Entertainment

Marco Tempest makes the early 1900s new again as he tells the story of Nikola Tesla

Illusionist Marco Tempest is known for making magic out of new technology, memorably using iPods culled from the TED audience for his talk about the beauty of deception. But for his newest TEDTalk, Tempest reaches to the past to create visual wizardry, telling the story of inventor Nikola Tesla using the principles of tanagra theatre.

Hugely popular in the early 20th century, tanagra theater thrilled audiences by using a series of mirrors to transform the image of an actor offstage and project a tiny version onstage. Tempest felt that tanagra theater offered the perfect visual sleight-of-hand to introduce audiences to the sad story of Nikola Tesla, recently called “the greatest geek who ever lived” by the website The Oatmeal. Tesla, a thinker and engineer born in 1856, held over 700 patents, including many to concepts still used today like alternating current, radio, remote control, and robotics. However, after proposing a wireless telegraphy center that could be used to contact other planets, Tesla’s reputation was trashed. He became a recluse, living alone at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Using the principles of tanagra theater, Tempest was able to interact onstage with a miniature Tesla, played by an actor.

In this video, Tempest and his creative team—David Britland (script), Kevin Blanc (art direction), Alain Renold (motion design), Peter Dahmen (pop-up design), Michael Ricar (music and sound design), Enrico Viola (software development), Manuel Rueda Iragorri (tech wizard) and Signe Fleischmann—explain how they crafted a white pop-up book that serves as a stage for tiny Tesla, whose images appears on the 3D pages through a technique called “projection mapping.” The team reveals that making the book and the projection interact seamlessly was a huge undertaking, complicated by the fact that Tempest was located in New York while the rest of the team was in Switzerland. In total, they created 17 final versions of the mind-bending presentation.

The end result is a magical and powerful TEDTalk that will leave you feeling differently about a thinker whose contributions to society have crept off our cultural radar.