Pepper’s Scope: What’s Old Is New Again

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Pepper’s Scope: What’s Old Is New Again

Sometimes something comes along that really captures your attention, not only because it is cool, but also because it is a clever re-use of things you’ve already considered to be common.

Joshua Ellingson’s experiments came up in my twitter timeline recently and I was instantly enamored. Ellingson managed to somehow capture the video output of some clever oscilloscope math in the ether.

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The result seems somehow alive. It undulates and pulses along with the music you hear, and levitates in the glass dome. How is this done? What was this new fangled contraption? It’s the old Pepper’s Ghost effect that you’ve probably seen many times before.

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I reached out to learn more about Ellingson’s work.  

When/why did you decide to start playing with pepper’s ghost?

It started in 2019 while I was watching “The Imagineers” documentary series on Disney+. The early episodes explore the innovations with Pepper’s Ghost illusions and I had always been fascinated by that technique. I was putting together a waterless aquarium with one of my black-and-white TV experiments playing inside the tank. After the documentary, I thought it might be fun to try to put a Pepper’s Ghost goldfish in the tank with the TV playing. So, I tried it out with some framing acrylic and a flat panel monitor. It worked surprisingly well and I was immediately hooked on playing with the concept more.


Why real-time video distortions with music?

The real-time aspect of the experiments make them so much more fun and alive. I want to learn new things quickly and working this way also helps me do that. I don’t have to worry about painstakingly planning and rendering different elements and it allows for a sort of conversation with the materials, I guess. Sometimes the sound will inform what kind of video to pair it with and vice versa. Originally, I was manipulating video with old records and live radio but I wanted to share the projects without copyright infringement and content-match take downs. I don’t consider myself a musician but I do enjoy the sounds that synthesizers make and learning about how they work.


Do you have another experiment you’d like to try with this effect? (you’ve done video, oscilloscope… now what?)

I’d like to try out Pepper’s Ghost with real-time microscopy. It’s a little tricky getting small creatures to hold still, but I did manage to enlarge a sluggish aphid that I found in my refrigerated lettuce once. I’d also like to make huge Pepper’s Ghosts when there is space for that.


Do you have plans for this beyond tinkering? A show? A public demo?

I had a display last year in the window at ATA (Artist Television Access) in San Francisco and recently in the window at Fabulosa Books on Castro (in collaboration with artist Jason Mecier). I have some things planned for later this year but nothing public yet.

Of course, Ellingson hasn’t limited this art to oscilloscopes. Actually there are many more of these on his youtube channel.

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Most of the time the effect is created by using old televisions or other displays. The result can seem wildly different depending on the quality of the image.

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Go check out the youtube channel. There’s a lot more to see. You can also find more on Ellingson’s Instagram and Twitter.

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I get ridiculously excited seeing people make things. I just want to revel in the creativity I see in makers. My favorite thing in the world is sharing a maker's story. You can find me on twitter at @calebkraft

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