Technical Wizardry Brings Recognition To The Tempest

Hanosh, Craig/Downriver News-Herald/January 2004

     Henry Ford Community College’s Theater program is taking its act on the road, and they couldn’t be happier. HFCC’s staging of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is one of 10 college theater productions in the Midwest to be chosen as a Kennedy Center American Theater Festival regional winner from among 42 colleges in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

     With that honor came an invitation to be among 1,600 theater students and instructors at the 36th annual KCACTF Region III festival and competition at Illinois State University in Normal, Ill.

     “The Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival honors the best in American college and university theater and we are thrilled to be chosen for this prestigious honor,” Rick Goward, associate dean of HFCC’s Fine Arts & Fitness Division, said.

     Director George Popovich, who premiered “The Tempest” on campus in April, has breathed new, virtual life into Shakespeare. Using video and digital technology to create 3-D stereoscopic scenery, this production is the culmination of over seven years of experimentation with new technology by the school’s Virtual Theatricality Lab.

     Using three screens, and with the audience wearing special polarized glasses, the show’s “scenery” is projected in 3-D images, and “props”, such as a wood bundle, a bird’s nest, giant berries, and a giant boulder seem to float in midair.

     “The concept of using digitally created scenery and sets first occurred to me back in 1992, with a viewing of the film, ‘The Lawnmower Man,'” Popovich said. “I thought the aspect of combining virtual reality and animation with traditional live theater held great possibilities.”

     Since receiving a grant from the college’s Technology Investment Fund in 1995, Popovich has experimented with the latest in digital animation and projection technology. With recent advances in holography and 3-D technology, few productions anywhere have used this technology, particularly at the college level.

     Once the school’s VTL program was up to the task of producing a full show, the next step was picking the right show to showcase the techniques for live theater.

     “Rather than produce a ‘freak ’em out, in your face’ style production, we wanted as many traditional theater audience members as possible to view our show,” Popovich said. The point was to demonstrate how digital techniques could be applied to traditional theater and not just the obvious choices such as performance art and other stylistic experiments.”

     “The Tempest” was chosen because it was a classical play that offered the opportunity for fantastic imagery, especially after adapting the script to set the play in outer space.

     “It is intended that the show will resemble 1950’s science fiction films such as ‘Forbidden Planet’ and ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’, Popovich said.

     He thought the genre fitting for the presentation, especially with the audience wearing what amounts to 3-D glasses.

     The images used in the play are in stereoscopic 3-D. A left and a right eye view is created via imaging programs and outputted through polarized projectors. All images and effects are original to this production and were created by Virtual Theatricality staff and students.

     It was a painstaking process. The images were drawn, painted, and animated in a program called Lightwave 3D by Newtek. Rendering times are long: about a week for 15 seconds of imagery. The animations are then processed again using a technique called “interlacing” that creates left and right eye views. The final animation is synchronized to the soundtrack in a digital video editor.

     “One of the most exciting aspects of our production experiments is the ability to create objects that student operators can manipulate in real time,” Popovich said.

     The objects are imported into a program called World Up, a game developers’ software that allows real-time manipulation of objects. The object is outputted in stereoscopic 3D and is controlled by a joystick.

     Even a member of the “cast” is an animated “digital actress”, at least partially.

     In the original play, the character “Ariel” is a young woman who is turned into a fairy. In HFCC’s ’50s sci-fi adaptation, Ariel is a 3-D digital image of a robot.

     Offstage, actress Joanna Graham provides Ariel’s voice. Using a program called Magpie for Lip Synching, Graham’s words are synchronized to Ariel’s lip movements.

     Popovich believes this production is a forerunner of things to come.

     “I believe that the scenery, props, and maybe even some cast members will exist on a disc that will be placed in an imaging system capable of creating astounding digital scenery, characters, and props,” Popovich said.

     In the theater of the present, however, HFCC’s production techniques are unique, and it poses logistical challenges in the competition. Each play gets four hours to set up. Between the sheer volume of the equipment and the exactitude with which it must be set, the cast and crew have had more to concern themselves with than hitting their marks and remembering their cues.

     Since getting the word in late November they’d been selected for the KCACTF regional finals, they focused on streamlining their pre-show setup as they did remembering lines. Run-throughs included setting the stage, then performing, just like in the competition. A single run-through took the better part of seven hours.

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