Oil Show: Lighting Love, Janis

Article by Barry Browning, lighting designer

When asked to design the lighting for the Ordway's production of Love, Janis, I knew I would have to recreate the iconic 1960s “oil effect.” I was aware that an overhead projector was involved in producing the effect, but there had to be more to the story - pictures from that period showed images that were too bright to be produced solely by a typical projector.

While researching psychedelic light shows, I found a treasure trove of information in the book Live at the Fillmore East by Amalie R. Rothschild.  During the late 60’s and early 70’s, the rock venue the Fillmore East was the West Coast's  psychedelia hot spot. The Joshua Light Show (named after the show's director) was so important to the culture that it received equal billing on the marquee alongside such names as The Who, The Grateful Dead, and Jimmy Hendrix.

According to the book, the images that "bubbled across the screen like giant amoebas" were created by a master artisan laying out a mixture of colored glycerins, alcohols, oils and water on immaculately clear, curved glass plates, projected by up to three projectors. 

"For projection plates, the show used the convex glass fronts of commercially manufactured clocks, choosing various sizes for various effects. A larger sized plate on the bottom carried a water base on which the carefully dribbled blobs of colored oil floated. A smaller clock face was then pressed carefully atop this, squishing the oils into patterns. Moving and jiggling this upper plate produced the sensuous pulsations of the projected images."

To get the intensity needed for the Light Show, the Fillmore East's projectors were fitted with aircraft landing lights, which made the oils so hot that they would begin to boil. I needed a different approach - not only would this be impractical, I also didn’t think the stage hands would appreciate having to artistically manipulate boiling hot oils!

The solution was fairly simple. Four Source Four fixtures with twin spins (with various breakups and a single spinner with balloons pattern) were pointed at a sheet of Rosco stretch mirror on a 4' x 4' frame reflecting back to a rear projection screen. The spinners, moving at different speeds, created the layers of movement while a stagehand could give the pulsing effects by pushing on the back of the mirror to distort the rotating images in time to the music.

Psychedelic, man!