Interview with Holographic Artist Rob Munday

Interview with Holographic Artist Rob Munday
Queen Elizabeth II by Chris Levine (artist), Rob Munday (holographer) © Jersey Heritage Trust

Interview with Holographic Artist Rob Munday:

You may not recognise the name Rob Munday, but you definitely know his work. Along with artist Chris Levine, Rob, who is one of the world’s leading holographic artists, created the very first holographic portrait of The Queen in 2003 (above). If you didn’t catch it then, chances are you did when the same portrait made it onto a postage stamp in 2011 to commemorate HRH’s Diamond Jubilee. Other iconic images include his hyperreal 3D lenticular portrait (he explains what this is below) of the inimitable Karl Lagerfeld for a special 15th anniversary edition of AnOther Magazine. The artist hasn’t confirmed if he plans to follow this up with a tribute to fashion’s favourite feline, Choupette, but we can only dream.

Rob’s commissions have stretched far and wide – famous sitters include  Sir Quentin Blake, the Gallagher brothers and one of the world’s  longest living heroes, the WWI veteran Henry Allingham, who died aged 113 in 2009.

Rob’s latest work is of Guerlain muse Angelina Jolie whose perfect bone structure looks positively preternatural in the black and white image below. And yet, as Rob explains below, the holographic image is photography in its purest form. “When you look at a true hologram, you see reality. There is no difference,” says the artist who is also a pioneer in the world holographic research and development. Indeed, as early as 1991 he designed and built the world’s first 3D digital hologram printer and created the world’s first digital holograms. He also helped to establish and run the world’s first post graduate degree in holography at the Royal College of Art, London. He’s responsible for a lot of firsts and yet his chosen genre remains ultra niche.

Rob’s company Sitech produces hologram and OVD (Optically Variable Device) design and mastering systems. If you are furrowing your brow right now, Rob has all the answers below. Somehow he makes such this technically challenging medium sound so very easy.

Rob Munday is represented by The Little Black Gallery

Karl Lagerfeld by Rob Munday for AnOther Magazine

Interview with Holographic Artist Rob Munday

Rob, you are a pioneer in the world of holography (in both the scientific and artistic sense) and from what I understand you are self taught. What attracted you to this art form?  As a child of the ’80s, I remember the pre-digital hologram craze! Do you remember your first hologram? Can you pinpoint anything that may have ignited this passion in you for such a particular art form?

From the age of two I was obsessed with two things equally, drawing and animals. Perhaps most children are but, in my case, it led to a lifelong ambition to combine the disciplines of art and science. In 1979, I searched the UK for a degree that would satisfy both passions and discovered a brand new BA Hons. degree called Scientific and Technical Graphics based in Cornwall. It was the first course outside of the USA to teach the mediums of computer graphics, television and video together with the more traditional subjects of illustration, photography and graphic design and was as close to a blend of art and science as I could find. It was during the second year of the course, in 1981, that I found myself outside the Photographers’ Gallery in London looking through the window at a hologram. As with most people, I was astonished by its realism. The hologram in question was called Rind II, one of the very first made by the late inventor of ‘rainbow holograms’ Stephen Benton. The exhibition turned out to be the second only such exhibition of holography in the UK. I know it’s a cliché but the lightning bolt struck. At that exact moment, I knew that I would spend the rest of my life creating holographic images. A hologram is made with the pure energy of light and perfectly emulates visual reality. No other medium has been or can ever be invented that does this better. Within three years I had taught myself holography, created some of the first ever holograms of living animals and built one of the few holographic portrait studios in the world at the Royal College of Art.

I’ve tried to read up on the history of holography but it’s so very complicated! Is there a way you could explain how you undertook your most recent work for starring Angelina Jolie so we can understand (in layman terms) how images are collated and also what the process is once you have the photographic material? Do you think part of the appeal of this art form for you is precisely this ‘mystery in the making’? 

It is not the mystery of holography that attracts me but the fundamental nature of the medium. Whilst it can appear complicated to those that don’t understand the physics of light, true holography actually works in an extremely simple, indeed beautiful way, harnessing the wave nature of light to record a facsimile of reality. It is now even thought that the entire universe and everything in it may be a hologram. Unfortunately however, over the last few years almost every other kind of 3D image has been referred to as a ‘hologram’. Even Microsoft’s latest augmented-virtual reality system, called the Hololens, is misleadingly advertised as a holographic system. This has made talking about holography very confusing. What’s more I do not only use true holography myself to create my images. True holograms, whilst simple in themselves, are made with lasers and it is a technically complex and expensive process. Another more convenient, but non-the-less very effective 3D imaging technique, is known as lenticular imaging. This is the technique I chose for my portraits of Karl Lagerfeld and more recently Angelina Jolie for Guerlain. It requires that up to 200 photographs are taken from around the sitter, through a 45 degree angle of view. This special sequence is then used to create a three-dimensional picture or ‘lenticular image’. The shoot is conducted in the same way as a conventional photographic shoot but using a moving camera which is programmed to take the pictures automatically as it moves along a rail. I use an updated version of the camera system I originally designed and built to shoot Her Majesty the Queen’s portrait in 2003. It is a unique piece of hardware and quite definitely the best of its kind in the world. Once shot the images are combined in a special way and the final 3D ‘lenticular’ work completed at my studio in London.

Rob Munday interview holographic artist

Most people know that holograms can be found on our credit cards and bank notes, but are there less obvious ways in which holograms are used in our day to day lives?

Yes, there are many other uses. Non-display applications include medical testing, for example special holograms change colour according to the level of sugar in the blood. Non-contact holographic buttons are appearing on machines and in cars. Holograms are used in fibre optic communications to redirect light beams and are used to measure microscopic stress in critical components, such as in jet engines. Even more anonymously, every electronic price tag seen clipped to supermarket shelves has a hologram within it to enable the device to display a price even when the electricity is switched off. Obviously these are technical applications.

As an aside, what was it like to work with the Hollywood actress?

Angelina was a pleasure to work with. She is a highly creative and driven person and was extremely proactive throughout the shoot, constantly suggesting poses and styles that she thought would suit both the campaign and the medium. She was also extremely interested in the technical aspects of the process, asking how she could best pose for the medium.

How long does it take to produce a 3D lenticular portrait? Are they more challenging than say your extraordinary nature pictures? Or perhaps the opposite is true!

 Frankly, it doesn’t take a great deal longer than a normal 2D portrait however less shots can be taken. Instead of a hundred or more single shots, only about 10-20 sequences are usually taken making it even more important to get a great shot each time. One of the issues with three-dimensional portraiture is the difficultly of retouching afterwards. In other words the final portrait can be a little too realistic for some people. Personally this is what I love most about using this medium for portraiture however it does require that the sitter is comfortable with the way they look. Blemishes and wrinkles can be removed but major reshaping of the body and face, often done in advertising, is almost impossible. Catherine Deneuve once complained that she looked too old and the late John Pertwee complained that his nose looked too big!

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What has been your most challenging work to date?

 Of course my most challenging commission, if also the most exciting and satisfying one, was to record Her Majesty the Queen’s portrait in 2003 and 2004. My work is far from conventional of course and, in the early 2000’s very few of the techniques now used had been developed. It must have taken a huge amount of courage and perhaps blind faith for the commissioners, The Jersey Heritage Trust / The States of Jersey, to commission such an unusual and contemporary portrait. Once commissioned, I had just six weeks to design and build a brand new camera system and write all the computer software to control it. I also wrote new and unique software to process and undistort the images afterwards in order to achieve the best possible 3D portrait. It was a mammoth task. I arrived at the Palace with one of only two prototypes camera’s in the world capable of recording high resolution digital images at high speed and which had barely been tested. Then came the issue of whether the Queen would accept to be immortalised in such a life-like manner. My aim, as with my other portraits, was to create a starkly accurate and perhaps even shockingly realistic portrait of the Queen in a style never before been seen or even allowed whilst maintaining a sense of splendour and majesty. Given that this was a commission of a life time, there were a lot of unknowns, a lot that could have gone wrong and a few that did. Fortunately however the result, the first ever officially commissioned 3D portrait of any British Monarch, proved to be one of the most ionic portraits ever taken of Her Majesty the Queen.

What has been your most memorable aside from HRH and Angelina?

I would have to say recording a portrait of the late Henry Allingham. Henry was famous for being the last remaining survivor of The Battle of Jutland, the biggest naval battle of WW1. He was also the penultimate surviving WW1 veteran and, at 113 years, became the world’s oldest man. It was such an honour to record his portrait. I recorded him at the age of 109 and he arrived at my studio in Richmond with great exuberance and very excited to be immortalised. It took an entire day to shoot both a true holographic portrait and a 3D lenticular image. When I asked Henry what the secret to longevity was he simply replied ‘know your limitations’. The portrait was unveiled by The Duchess Gloucester at the opening of an exhibition to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland on board the HMS Belfast in 2006 and was later selected as Henry’s official portrait and shown at his funeral. It is currently on display at the Imperial War Museum.

You have developed all manner of award winning holographic systems and 3D imaging equipment including the first digital hologram printer…what is the future for holography and why is it still so niche compared to other 3D art forms? 

True holography, as opposed to the myriad of other more basic 3D imaging techniques, is the ultimate visual medium and perhaps the only one that will be needed in the future. Without getting too technical, a true hologram records the actual shape or ‘wavefront’ of the light that emanates from the real world and then replays it. In other words the light that is reflected from a hologram and into your eye is identical to the light that reflects from the real world and into your eye. When you look at a true hologram therefore you see reality. There is no difference. All images in the future therefore can and perhaps will be holographic in nature as a hologram can depict anything that exists and even, using computer generated holograms, things which don’t. Over the last 40 years there has been many acclaimed holographic artists and many others that use the lenticular medium. Such mediums however remains niche due largely to their cost and complexity.

Do you think that high speed holographic systems for our laptops are on the horizon? A true holographic screen would overcome all such problems as the image seen is identical to reality. 

There are several laptops already on the market with non-holographic 3D stereoscopic screens, even ones that show 3D without glasses. These are however limited in their ability to provide a comfortable viewing experience. As with 3D cinema, some people experience headaches and even nausea when viewing these types of screens. The answer, as you say, is to have a true holographic screen as then the image seen is identical to reality. It would literally be like looking through a window. The resolution required however is currently a problem. An HD TV contains about two million pixels. In order to make a holographic screen one would ideally need about twenty-five times as many pixels, some 50,000,000, in each one square millimetre of the screen. Overall there would have to be several trillion pixels! I’m sure one day this will happen however. I’m particularly looking forward to the kind of holographic walls that were depicted in the film Prometheus. Just press a button and a tropical beach appears inside your living room.

Lastly, I imagine holographic art has relevance in the development of VR systems – are you interested in this field? Perhaps you are already working with games developers…? Is there a cross over? 

Virtual reality is an exciting visual medium, even though it has been around now since the 1980’s. Most people feel however that the need to wear cumbersome goggles will ultimately restrict this technology. Right now I am more excited by the advent of very high resolution large format 3D displays that show parallax or ‘look-around’ but do not require the viewer to wear glasses. Using such a display it will be possible show live 3D video portraits of people talking to camera and describing their career, passions and life.


Interview with Holographic Artist Rob Munday
Naturalium series by Rob Munday launching at Photo London May 2017 with The Little Black Gallery

Interview with Holographic Artist Rob Munday