherently the culmination of their creative thoughts and ideas from the start of their career, so I’m thinking it’s often their best work, although in a techno artform, albeit technically inferior due to ongoing advances to the technology.

I have to give a shoutout to the physics dept. at my alma mater – Univ of North Dakota.  They let me set up my shop in a lab there and allowed me to use their facilities, including their machine shop during that first year of development. 

So after about a year I had my first projector and show.

How to break into the market when Laserium reigned supreme was the difficult process.  I went to a couple of planetarium conventions and remember Ivan Dryer (founder of Laser Images Inc and “Laserium”) and his team at these, wining and dining the directors who had the proverbial love-hate relationship with him (he was making a lot of money for them, but it wasn’t science or astronomy and brought in that somewhat more “unsavory” crowd).  But the directors were happy and really didn’t see the need for another firm in the fray. 

Fate came to me when a science fair buddy (Tim Krause) had a cousin who was a director at the Cernan Space Center (planetarium) in a suburb of Chicago.  This planetarium was too small for Laserium (it held 60 people) but perfect for my start and so off we went to Chicago.  Jerry and I parted ways, typical partnership things I guess.  I do blame myself more for this breakup however.  I had my vision and was the go getting alpha dog in the team – pretty had for anyone to keep up or mesh with that.  Mike Padilla soon joined me there and my first Laserist was Mary Steinkuller, an astronomer working at the space center. 

It was tough going at first.  I remember doing shows for 1 person.  We were really scrapped for money and another thing I remember is borrowing loose change from the office’s coffee jar from time to time to pay for our fast food dinners on many nights.  Of course I didn’t have any marketing background and really messed up in that dept.  I never advertised on radio until too late – a classic case of if I knew then what I know now.  But eventually the venture became moderately successful. 

There I met Steve Heminover and that brought the first digital images to the shows.  And other refinements took place at that venue over the year and a half I was there, like FM modulation as a better way for laying down scanning signals on tape (DC could now be applied and the noise in the images was greatly reduced), color modulation/mixing, closed loop scanners and a few others were developed.

My first expansion outside of those shows occurred during that time.  Another laser company was on the road with symphonies and for some reason they couldn’t make one performance and it happened to be in my college town of Grand Forks ND.  So I came to the rescue, and in short order I put together a set of scanners and a limited projector and convinced my old professor Rao to lend me his argon laser.  Talk about bootstrapped and in a super tight time frame.  I remember leaving my van at Ohare departures (not time to even park it) and having Mary come an get it – crazy!  Pulled it off though and got rave reviews.

Then I built a 2nd system and began performing live shows in theatres around Chicago with the artist Yanni.  We would play midnight shows and didn’t have too much success – A Greek synthesizerist not playing rock and roll, at midnight in conventional theatres without the surrounding visual field of a planetarium – not ideal.  Those shows were managed by a local sound company – WOW sound owned by Harry Witz and managed by Brent Bandolin and they had visons of what this new entertainment field could become.  They introduced me to Dr. Bruce Lipton (now a legend in some non-traditional medical fields) and he was so intrigued by what we were doing that he proposed bankrolling a venture to take us on the road.  He was teaching at the Univ. of Wisconsin and so, having “outgrown” the Cernan Space Center, Mike Padilla and I packed up and moved to Madison, Wisconsin to begin our live sight and sound project.

But it never got off the ground – artistic differences, management difficulties, egos, etc. all got in the way.  Yanni and I lived together during that time and we became pretty good friends but after about 6-8 months it just wasn’t working out.  Truth be told – there was a prevailing feeling that Yanni was the “star” (mostly by management) and I was just any old lighting guy.  So Mike and I packed up and headed for St. Paul, Mn.  That team of Bruce, Yanni and now some other laser artist (Tom Rust I think?) tried unsuccessfully to make a go of it and as Yanni tells it in his autobiography – “but that went nowhere”.  Yanni and I stayed in touch for a few years after that – no hard feelings.

Floyd, Mike Padilla, Bob Mueller, and Jeff Silverman.

Later Bruce and I (with Bob Mueller) did pull off some shows together, not with Yanni though.  I remember one at a festival/fair in Juarez Mexico.   Details of the show are now fuzzy but I do remember that the promoter promised holographic images the size of the space needle.  Third world scaffolding with water and electrical problems gave us challenges and I specifically remember Bruce lying on the fetal position in disbelief of the craziness going on and hoping that he wasn’t going to be electrocuted.  The shows were good but the paper’s headline “El Rayo Suspendo” pretty much told the final story. Bruce eventually moved on to further his medical career.  I stay in touch with Bruce from time to time but Bob and Bruce remain close friends to this day.

A new home for Laser Fantasy

In St Paul I found my own theatre that I could rent (no gateshare) and Minneapolis/St Paul was one of the few large cities without Laserium.  I shortened the theatre space by about ½ so I could put a massive screen that would span wall-wall to give the closest thing I could get to an all encompassing planetarium.  My first hires were Bob Mueller and Jeff Silverman as laserists.  I think I was there for about 2 years and had moderate success – it was a living anyway. 

Then someone (I don’t remember who or if they ever gave their name – I think they were tipped off by my friend and director Mike Day of the St Paul Omnimax – thanks Mike!) called me from Seattle saying that the Pacific Science Center’s relationship with Laserium was very strained and I should consider calling the director to talk about possibly replacing them.  I went to Seattle to meet with him, George Moynihan, and WOW!  Here was a theatre that I wouldn’t have to share with planetarium shows (as were virtually all other planetarium gateshares), it was huge, unidirectional seating (which I preferred) and a stupendous opportunity.  It wasn’t long before I packed up in St Paul and moved to Seattle, setting up shop in Redmond.  A talented artist friend, Gairy Bialke (air brush and Claymation artist) accompanied me because we were going to add Claymation shorts to the shows – which, unfortunately, never happened.  Soon Mike Padilla rejoined me, along with Bob and Jeff and for a while it was pretty much us 4 doing shows at the PSC.

I started out with the compilation show “Laser Fantasy” to pretty critical acclaim but modest attendance.  But somehow I got the idea to make “Laser Zeppelin” and that was the game changer – the theatre was packed!  Laser Floyd followed and finally success beyond hand to mouth living and ventures.

Digital animation was soon introduced and our art dept had Bob heading up a full time animator, Tina Garrison.  Steve Heminover had developed the LGrass graphics software for lasers and he and Bob refined it to become the leading, or one of the leading, software systems for laser animation.

Floyd and family at Pacific Science Center, Seattle WA.

Floyd and Ivan Dryer in front of the Grand Coulee Dam laser booth.

It wasn’t long before we began a second operation in Portland’s OMSI that also was quite successful.  There we hired some very talented people (Casey Stack, John Clouse, and Mike Lutz), and LFI was now on its way to become the leading planetarium laser show company as well as a leading figure in other show areas (live entertainment shows, corporate shows, special events, etc.).

And at this point the sheer number of LFIers, projects, etc. become too numerous to detail or put in chronological order in this limited history writing.  Perhaps in a later installment I could say a few words from my perspective on a few of my more memorable and/or important projects that followed, if interest warrants it.