Book Excerpt

This excerpt is from the book, Digital Theatre: The Making and Meaning of Live Mediated Performance, US & UK 1990-2020 By Nadia Masura. pp. 130-135.

In 2008 at Henry Ford College’s Virtual Theatricality Lab, George Popovich talked of his use of 3D animation in live production, somewhat along the same lines of the work being done at the University of Kansas, but with an emphasis on Motion Capture. They had recently mounted The Skriker by Caryl Churchill (2006, directed by George Popovich). The play provided a perfect canvas for experimentation with digital puppetry and the agency of the human actor utilizing an avatar for expression of character. The Skriker is a great example of a text that requires something more than human from its actors. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which they also staged), or Dinosaurus! (which was in production at the time), The Skriker features nonhuman creatures as main characters.

Popovich and his team’s facilities included rooms for recording, a greenscreen room, a control room, and a motion capture (mo-cap) room (or volume). They also had two identical cameras to accommodate real-time 3D characters appearing onstage with the performers. Popovich’s interest in VR and live performance was highly influenced by sci-fi pop-culture like Forbidden Planet, Tron, and Lawnmower Man. According to Popovich, The Skriker was the first theatrical production in the world to incorporate both 3D stereo and motion capture in a live theatrical performance of a stage play. Their choice to include motion capture in production came from an interest in the creative agency of the actor. Popovich explains this decision in his production notes: “After examining The Tempest, the element which seemed to be lacking in The Tempest was a direct emphasis on the actor. While the interactive aspect of the production did provide some outlet for actors’ creativity, the overall scenic approach, although VR, did not involve the actors to a great extent. It was for this reason the VTL Lab decided to explore the area of motion capture” (HFC Virtual Theatricality Lab)

Another innovative approach to the production was to include multiple actors in motion capture suits embodying or controlling multiple animated characters, avatars designed with detail by artists Chris Dozier and John Wilson. In fact, the production had two casts, one “live” and one “digital”; one working on set using the standard expressive gear of human actors, and one working behind the scenes in motion capture suites using their own movements to control the “bodies” of the digital puppets projected onstage in real-time.4

Although we have had other mentions of motion capture, in David Gibbons’ review of the production, he gave a clean, compelling explana­tion of what motion capture is and how it was used in the production:

 Motion tracking, or motion capture, began as an analysis tool in biomechanics research. It expanded into education, training, sports and as the technology has matured, into computer animation for cinema and video games. The performer wears sensors or markers near each joint to identify their motion by positions or angles between them. Acoustic, inertial, LED, magnetic or reflective markers, or combinations of any of these, are tracked in precise increments. The motion capture computer software records the positions, angles, velocities, accelerations, and impulses, to log an accurate digital record of the motion…The movements were recalculated to match the physical proportions of each animated character. The characters came to life with movements that were a natural fit with actors live performances during the play. (Gibbons 2007)

The need for this technology in this live production stemmed from the great number of magical characters. There were ten animated figures representing otherworldly beings, corresponding to the Celtic sprites, bogies, demons, and supernaturals written into the play by Churchill. Because these characters come from mythology and lore, and are meant to look nonhuman, they required visually spectacular incarnations. In person, Popovich expressed that he felt like the play was almost “un- producible” in that traditional costuming and makeup methods could be cost-prohibitive—citing the $25,000 sci-fi movie costumes of Stan Winston and Rick Baker. He felt the production’s otherworldly charac­ters were a product of the filmic aesthetic of the playwright. Elsewhere he has been quoted as saying that in general, “Playwrights today are making scripts that require changes in scenery and locale like that of film,” locations and filmic characters like these are “essentially un-producible by the old methods” (Suchyta 2006). He said his goal was to do the play as Churchill wrote it, and create the characters onstage as Churchill describes them without making any concessions in bringing the supernatural characters to life onstage visually.

During the performance the audience, wearing 3D goggles, was live and co-present with both the projections and actors. Live motion capture ruled out the need for human operators other than the actor for the animated characters. In conversation, George Popovich said they were able to create the illusion of the creature next to the performer in the same space. He said, “We strive to create the illusion that the actors are in the virtual environment. We strive to create the illusion that Mo-cap creature is directly next to or in the same space as actor(s).” Popovich talked about the real-time mo-cap and computing needs of the project, saying that “if you are doing mo-cap and it’s going to be interactive, it must be mapped live with the actor. Doing this in real time requires a system that can handle ten actors.” In terms of the production, he felt that they were pushing technology to its edge, using whatever tools worked, and creating something “big and rich, a synthesis of many things.” At the   same time that he expressed a desire to “do Artaud justice,” he also said that The Skriker comes off as more magical than harsh.

To understand the need for technology in this production, let’s look at the supernatural nature of the play. Briefly, the plot of the play can be summarized as the tale of two sisters: one pregnant, and the other who has recently killed her child, and their encounter with the Skriker, an ancient shape-shifting vengeful faerie and its otherworldly entourage, angered at the state of the world—the ecological and moral destruction caused by humans. The Skriker assumes the form of or possesses characters in an attempt to win over the sisters, bring them into the underworld, take the baby and bring about the end of humanity. (HFC Virtual Theatricality Lab)

The characters in The Skriker include the Skriker as a spirit who is, in Popovich’s words, an “ecological warrior, a vengeful spirit, baby killer, damaged women/earth spirit, crone, ferry, sexual and protean, possessing/borrowing human bodies.” Incarnating this demon virtually allowed Popovich to experiment with using mo-cap and animation for costuming, while allowing him to pursue Grotesque acting techniques. In a review by Michael H. Margolin, the Skriker is performed by actor Hugh Duneghy, wearing a motion-capture suit. The Skriker also appears in human form, played by actress Laura McCallum, whose movements shadow the digital puppet down to lip-synching. Popovich describes this as an avatar approach — the incarnation of a deity in earthly form. (Margolin 2006)

Other animated folktale creature characters included: Yallery Brown, Black Dog, Kelpie, Green Lady, Jennie Greenteeth, Bogle, Brownie, Spriggan, and Rawheadandbloodybones. In Popovich’s words these digital puppets are “3D avatars making visible what is invisible.” The production had an Expressionistic and Film Noir look, with the presence of saturated color acting as a symbolic cue for the other worldly charac­ters, such as the Artaudian fountain of blood. In the production notes we get a good sense of how and why the digital characters inhabit the set as they do:

Interspersed throughout the scenes are various appearances of the crea­tures. We have not altered the play. It is presented essentially as written.
The creatures are shown to exist in a dimension gateway between our world and theirs. There is no attempt to present the creatures as “Real,” but as elements of fantasy. Sometimes they influence human events, some­times, they just observe, and “hang out” in the irreality [sic] between their world and ours. Interspersed through the play are various  characters (Man With Bucket, Passerby, Girl With Telescope, etc.) that in some ways are influenced by the creatures and can see them, usually because they have sought out the creatures through magical means. These characters drift in and out of the play. (HFC Virtual Theatricality Lab)

By insisting on the real-time motion capture of the animated char­acters, Popovich values the creative agency of both his digitally enabled actors and their onstage counterparts. He noted that if the characters had been animated first,

then live actors would become a slave to them. The live actors would have to conform their performances to the pre- animated performances. Since the live actors rehearsed with the performers in a motion capture suit, they communally set the timing for their performances. (Popovich in Gibbons 2007)

Instead, backstage a human actor or digital puppeteer was present through and active in gesture, and the onstage actor was less encumbered than they would have been working with preprogrammed animation and was able to respond with the improvisational fluidity that live theatre demands. In the words of animation creators, “It’s a 3-D puppet that was created by a digital artist, but the motion and the life of the puppet is created by a real actor and transferred to the digital puppet” (Brandon 2006).

In addition to the imaginative, detailed depictions of otherworldly characters as digital puppets or avatars, the production allowed Popovich to raise some interesting questions about the nature of performance. When talking to student actors he asked, “What is an actor?” and talked about the difference between movie and stage acting; encouraging actors to engage their dramatic imagination when dealing with avatars or virtual bodies with disparate physical positioning and size relative to their own bodies. He feels that it is important for actors to be able to see what the avatars are doing in real-time and develop a good sense of spatial timing and how their movements translate into animated action. For this reason, he offered a class on acting for VR/Motion capture and incorporated Laban movement into production.

Popovich acknowledged   the skill of the actors, saying, “The actors can’t see a set, but every- thing they do has to align with scenery. They also have to act, to emote and respond to the environment” (McCellan 2007). Clearly, this is an extended set of acting skills to be learned. In one case, he demonstrated the process to an audience, “We wanted the audience to see what it’s like to perform in an empty space with nothing, but imagination for a guide” (Popovich in McCellan 2007). Perhaps this is the ultimate test of the actor’s imagination.

1. “A motion capture suit is capable of transferring the movements of a live actor to a digital puppet. The creatures were created in Lightwave 3D, a digital modeling program. They were then imported into the motion capture program, Motion Builder, for use by actors equipped with motion capture suits” (HFC Virtual Theatricality Lab).

Brandon, Nick. “Bringing the Real into Virtual Reality.” Downriver News Herald, September 29, 2006. D17.

Gibbons, David. “The Skriker.” Michigan Vue Magazine, January 2007, pp. 45–56.

HFC Virtual Theatricality Lab. “Skriker: Production Notes and Visual Logic.”

Margolin, Michael H. “Sights and Sounds of Evil.” Detroit Metro Times,
November 29, 2006. and-sounds-of-evil/Content?oid=2186076.

Suchyta, Sue. “HFCC Virtual Theater Presents Caryl Churchill’ Skriker.’” Dearborn Times Herald, November 26, 2006 the- skriker/    

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