See how this ‘cruelty-free’ circus replaced animals with holograms

2 min

A new spectacle is taking over the tented world of acrobats, clowns and juggling entertainers. And while it may have a trunk and tusks, it weighs absolutely nothing. Circuses, once known for showcasing elephants in all their heft are now presenting a much lighter creature — a 3D hologram.

The Circus-Theater Roncalli in Germany was the first to do it, and photographer Davide Bertuccio wanted to see for himself how the group pulled it off. When he attended a show at the end of 2022, he was immediately struck by the quiet atmosphere inside the tent. “Finding a circus without the din of animals, but the simple noise of people was a surprise” he said.

The holographic figures are custom-built for the circus using 3D animations, photography and virtual rendering. The system of 11 digital laser projectors positioned around the stage flash animations onto a circular net hoisted up for each performance. The entire light show is operated by one person, and it takes about 10 people to take down the metallic netting to make room for the other performers, including acrobats, clowns and dancers, Bertuccio said.

Circus Roncalli, which was founded in 1976, introduced the holograms in 2019 when they partnered with a German firm specializing in augmented reality.

Other acts have followed suit, including the French circus L’Écocirque, which features holograms of a lion, an elephant and beluga whales, accompanied by a live orchestra blaring rock music.

Circus Roncalli was among the first circus acts in Europe to stop using animals in acts. The circus has been animal-free since the 1990s.

The use of circus animals for decades has raised concerns of exploitation and cruelty. In the United States, more than 150 cities and counties across 37 states have limited or barred them, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund. And in Bertuccio’s native Italy, the lower house of Parliament has advanced legislation to ban the use of circus animals.

Many countries ban circuses with wild animals. These lawmakers want the U.S. to follow suit.

After photographing the show, Bertuccio said, he was amazed by how immersed he was. Marveling at the holographic creatures without any of the distress of watching wild animals in captivity, Bertuccio said, “When you enter the Roncalli, you realize the absence of animals is not a flaw, but ... a strength.”

Editing by Monique Woo and Karly Domb Sadof.