Laser Floyd. Laser Zeppelin. Laser Metallica. Even if you have never experienced the nationwide cult phenomenon of the late night rock & roll laser light show, you’ve probably heard the rumors. With technology marginally more impressive than the glow stick, these laser shows have made loyal audiences mostly of bored suburban teens and recreational hallucinogen users.
With the June 27 opening of the “Rock Hall of Fame” at Salt Lake’s Clark Planetarium, all that will begin to change as low-tech light shows start to fade out. Most notably, the “Rock Hall of Fame” is the first in a series of Cosmic Light Shows, the “l-word” being conspicuously absent. In the laser’s place, enter long-awaited high technology and talent—13,000 watts of digital surround sound, a state-of-the-art computer graphics projection system and an in-house production team dedicated to creating mass quantities of original animation.
The result? The Cosmic Light Show—with what production manager Mike Murray calls its “totally immersive environment”—has begun to overtake the laser show. Unlike the piercing, eardrum-bleeding approach to sound typical of shows past, the expert fine tuning and balancing make you feel more awash in sound rather than assaulted by it. Likewise, new visual effects go way beyond the old squiggly lines of laser beams. Computer animation—realized on the Hansen Star Theatre’s full-dome by six projectors—sucks you into the swirling universe above your head. Murray describes it as “a barrage on the senses.”
Not only is the Clark Planetarium employing the technology, but also it’s setting the trend. Of its Cosmic Light Shows, planetarium director Seth Jarvis reports, “Nobody else in the world is doing what we are doing”—that is, producing entertainment content using these cutting-edge tools. In fact, with the world’s first Digistar 3—a full-dome, full-color, high-resolution computer animation theater, no one in the world has a set-up like Salt Lake County’s planetarium. As a result, Murray regularly fields inquiries from other planetariums preparing to launch their own high-tech systems and interested in using animation produced by Clark Planetarium. Chicago, New York City, Germany and Russia are all keeping one eye on Utah.
Only on the music front does the “Rock Hall of Fame” stick with the tried and true. Featuring rock standards from the late ’60s to the early ’90s, the planetarium’s first Cosmic Light Show won’t disappoint loyal laser audiences. Although soliciting The Arrow 103.5 FM’s direction, the show’s production team hardly needed a radio station to point out surefire hits by legendary bands like The Doors, Aerosmith and Jimi Hendrix.
As the creators of the Cosmic Light Show expand their musical offerings, however, all bets are off that they will stay solely the classic rock course. The “Rock Hall of Fame” will run indefinitely as the production team develops new programming, and The Arrow is only the first of many radio stations with which the Planetarium will consult.
Don’t hold your breath for a pop, hip-hop or country Cosmic Light Show, though. While a few planetariums in other cities have experimented with Laser Beastie Boys and Laser Dixie Chicks, rock music—especially classic rock with its psychedelic roots—is by far the most popular among light show producers and audiences alike.
It should be no surprise, then, that Cosmic Light Show producers promise Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon by late summer. They also indicate that by fall, audience members will be able to set the musical direction of shows by using interactive button controls mounted on their armrests.
Beyond that, Cosmic Light Show producers remain rather vague on future artistic direction. Relying primarily on audience feedback, they maintain a mystery as deep as a black hole. Jarvis offers the only clue: “We will never show Laser ’N Sync.”