The Play Is The Thing

Gibbons, David/Michigan Vue/March 2003                                                                                         

     It has finally happened. After encroaching upon the graphic arts and music, it had to happen to the other arts sooner or later. An upcoming event at Henry Ford Community College (HFCC) marks just such a milestone in the performance arts: those ubiquitous digital technologies have finally descended upon one of our coveted strongholds of traditions – live theater.

     The event is a seminal production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” produced by HFCC’s leading-edge Virtual Theatricality Lab, under the direction of George Popovich. This is Shakespeare, thrust into outer space with many of the Sci-Fi 3D effects that drew huge movie audiences in the 1950s, only it is also live theater as Shakespeare intended it.No static painted scenery here. Brightly colored futuristic settings interact with the live performers, moving and changing much as the real environment that surrounds us. The actors appear live on stage one moment and are transposed into the projected landscape the next. Objects materialize in space, then zoom out at the actors, and the audience as well, much like the effects in those fifties 3d movies such as “The House of Wax” or “Bwana Devil.”

     No tediously slow physical scene changes here, either. The settings propel the story from outer space to surreal alien planetary forests in an instant. When an interstellar storm besets the characters, the sky suddenly transforms and roils ominously over their heads. The digitally animated scene adds a theatrical dimension to the play that merely painted scenery can never achieve.

     The source of the innovative electric staging is HFCC’s Virtual Theatricality Lab (VTL), headed by George Popovich. The VTL explores novel live performances technologies, wedded with traditional theater craft. Among these are 3D video stereo and virtual reality. HFCC is the first college in Michigan, and also one of only two colleges in the U.S. to bring Virtual Reality (VR) to the stage. “Some other colleges say they’re using VR, or they’re using 3D stereoscopic projection,” says Popovich, “but they’re not doing both.” Besides the University of Kansas, we’re the only college in the United States that combines 3D stereoscopic projection with virtual reality”.

     VTL’s digital scenery inhabits three screens that span the stage area. The centerpiece is a large screen that displays an image mirrored by two smaller side screens, each with a different perspective or point of view. The effect is much like looking through three windows at the same scene, though sometimes the distance, place, and angle differ. The overall effect is more impressionistic that strictly representational.

     Popovich admits he has been influenced by the 1950’s Sci-Fi Films such as “The Forbidden Planet” (1956) and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), and thus the show’s design reflects their cinematic style with spaceships, stellar images, and planetscapes. However, the images and effects are all original to this production and the performances and VR staging measure up to professional standards.

     The VR images are videotaped in stereoscopic 3D. A right and left eye view is created using imaging programs and then outputted through a bank of polarized projectors at different angles for the left and right eyes. The glasses help eyes maintain discrete left and right eyes views, thus creating the illusion of depth in three dimensions.

     These are not your father’s cardboard 3D glasses, however. They have ample frames that will fit well with or without your regular glasses. They also render the images of the live performers in a natural way that blends them effortlessly with the VR scenery.

     The images are rendered using Lightwave 3D software by New/Tek. Rendering times take about a week for 15 seconds of screen time. Then the animations are interlaced to create the left and right eye views that correspond to the odd and even video fields of the frame. Final animation is synchronized with the soundtrack in a digital video editor.

     Bob Biestik is the 3D stereoscopic set designer who created the animations. He is also computer graphics and 3D animations adjunct instructor at the college and is an active member and secretary of the Southeast Michigan Animation Special Effects organization (SEMAFX). Bob’s striking renderings give the show visual impact—and occasionally upstage the play’s capable live actors.

     The role Shakespeare’s Ariel is portrayed by an animated robot that appears on the screen and interacts with the play’s other characters. The robot’s voice, created by Joanna Graham, is synchronized to the visual lip movements by HFCC student Nick Riley using appropriate vowel and consonant images.

     Near the end of the play, actor Greg Kjolhede’s Prospero magically transforms the robot Ariel into a live human. The living Ariel, played by Tara Umberger, ultimately appears live to take a bow, with her robotic counterpart on-screen, during curtain calls.

     To achieve the VR images of characters that appear on-screen throughout the play, E. Alan Contino, VTL chief engineer, developed a stereoscopic double camera setup using two tiny video pickups mounted on a rigid rail.

     Alan’s stereo camera fed images of Prospero, captured in the Lab’s green screen room, into a digital video editor where he combined them with a star-field background to make Prospero’s visage float in space before the audience.

     An exciting outcome of the production experimentation was the ability to create 3D objects on the screen that the technicians can manipulate in real time.  Bob Biestak designed Lightwave objects and imported them into a program called World Up. Margaret Green, an instructor in the HFCC Computer Information Systems Department wrote the script for World Up to facilitate “geometry substitution,” an effect that transforms on-screen objects from one to another.

     The creative genius of “The Tempest” is George Popovich, who adapted Shakespeare’s play for the “digital stage”, and who directs the cast in a most engaging and stellar performance.

     Popovich has been the director of theater arts at HFCC since 1985, where he has overseen more than 60 productions. He began researching VR on the stage in 1994. Using VR technology, Popovich extrapolated “The Tempest” into the future, which he says is a tribute the 1950s Sci-Fi B-Movies such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “The Forbidden Planet.’ Popovich sees “The Forbidden Planet” as a retelling of “The Tempest” without the Shakespearean vernacular.

     Although this article centers upon the play’s digital staging, the cast of “The Tempest” delivers a convincing performance with energy and wit that rivals their virtual surroundings. Under Popovich’s direction, Greg Kjolehede as Prospero and Natasha Rose as his daughter Miranda set an accomplished height for the performance bar, and their fellow cast members meet their mark.

%d bloggers like this: