The Virtual Theatricality Lab is One of a Kind

Larissa Babak/Mirror News/December 9, 2011
The Virtual Theatricality Lab (VTL) combines Computer Generated Imaging with a live theatre production, where actors and actresses interact with virtual scenery, characters, and props. Through virtual reality and motion capture technology, actors transform into animated characters, and animated characters can interact with live actors onstage.

HFCC’s Theatricality Lab has garnered worldwide acclaim for its innovations. The Tempest and The Skriker were featured in many publications, and both productions received numerous theatrical awards. Theatre artists have traveled from as far away as China and Australia to see the VTL at work. “The biggest thing I’m proud of is that the Screen Actors Guild recognized us,” said Dr. Popovich of the VTL’s many honors. The Screen Actors Guild has worked with the Virtual Theatricality Lab several times since 2009, presenting workshops for actors interested in gaining the skills necessary for motion capture performances.

Dr. George Popovich is the director and founder of the Virtual Theatricality Lab. “We’ve been doing this for almost sixteen years before 3D became popular,” he said of the Lab’s work. “We’ve also been doing the motion capture thing for about 4 years.” The Virtual Theatricality Lab’s first full-fledged theatrical production was Shakespeare’s The Tempest. When the play premiered in 2003, it was the second production in the world to use 3D projection and VR scenery. The Tempest was honored as a regional winner in the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival. Three years later, The Skriker premiered. This production was the first stage play in the world to use 3D stereo and motion capture.

The VTL’s current in-progress production is Dinosaurus, a show which would utilize 3D and 4D technology. Currently, a group of volunteers works on the show every Friday. However, the production needs more funding in order to bring larger-than-life dinosaurs to the stage. “We’ve been trying to do this show for five years, and we’ve always run into roadblocks,” Popovich said. They’ve applied to the Technology Investment Fund committee twice and were rejected both times. Their next move will be to a present a scene from the show to the committee in the winter or fall of next year, depending on how much progress they make.

For anyone interested in 3D technology, the Virtual Theatricality Lab is the place to be. “Any student that studies video is going to have to know 3D,” said Popovich of the future’s technology. “3D imaging is the way the future citizens of this country and this world will see things.” A Motion Capture Certificate became available through the college in 2009, and classes quickly filled up. “We’re the only teaching facility that actually teaches how to act with Mo-Cap and actually how to do the data wrangling and all that kind of stuff,” Dr. Popovich said of HFCC’s program. Students can take classes in motion capture, green screen effects, stereoscopic cinematography, and special effects. Among the faculty is Dan Lemieux, a SAG member who has worked on such films as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Ides of March, and Step Brothers. 

Although the future of Dinosaurus is unclear, the VTL has been involved in several smaller projects too. The VTL hosted an exhibit at the Michigan Makes Movies expo in 2009, and presented at the Makers Faire in 2010. The lab has also worked with HFCC’s Full Circle Dance Company several times, where live dancers have danced with virtual counterparts.

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