Crown, Sarah/Animation World/October 25, 2014: Online

     Joanna Uhrig won’t even break a sweat as her massive character moves across the stage in Dinosaurus!, a children’s play opening this weekend at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan.

     The Westland woman likely will be in the audience, hearing her voice, watching her moves and wearing 3-D glasses that will help bring her animated dinosaur character to life as it interacts with two live actors on stage.

     More than two years ago, she and other Henry Ford students who were cast as dinosaurs, worked out voices, walks, dance steps and personalities for their prehistoric animal characters. An animator videotaped their moves as they rehearsed the script and used it as a guide to animate the story about two explorers who discover an underground colony of dinosaurs. Students later recorded the script, giving a voice to their animated counterparts. The result is a 3-D animated story that will be projected on a 20- by 30-foot screen at the rear of the stage. Scenery on stage will be painted to match the virtual environment inhabited by the animated dinosaurs. Two actors, who portray the explorers, will interact with the virtual cast members, making the production a 4-D experience.

     “I want to see the finished product. I am looking forward to seeing what they took from what I did and how they incorporated it into the finished product,” Uhrig said. “You can compare it to a movie, but at the same time, it is theater. The cool thing is that there are live actors.”

Special Effects
The show has been in the making for five years through Henry Ford’s Virtual Theatricality Lab (VTL), founded and run by George Popovich, Ph.D. Students, and professionals involved in the Lab use advanced cinema technology, such as virtual reality, motion-capture, and animation to enhance live stage productions. Uhrig, who says her first role is as a mom to her children, got a taste of digital theater in 2002 when she played Ariel in The Tempest at Henry Ford College.

     “We put it in outer space but used Shakespeare’s language,” said Popovich, whose version paid homage to the 1950s sci-fi film, Forbidden Planet, even modeling the Ariel character after a robot. The production used game developer software to create effects, manipulating virtual props in real time during the play. It was a regional winner at the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival in 2004.

     A production of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker followed. The Lab created the Celtic demons in the play using motion capture, a process that records the actor’s live motion and transforms it into a digital performance (think Avatar). “We created the demons digitally. This does not supplant the actor. As a matter of fact, it makes the actor more accountable. One of the things we train with in acting is called the neutral mask. This thing is like a neutral mask. It totally lets you see what your body is doing,” Popovich said. “If you don’t support this stuff, if you don’t create a character, it doesn’t work.”

     The Skriker was a finalist for the National Bellwether Award, which recognizes innovative programs at colleges in the United States.

Creating Dinosaurus!

From 2008-2009, as Popovich began to envision his next play, Dinosaurus!, he created a VTL teaching curriculum, along with certification for students who complete 18 credits in motion capture technology studies. There’s also an acting class in motion capture available to theater students.

     After two years of experimenting with motion capture, Popovich decided to animate the creatures in Dinosaurus!

     “We found out motion capture wasn’t going to work with the dinosaur show because there is something about four-legged things and then there is something about two-legged animals like us, trying to translate that motion, the physics fall apart,” he said.

     Uhrig initially joined the project to create choreography for a dinosaur dance. That led to creating character movements and voicing one of the animals.

     “When you are on stage and being videotaped, you want to make it as animated as possible,” said Uhrig, recalling early rehearsals for the show. “My character was a more curious character and kind of scared. You’re dealing with prehistoric characters that come into contact with human beings. I remember mine was very deliberate and slow.”

     “It was a lot of fun. And I always enjoy working with George. I love the genius of his vision and the fact that he has taken theater and made it a bigger entity with motion capture and virtual reality. It’s something to pay attention to in this area.”

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