Every so often, I come across a striking design and can’t immediately tell if it’s 3D or practical. Most recently, this was when I caught the work of Lewie Wilkinson, aka Laserlewdude, on Reddit. What I saw were images of bright neon lines, spheres refracting light, and color over a black background. Color and light spilled everywhere. I immediately thought of the words “vapor wave disco” in my head.
The images themselves are very similar to 3D-rendered art, including some of our own early wallpapers. But what makes these even more incredible is that they are all done practically, with real lasers and glass. I reached out to Wilkinson over email to learn more about his work and process.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Okay to start, can you give us a little background about yourself?
Human. Live in Indianapolis (USA), husband, father of five. Love light and glass! I studied informatics, music, and atmospheric sciences in school. Work full-time in the information security field, and I love that, too!
How did you get started making these?
Pretty much fell into it! Long story short: I bought a replacement green laser a few years ago and thought to myself, “I bet I could build one.” So I learned how and did. And I was addicted.
For about a year, I built super high-powered pointers. Lots of them. Then I got more interested in the photography aspect. Seeing a collimated beam of light and controlling that, reflecting it, refracting it, making art. The high-powered pointers have to cool off frequently, and the beams / spots were too bright for the camera (and I’m no photography master). So I started making “labbys,” which have better heat-sinking and a built-in fan. These can virtually be run constantly.
After beefing up the “laser” collection (again, this time with “labbys” instead of pointers), the procurement of glass and other setup items started. Now I have a huge collection of glass (mostly from thrift shops / flea markets) and lasers... and broken mirrors. It’s been fun :)
What’s your inspiration? These look like they take a lot of work, not including the videos you edit together.
The “wow” effect! The challenge of making something new and visually exciting. I’ve always loved glass and light, individually. Being able to combine those passions and also use “both sides of the brain” is what really draws me to this work.
As far as work is involved, a super simple setup (think one piece of glass and a laser) can be done very quickly. However, a big part of this is cleaning. You can clean some glass and think it’s clean, until you shine a beam of light at it. Some setups can take hours to get right.
All that ends up being more time for haze from the fog machine (I recently switched to a water-based hazer) to settle. It creates a film that you don’t notice on a “normal” surface, but it is very evident when it’s on a mirror or piece of glass and you shine a laser at it. So then you are cleaning and moving all the objects, which ends up shifting the light just slightly... leading to more tweaking, more cleaning.
The video edits can get to be a couple of hours in themselves. I do it all on my phone. It’s a whole process that I’ve gotten down to a repeatable state, but I could go on about that for a while.
Can you describe your workspace for us?
Don’t laugh. My family moved just over a year ago. We have a spare bedroom in the basement with a walk-in closet. I would have loved to have taken the whole bedroom, but I got the closet.
I will say, it’s nice and dark! It has nice built-in shelves, which are completely occupied with glass. It’s just wide enough to fit my Ikea standing (crank) desk in it. That is where I build everything. I have placed black foam board around the desk area on the walls, and I place black poster board on the desk itself. I also have a stereo — because you gotta have jams!
The room heats up, even being in the basement, with all the electronics and lasers going, and no HVAC. Maybe someday I’ll move out in the bedroom, but for the past year, the closet has been the perfect space.
Can you walk us through, start to finish, your process to create one of these?
The true inception of a setup might be an image or idea that pops in my head while outside of the closet, and I’ll make a quick sketch and try to replicate it later. Or a new piece of glass or some new optics will inspire an idea, and I’ll just start trying things out. More often than not, I start simple, and experimenting with angles and refraction will create “happy accidents” that make the direction flow another way.
Most setups have foreground lasers with visible beams and a background component. I find this to be often the most interesting part of the whole piece — choose which glass to use, what laser pattern to shine through it, what strength of magnification for refocusing. It all makes this part very dynamic and also hard to get just the way I want it!
The foreground setup involves placing single-beam modules strategically around the desktop and incorporating glass and mirrors to reflect / refract the beams. To mount the modules, I use small hobby vices, chemistry stands, and mini tripods. After messing with different pieces of glass for the centerpiece, and swapping different laser colors (wavelengths), I usually go back to adjusting the background — trying different patterns, using other diffraction gratings, swap out the glass that’s being used for the Lumia (a unique technique of shining light through bumpy glass), add in another projector with some movement. This sometimes turns into another full session.
Finally, I’ll capture a lights-on picture. It’s typically a pretty popular request to see the setup without the lasers. Also, I was gifted a Rylo 360 camera that I use to capture a VERY wild video going through the setup. Finally, I break down the setup, as having some of that glass accidentally fall 18 inches can be pretty catastrophic!
Have there been any catastrophic glass-related accidents?
Every glass accident sucks. Finding inexpensive, first-surface mirrors is not easy. Every time I break one of those, I die a little on the inside. Not very long ago, I found three huge mirrors salvaged from some rear-projection TVs on eBay for $15. Incredible find. Some people charge $100+ each for these. However, they were located in California, and I live in Indy. Shipping was $120. Still worth it.
I had an accident where something fell and hit the edge of one mirror. Now I have two of these huge mirrors, and my pile of broken mirrors grew a little bit. Luckily, any crashes have only resulted with one or two items breaking per crash, but it adds up. Working in such a tight space and having to constantly tweak / clean the surfaces is usually the cause for these accidents.
The photos are so crisp and vibrant. How much post work do you do on the photos themselves?
Not much at all! All my photos are taken on my phone (currently a Pixel 4), and the only adjustments I make are in Google Photos (again, on my phone). Usually exposure / contrast and some color correction. I’d love to see what a legit photographer could do with a nicer camera!
Oh wow, I would not have guessed the photos were taken with a Pixel 4! Slightly off topic, how do you like that as a camera?
Hardware-wise, it’s just fine. Nothing really out of the ordinary (some might even say it’s an outdated sensor). They did leave a wide-angle lens off of this phone, so I use a clip-on fish-eye or wide-angle lens when needed. But Google leaving it off this phone was a poor move. Everyone will tell you the software is where it’s at.
Previous to this phone I had an HTC, and I had a modded version of the native camera, which added some manual exposure controls. That was a must — being able to control the ISO and shutter speed, especially when using a projector (which has a scan rate that will cause either undesired flicker or some super rad stop-motion effects depending on the shutter speed).
There are some third-party camera apps that will give you this control, but for the most part, the Pixel 4’s built-in camera has been what I’m using, and just adjusting the brightness works well. Certain wavelengths — shorter wavelengths like violet (405nm) and darker blues (445nm, 450nm) — can benefit more from the manual controls, but overall I’m pretty impressed with the Pixel.
Your art reminds me of a lot of 3D art I see on Instagram, and actually, I have personally made a few renders that feel related in style (here, here, and here)! That’s really impressive since it’s all practical. I think the inclusion of spheres or primitive shapes / objects is what ties the two together. Do you ever look at 3D art?
One of my favorite types of comments right now is “I thought this was a render!” I do not see much physical art like this, so I think it’s a real surprise for someone to figure out this is not CGI. I usually state in photo captions, “Not a render” or “No Photoshop,” and I do not mean this as slam to digital art.
Making art on a computer is awesome. There are so many talented individuals that can blow my mind with their renders / edits. I state it out loud because it’s a pretty common misconception when someone sees my work for the first time.