Bodies in Motion

Conrad, Stu/Dearborn Times Herald/36 Nov. 2008: E219

     In a quiet corner on the campus of Henry Ford Community College, a small group of teachers and students are working to create a new, high-tech medium for live theatrical performance.

     Part Hollywood special effect, part traditional stagecraft; HFCC’s Virtual Theatricality Lab is the marriage of technology and performance art in a way that never has been done before.

    Using motion capture cameras and stereoscopic projectors, the VTL aims to immerse audiences in a three-dimensional environment where live actors interact with digitally produced characters.

     Actors wearing motion-capture suits are filmed using the cameras in a studio separate from the theater, where the actual play is presented. The images captured by the cameras then are animated using specialized computer software, and the resulting image is projected on stage in 3D stereo, where live actors interact with the digital apparitions that can range from a whimsical wood sprite to a frightening, teeth gnashing demon. Already the VTL has garnered national and regional awards for its 2003 production of the Shakespearian play “The Tempest”, and its 2006 rendition of the dark folklore tale “The Skriker”.

     Now armed with a set of new $160,000 cutting edge, motion capture cameras, the VTL will look to take audiences to a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth in the show “Dinosaurus!,” which is currently in development.

     The show will feature some of prehistory’s most renowned characters—T-Rex and Stegosaurus to a name a couple—along with a quirky virtual scientist to narrate the show and interact with audiences. The production will be aimed at children with several showings for area schools, but also will be performed for the general public over the course of seven weekends. Attendees will wear 3-D glasses and get a chance to take one of the most true-to-life walks with dinosaurs that has happened in the post-Jurassic era.

     We want this to be as realistic as possible,” said Chief engineer Alan Contino. “We’re not aiming for cartoonish characters. We want people to see actual dinosaurs on stage”.

     Crew members say the pursuit of photorealism has presented some interesting challenges. Not only are they are learning to operate the new camera system, they also are conducting extensive research into the biomechanics of dinosaurs.

     While the crew continues to work on its latest production, members also are working to perfect the system they have pioneered. The eventual goal, they say, is to produce a turnkey system that can be cost-effectively installed at theaters around the country to make virtual theatricality mainstream reality.

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