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The neon sign is an inextricable part of the urban landscape whose beginnings go back over seventy years. Once used solely to draw attention to diners, bars, theatres and the like, today examples of signage from the thirties through the sixties are exhibited in art galleries. This is an example of advertising illustration developed under a craft ethic being redefined as 'functional art.'
In contrast to its use in displays, several fine artists over the last 30 years have used neon as an art medium. Larry Albright is one of these artists. His work has been shown in major exhibitions and is in permanent collections worldwide. Aside from his artistic work with plasma globes and neon sculpture, he is known for his development of the mass produced "Eye of the Storm" and "White Lightning" plasma globes developed for the consumer market and for his lighting designs for the movie industry. (AW)
The following interview from The Light Artist Anthology is reprinted on Armchair World by permission of the publisher. Text is © 1994 ST Publications, Inc.
A pioneer in the development of plasma globes, this artist is better known for his work as a specialty lighting effects designer for film directors such as Steven Speilberg and Francis Ford Coppola.
AS AN ARTIST, YOU HAVE DEVELOPED A UNIQUE RELATIONSHIP WITH HOLLYWOOD AND HAVE COMPLETED SPECIAL EFFECTS WORK ON SEVERAL MOVIE PROJECTS. HOW DID THAT BEGIN?
Speilberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind was one of the first films I worked on. I knew some of the people who were initially working on the film, and they were trying to get a new kind of realism with the scale models and the special effects props. In order to do that, the models had to be on camera for very long periods of time, with the camera shooting through a small aperture to increase the depth of field. They wanted to get away form a phony Japanese sci-fi look, which looks too much like close-up photography of scale modes. So what it boils down to is literally running the camera for weeks at a time on some of the shots and scenes.
Camera exposures might take a minute or several minutes per frame, and then the model or the camera would be moved slightly and another frame exposed. The models are made of very flimsy materials so the light bulbs tended to melt them. They tried strobe lights too, but they didn't turn out very satisfactorily either. Neon, although it isn't incredibly bright, ran cool and didn't melt down the models. Also, once it was inside the model, it would run continuously for days, weeks - forever, without anyone having to reopen the fragile models to replace burned out bulbs. Neon turned out to be a very successful solution, and the film industry has been happy with it ever since. Neon is now standard in special effects and motion control photography.
WHAT WERE SOME OF YOUR OTHER FILM PROJECTS?
The same group from Close Encounters also worked on Star Wars to solve and refine what are called "blue screen techniques." These people are professional problems solvers, and I really enjoy working with them; I like demanding, experimental projects. In Star Wars they were usually moving the camera instead of the model, which was stationary and mounted on pylons, but the effect was still the same. All the camera photography was done in front of a big blue background, and everything except the model was blue - the pylons, supports, etc.
All the blue would drop out of the scene during the photography, and, later during editing, star fields, other footage or whatever else they might need would be added. The trick was to have an even, blue-field background, To develop this, we worked with special phosphor-coated tubes, camera lens filters and spectrophotometers which actually measured the intensity of the blue, right down to the wave length. The work was very experimental and went way beyond the "folk music" of neon. I like that, because I have a science dilettante background, and I've also done a lot of photography in the past.
DO YOU WANT TO DISCUSS ANYTHING FROM YOUR OTHER FILM PROJECTS - STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, ONE FROM THE HEART, FOXFIRE, BLADE RUNNER, BUCKAROO BONSAI, GOONIES...?
Yes, Francis Ford Coppola's film One From the Heart was very challenging, because they wanted neon miniaturized on a scale much smaller than anything I'd done before. That required me to start over again with everything. According to the drawings I had to scale, the neon was down to 2mm, simulating large 18mm neon tubes. Two millimeters is about the size of pencil lead, and was way beyond what anyone had done previously. So everything had to be figured out - how to pump it, bombard it, proper filling pressure - and instead of a footage chart, an "inchage" chart had to be developed. There was a lot of research involved, but the budget was there. For instance, I had one woman who worked on coating the tubes, and she ended up being my mini-coating department technician. This couldn't be done commercially, so these tiny 2 mm tubes were individually coated and inspected using a light table to check for flaws. It was like handling eggs.
She would mark each piece individually, indicating where the good coated parts were on the tube, and then she would carefully store them until they were needed. Initially, I tried making small 2mm electrodes, but eventually I went through EGL, using one of its special-order varieties. I even had to make my own torches to bend the 2mm tubing. I had a three-way cross-fire that had the smallest tips we could get. I made a ribbon-burner with the help of a friend's milling machine. It as only one inch long.
Bill Concannon did much of the actual bending, which was very experimental because the swivel set and the blow hose weighed more than the unit and sometimes would pull the unit off the table or break it. They were all made from soft glass. Initially we made our own glass tubing as well, drawing out thin strands until I found the ideal wall thickness, ID and OD specifications - inside and outside diameters. Once I had these dimensions, I had a batch of extremely consistent tubing manufactured for the project.
WHAT FILLING PRESSURES DID YOU USE FOR THESE UNITS?
Usually we found that we couldn't exceed 15mm of pressure, no matter which gas we were using. We also discovered that filling with neon was very difficult: it's what is called "hard starting." It's hard to trigger red gas, so the small units with red gas would flicker no matter what we did. If we exceeded 15mm of filling pressure, the tubes became too hot. We also found it very difficult to operate a unite over 12 in. So, we used mercury argon for most of the units and special red phosphors if we needed red or warm colors. We lost a lot of units just getting the mercury in, because when you have a tiny ball of mercury in 2mm tubing, you have to use some violence to get it in the unit to both electrodes. We broke several in the process.
DID YOU HAVE TO BUILD YOUR OWN POWER SUPPLIES AND TRANSFORMERS?
No, I was able to use off-the-shelf transformers. I used resistance ballast transformers, and to achieve the proper scale of brightness, they operated at 3-4 milliamps. By the way, some of these miniature pieces originally made for the film (One From the Heart) have been in several museum shows and are still ticking after all these years.
HAS ALL THE RESEARCH YOU PUT INTO MINIATURIZING TO 2MM LED TO OTHER POSSIBILITIES?
It was a drill. It was fun to see it all happen, but it was very difficult and frustrating at times, and it took a whole crew to get it going. What it has done is allowed slightly larger neon (5mm) to be made much more easily, making it more available for special effects projects.
HOW DID YOU INITIALLY DEVELOP THIS EXPERTISE IN NEON? THROUGH A NEON SIGNSHOP BACKGROUND?
No, as an artist I was making a lot of Rube Goldberg - type machines. I started out making stainless steel sculptures and whimsical toys. I found a way to use gas to weld stainless with this magic flux, and the welded sculptures started becoming more and more elaborate. Things that clanked and clinked with timers and relays - this was all happening in the late '60s, early '70s. Then I made a transition and started using found neon pieces in my sculptures. The first pieces were small neon helixes used in road barricades. They were wonderfully designed and built with small power supplies. From then on I became more interested in using neon. Initially, I'd go to signshops and ask them to fabricate thing for me, but I ran into a catch-22: I found that a lot of the traditional neon men didn't know how to play with neon, even if you paid them - because of some older work ethic, I suppose.
IN OTHER WORDS, YOU WOULD PAY THEM TO FABRICATE YOUR DESIGNS FOR YOUR SCULPTURES?
Yeah, but it was funny - I would go in and ask how much they made an hour. Then I would say, let me give you that and more, and could you do this for me. And many times, they had too many channel letters to do to deal with me and my projects. Experimenting and playing was not working. Once I had a big crackle tube filled with very expensive little glass balls that this guy built for me. When he bombarded it, it blew up. And as I was picking up the glass balls off his floor, I knew I couldn't push him any further. But my interest continued, because I'd seen the crackle tube effect a long time ago, and I wanted to use it in my work. I tried again with another guy who bombarded a piece for me, and it worked. I entered the finished sculpture in a contest, the Barnsdall Park Festival in L.A., and I got a cash purchase prize for it. So, one of my buddies pushed me into buying and building my on neon equipment.
I finally found some guys in Bakersfield, CA, who wanted $300.00 for a neon shop called Road Runner Sign Service. So I went to Bakersfield in a friend's van and came back with a load of dirty, grimy equipment, and I really didn't know what it was, but I was assured that there was one of everything. I started sorting it out, asking questions, and it turned out that there was one of everything - a bombarder, choke, ribbon-burner, cross-fires, hand torches, a broken manifold and cases of broken glass. The bombarder I'm still using to this day, but I've already phased out a lot of the other equipment.
SO AS AN ARTIST, YOU'RE SELF-TAUGHT IN NEON?
Yes. At the time, there weren't many other artists that I was aware of using neon in L.A. Nor were there any schools.
DID YOU GET ANY TUTORING FROM A LOCAL SIGNMAKER ?
There were a few people who helped me to a certain point, but not beyond; it was an enigma to me. I think a lot of it is because they worked very hard through an apprentice system to learn their craft. In the beginning, they did a lot of crap work and thought maybe if they were good, somebody would decide to teach them a little bit. But, they paid a lot of dues. So, when I came to them asking for help, they just weren't programmed for it. They weren't really teachers in the sense of going to a university and getting everything on a silver platter just because you're interested in the subject and think someone should teach you. They got everything the hard way.
But finally I found out about Neon Techniques and Handling, a book by Samuel Miller (published by ST Publications). Someone finally condescended to tell me about this book, and that was wonderful; it's an incredible book, and it helped me very much, I have a lot of respect for Samuel Miller, and that book was remarkably well written, My first copy was given to me by someone who found it at Acres of Books in Long Beach, CA. Here was this guy, not even somebody I would consider asking for information, with this book. He gave me the book and also recommended a very good Chinese restaurant, and I've enjoyed them both. I still have the book, but unfortunately, the restaurant's gone. I have several editions of the book now - the first hardbound edition and the others. It's nice to have them all, because over the years, they've been edited, and things have been added.
SO YOUR CONNECTION WITH THE NEON SIGN INDUSTRY IN TERMS OF BACKGROUND AND TRAINING IS LIMITED?
Yes. I've made signs, but I've never really done it full time as a vocation. I did it only to pay the rent. I don't have a traditional art school background, though I hung around art schools and came up through the junkyard school of art, finding my own personal path through the art maze - a Philistine. I do have a strong electronics background and scientific and technical skills, which have helped me a lot. And I've acquired all this neon equipment and skills. I've never lost my desire to play and experiment with the stuff.
DO YOU RELY ON THE NEON SIGN INDUSTRY FOR A LOT OF YOUR SUPPLIES, AND ARE YOU HAPPY WITH THE DIVERSITY AND AVAILABILITY?
Yes, absolutely. It seems that, especially in the last five or six years, they've come out with a lot of different transformers and other equipment. Also, I purchase a lot of material from P.J. Mason in England and also from companies in France. Masonlite has a much better spectrum of colors, and it's been doing a lot of development with solid-state transformers, but I also rely on the scientific industry as a source of materials and supplies. I think if an artist is responsible, he knows that his supplies don't just magically come to him. But if he has that attitude, he's not going to get help from some people; you have to realize that some suppliers are doing you a favor with your exotic neon needs, and you have to to be considerate and judicious with their time. I've generally had good luck with suppliers. There always seems to be someone who'll go the extra distance for me. But again, if I'm doing something that's getting too bizarre, I usually revert to Pyrex and then I'm into the world of scientific laboratory glass, And now, most of the stuff I do is in Pyrex.
MOVING ON TO OTHER AREAS OF YOUR WORK, YOU'RE CERTAINLY IN THE FOREFRONT - IF NOT THE FATHER - OF THE PLASMA SPHERES THAT WE'RE SEEING A LOT OF NOW.
I don't want to make any claims, but I was definitely one of the first, and for a long time, I was certainly the only one I knew of who was working in that area.
YOU'VE PUT SEVERAL YEARS INTO EXPERIMENTING, REFINING AND DEVELOPING PLASMA GLOBES AND PLASMA EFFECTS....
Yes, it's been very rewarding, and I feel it's just the tip of the iceberg. There's much more out there to be discovered.
WOULD YOU EXPLAIN THE PLASMA EFFECT, AND HOW IT COMPARES TO NEON, MORE SPECIFICALLY?
Primarily, it's the use of higher frequency electricity, but essentially there are more similarities between the plasma effect and neon than there are differences. The high frequency electricity places the plasma in what is called the "skin effect." If the viewer touches the sphere, he or she becomes the second electrode because, at those high frequencies, the surface of the body is very conductive. Eventually the electricity travels back to the original power source, completing a loop. With neon, the path of electricity is more tightly controlled and contained with two specific electrodes. But this is not a true plasma in the physics sense of the word. The term "plasma" is being used in a generic way to describe this family of effects. Plasma in the physics sense of the word refers to an ionized, high temperature fourth state of matter,
Actually, one of the first commercially available plasma devices on the market was something called the "Corona Concert." It came out in the late '70s and was essentially an unaltered, off-the-shelf, argon-filled filament light bulb, powered by a high-frequency generator. It was very pale, but in a dark room it did a lot of interesting things. Unfortunately, however, it was short-lived commercially. My work with plasma globes, or lighting spheres as I sometime call them began in the early '70s - probably around 1972 - when I first began working with high-frequency transformers. After building some of my own high-frequency transformers, I discovered some very exciting things which I incorporated into a few of my sculptures. At the time, it was not something I wanted commercially involved with; I was only interested in using the plasma effect as an element in my sculptures.
But, about a year ago, I was approached by the Rabbit Co., which wanted to market a plasma globe, and I decided to capitalize on all my research and work. The people there were very sensitive to working with me and with what I wanted to do. They wanted to develop a quality product with good color combinations, and they gave me final say over how the product would look and how it was to be designed, So we developed "Eye of the Storm," a plasma globe which has been selling very well. My role is not in manufacturing but in creating and developing, which has given me a lot of freedom. They're being manufactured overseas, and now I'm working on the next generation. A year ago, I couldn't spell the word entrepreneur, and I still can't.
YOUR RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT, THEN, IS WHY YOU HAVE SO MUCH UNUSUAL EQUIPMENT IN YOUR STUDIO THAT YOU WOULDN'T NORMALLY SEE IN THE AVERAGE NEON SIGNSHOP?
Yes, I use a glass lathe, a convection oven for out-gassing glass and induction heaters to process electrodes. I use a lot of Pyrex equipment and laboratory glass burners. I try to do as much as I can with my abilities, but if I get in over my head, I work with a scientific glass fabricator. I've also had to build some special equipment specifically for the large 30-in. plasma globes, I've built for Walt Disney, Michael Jackson, EXPO and others.
ARE THERE ANY LIMITATIONS ON HOW LARGE THESE GLOBES CAN GET?
Only money. I'm using the largest globes (30 in.) that are currently being manufactured. They're made by Corning and come overseas from England. They're Pyrex glass and cost about $3,000 apiece. They hold about 200 liters of inert gas, approximately one atmosphere of pressure, so there's a lot of money just in glass and gas. The power supply is 110 volts and of course a very important part of the display. With different types of power supplies you get different displays. Much of the research I've been doing lately has been with the power supplies, because it's a subject as important as the gas fill mixture ratio research I've done. It's like the chicken and egg problem sometimes, because, given a proper gas fill mix, you then have to figure out what power supply would be the optimum design, But you can't figure out at the same time which fill mix and power supply are going to be optimum. It's like solving simultaneous equations. How do you know you've got a good power supply unless you have a good gas fill-mix ratio? It's all experimental.
WHAT OTHER AREAS ARE YOU EXPLORING IN YOUR WORK?
I'm very interested in crackle tubes, and I plan to put more energy into that direction.
WHO ARE SOME OF THE PEOPLE WHO'VE INSPIRED YOU IN YOUR WORK?
Nikola Tesla, for one. I'm an enthusiastic subscriber to the Tesla Coil Builders Assn., published by Harry Goldman (RD 3, Box 181, Glens Fall, NY 12801 ). I think Tesla was a genius and an enigma. I am inspired by his work, but there are sides of him I don't relate to. He had so many patents, and of course, his alternating current work was phenomenal. I'm also inspired by someone Nikola Tesla was in awe of, Sir William Crookes, who in the 1800's was experimenting with low-pressure electrified gas tubes, such as Geissler tubes.
MUCH OF YOUR INSPIRATION IS FROM HISTORIC SCIENCE FIGURES RATHER THAN ARTISTS. BUT, DO YOU WANT TO MENTION ANY SPECIFIC ARTISTS?
Yes, James Turrell and Ed Kienholtz, and specifically in the plasma area, Bill Parker, who was Artist-in-Residence at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.
© 1994 ST Publications, Inc.
Reprinted with permission from: The Light Artist Anthology: Neon and Related Media. (1994) ST Publications, Inc., Cincinnati, OH. 137 pgs contains interviews with 15 artists and photographs of their work.
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