The HFCC Virtual Theatricality Lab Invited to Theater Festival

McCellan, Sally/Press and Guide/January 2007: pp. 6-8

     Sitting in his office within the Mackenzie Fine Arts Center at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, George Popovich has the animated look of a proud father as he talks about the success of the HFCC Theater Program’s Virtual Theatricality Lab (VTL).

     They’re taking us seriously”, said Popovich, director of theater arts at HFCC and director of the VTL.

     Recently, HFCC’s VTL team was invited to the Kennedy Center ‘s American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) in Milwaukee, Wis., to present a demonstration of the motion capture theater technology used in HFCC’s Production of “The Skriker” last fall. The festival, attended by faculty, staff, and students from major universities and schools in a 10 state area, serves as an environment where college theater students and departments can showcase, critique and share their work.

     Popovich’s office is adorned with old movie posters, such as “Frankenstein,” “The Creature from Black Lagoon” and “The Invisible Man,” that denote an interest in the imaginative and fantastical, and the decidedly high-tech.

     In 2004, HFCC’s production of “The Tempest” was one of 10 college theater productions in the Midwest to be chosen as a KCACTF regional winner from among 42 colleges. The 3-D stereoscopic scenery used with the motion capture technology used in “The Skriker,” drew interest from the KCACTF, leading to this year’s invitation to demonstrate these new staging techniques.

     HFCC’s VTL exhibited this technology to more than 4000 people at the festival. The demonstration included a screen displaying a digital scene created by the VTL with a creature sitting near a pond in a park, and an actor, geared up in a motion-capture suit, who stood in front of the screen. Every move the actor made was reflected in the creature’s movement; when the creature touched the pond, it responded with a ripple.

     “We wanted the audience to see what it’s like to perform in an empty space with nothing, but imagination for a guide,” Popovich said.

     HFCC’s VTL utilizes new media innovations, such as digital video, stereoscopic 3D polarized projection, and virtual reality navigation software. The productions combine the electronic technology of stage, film, video and virtual environments to enhance and compliment the theatrical experience according to Popovich. Motion Capture technology allows the VTL to reproduce human poses and positions that will then be used in the creation of computer-generated characters, he explained.

     Actors wear specialized motion-capture suits that collect each action and movement. This information is transferred to motion-captured software where it may be applied to the animated creatures, giving them human-like mobility, Popovich added.

    The cast of “The Skriker” carefully observed movies such as “King Kong” and “The Lord Of The Rings,” to better understand acting within the boundaries of this technology. In the movies, the actors are filmed in a green screen that, in post-production, will become a fully fleshed out set. HFCC’s actors watched behind the scenes footage of Andy Serkis, the motion capture actor behind the ape movements of “King Kong” and Gollum of “The Lord Of The Rings,” paying close attention to how each of his movements translated on screen.

    “It’s truly a skill,” said Popovich of this acting style. “The actors can’t see a set, but everything they do has to align with the scenery. They also have to act, to emote and respond to the environment.”

     Popovich plans to expand the VTL in the future to offer certificates in Motion Capture and Special Effects.

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