Henry Ford Community College VTL Hosts Screen Actors Guild Workshop

Dobson, Gerry HFCC Mirror News: February 2011

     Henry Ford Community College’s Virtual Theatricality Lab (VTL) is right in sync with recent entertainment pop cultural phenomena such as 3D stereo, Motion Capture, and the mass marketing of 3D televisions.

     “We are right on with the “zeitgeist” or “time spirit” of recent pop culture films such as A “Christmas Carol” and “Avatar,” says Dr. George Popovich, Director of HFCC’s Theater Arts program and Virtual Theatricality Lab, “and our enrollment shows it: all our classes filled and closed for the winter semester.” Popovich mentions that 3D stereo television sets are being mass marketed and believes the classes offered by the VTL such as “3D Stereoscopic Cinema for Stage and Screen” will be in demand.

     On February 12, 2011, the Michigan Branch of the Screen Actors Guild held a Motion Capture Cadet Workshop at HFCC’s Virtual Theatricality Lab. The workshop was attended by students from Dearborn High who are members of the Screen Actor’s Guild Cadet program.

     Last year in March, a similar workshop was held at the Virtual Theatricality Lab for
adult working members of the Detroit branch of the Screen Actors Guild, hosted by Popovich and Dan Lemieux.

     Dan Lemieux is a Screen Actors Guild Member, Hollywood stuntman, and stunt coordinator, with hundreds of film credits to his name. Lemieux demonstrated various Motion Capture acting techniques used in films, video games, and CGI software environments. Lemieux has done extensive motion capture performance in films such as “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.” He has also created motion capture sequences for video games such as “Laura Croft.”

    Dr. George Popovich, Director of the Virtual Theatricality Lab, demonstrated the history of Motion Capture in films and discussed Motion Capture’s future. Popovich and Lemieux co-teach the VTL’s Mo-Cap performance class along with VTL engineer Alan Contino.

     Also present was CADET founder Ele Bardha. Bardha has also worked in dozens of films as a stunt coordinator or stunt double such as “Machine Gun Preacher,” “Red Dawn” and “S.W.A.T.” Detroit SAG Branch Executive Director Marcia Fishman was also present to welcome the CADETS.

     One portion of the workshop allowed SAG members to witness an actual Motion Capture session using the VTL’s Vicon camera system. SAG actor Jonathon Stanley, who is presently enrolled in HFCC’s class, “Introduction to Motion Capture Performance and Production,” demonstrated various preparation and performance techniques. Alan Contino, VTL Chief engineer, captured the data. The workshop concluded with a demonstration of stunts.

     The Virtual Theatricality Lab (VTL) was founded in 1993 by Popovich and for the past seventeen years has produced shows and developed classes that combine cutting-edge film and digital technologies with theater productions. Recently the VTL has developed a curriculum and certificate program designed to teach skills and elements of advanced media techniques such as Motion Capture and 3D Stereo.

     Initially, the VTL began as a series of experiments utilizing multimedia in Theater Arts classes in the early nineties. Then Popovich began experimenting with 3D stereo and real time projected digital scenery. William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” was produced in April, 2003 and was a regional winner in the national, prestigious Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival. A production of Caryl Churchill’s “The Skriker” followed in 2006. “The Skriker” utilized motion capture combined with 3D stereoscopic projected virtual scenery to create the surreal and nightmare world of Churchill’s play.

     After “The Skriker,” the VTL began getting invitations from various professional and educational agencies including The Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 2007, Popovich and company were invited to give a Motion Capture workshop for the festival. LAND, a network to promote the Liberal Arts at Michigan community colleges, awarded the VTL a prize for outstanding innovation in February 2007. In February 2008, the VTL was invited back for an encore presentation at LAND.

     In April 2007 the VTL was the Winner of the League for Innovation in the Community College Award, a national organization that acknowledges outstanding achievement in new techniques and technologies in America’s Community Colleges. This led to the VTL being chosen as a Bellwether Award Finalist in October 2007. The Bellwether Award represents a “think tank” organization that honors innovation in collegiate teaching. The Bellwether Awards are an integral part of the Community College Futures Assembly, established in 1995. The Assembly is sponsored by the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Florida and focuses on cutting-edge, trendsetting programs that other colleges might find worthy of replicating. The Bellwether Awards are given annually in three categories to colleges with outstanding and innovative programs or practices. The Bellwether Award has been compared to football’s Heisman Award because it is competitively judged and is an award given by peers in community colleges.

     Popovich is listed in the 2007 and 2008 editions of Who’s Who In America for his work in digital theater development. The VTL Lab was visited by Dr. Guangyao Bai, Vice President, The National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts, October 2007. It was also visited by Kevin Purcell, a professor of music and performance art from Australia in 2008.

     After “The Skriker,” Popovich decided to focus on educating students rather than producing shows. Popovich noticed that Motion Capture technicians command a relatively high entry-level salary. He researched and investigated the skills involved and discovered that he could teach those skills with 4 college level classes. So he created the Henry Ford Community College Virtual Theatricality Lab Motion Capture Systems Technician Certificate. Since 2009, over 20 students have completed the Motion Capture Certificate program and the present certificate track is full.

     In January 2010, the VTL moved into a new, spacious studio in HFCC Fine Arts Building. The studio boasts 12 high-end Mo-Cap cameras; a volume or performance area surrounded by a metallic truss, a green screen, a powerful 3D stereo projection system, and various student computer workstations.

     The VTL’s most recent project is a collaboration with Henry Ford Community College’s
Full Circle Dance Company. The final project will be a 15-foot tall motion capture animation created by a Full Circle Dance Company member who will dance a live “duet” with his gargantuan double. The Concert takes place April 29 and 30, 2011 in the Adray Auditorium on the HFCC main campus, 5101 Evergreen Road, Dearborn. For further information on the dance concert, call: 313-845-6314.

     The VTL is currently in the Research and Development phase of its next production, “Dinosaurus!”

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