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THEVIRTUALBODY #Meet theVirtualbody #

The Virtual Body is a SIA RAAK research project of Zuyd University (Toneelacademie Maastricht, C-MD (Communication ad Multimedia Design Studies), Conservatorium Maastricht) in cooperation with Huis van Bourgondië, Opera Zuid and the Werktank.

Things we discovered throughout all of these projects
(under construction april 25)


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As I write these lines, three first year students ask me if I could come to see a small performance. It turns out that they participated at the Workshop of the Werktank, which inspired them to make a new performance:
I sit in the corner of a small storage room, watching a live video image of myself on a monitor.
Slowly I see the students enter the room, behind my back. They go sit in the opposite corner. When I turn around, they're not there - the room is empty. It are just their ghostly representations on the monitor, inserted into the live image. Slowly, these ghosts fill up the storage room with all kind of objects, untill I almost disappear onscreen, under the rubble. But I'm still sitting in an empty room. When I look around, there's a girl sitting in the corner - for real. I smile: this place has definitely been infected by the virus of thevirtualbody.

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In this research project - The Virtual Body - we investigated the implications of a virtual stage presence of the actor/performer in 'regular' performances. We focussed on several aspects, ranging from the very practical to the political and quite philosophical.

Answering the questions of this research:
* Is it feasible to introduce virtual actors within the production environment of a small scale theatre performance?
It turned out that with todays technology and available software, it is very easy indeed to introduce virtual and interacting personages in even the smallest performances. One cheap trick is to invert the cause-consequence relationship. The reaction of virtual personage triggers the cause in the real life. As an example: if a real drop of water has to ripple a digital image, it's quite easy to pre-record the rippling image, and to have this image triggering a small valve, which produces the drop of water.
Also very quick fades in between pre-recorded images - or even jumpcuts - don't bother the live feeling of projected personages. The spectators brain tend to forget or even ignore these jumpcuts almost instantly.
On the software side, we've been using TROIKATRONIX ISADORA almost exclusively for the playout of our virtual images. The fact that it's quite easy to script 'made to measure' solutions, makes it an accessible tool, even for first year students, or professionals without an extensive knowledge of scripting. After a short - one day - introduction, they're up and running for small scale projects.

* What are the main technical and productional stumble blocks?
The main stumble block is not technical but has to do with the timing of the production. The 'virtual' actors are generated from filming live actors. Once they're filmed, it's close to impossible to alter their performance.
Fully, custom made virtual 3D actors are still out of reach for small scale productions - they're way to difficult to make and to handle. Although this technology is evolving rapidly...
That means that once the virtualized actor is filmed, this part of the production is rather inchangeable. Which poses a problem: on the one hand, it would be ideal to postpone this creation as long as possible, as to be able to change this part and the surrounding context. On the other hand, it's ideal to have the virtual character integrated as soon as possible in the production. That's a Catch22.
One solution is to virtualize only 'outsiders', characters with a 'lonely' narrative path in the production. And even than, it's best to create them as late as possible. Ideally, one should create 'preview' virtual characters as early as possible, just to replace them by the final ones as late as possible...
Another issue is stabilization and tracking. An actor tends to move a lot, and it's important to have the virtual actor glued to the floor. It's pretty unconvincing when the actor starts to drift or float on the floor.
So it's quite vital to invest some time into the tracking and stabilization of the actor: that can be done in the latest versions of Adobe After Effects or Apple Motion. And there are plenty of extremely expensive alternatives for it :-)

* How does a public react to the virtual intruder?
In our survey, it urned out that the public did find that the virtual component of the show really contributed to the project. There is the novelty factor of course, but in ILLBEBACK - the musical, and ILLBEGONE, the virtual actors were meant to evoke their 'absence' or 'deadness'. It's important to use the quality of the virtual actor for what it is: an absent ghost, an echo of the past or future, a living thought etc... The virtual medium has a vampire-like quality: it breathes absence, deadness, violence, unreliability etc... The medium is the message indeed!

* What are the implications of the virtual intruder into this live art, on the perceived content of the piece?
In almost all our projects, the mere fact of using virtuality made the concept and content of the project more violent in nature. As stated above: that has a lot to do with essence of a virtual medium. As computer game producers discovered quite early on: the virtual fantasy world is ideal to live out extremely violent fantasies. It's very hard to escape that paradigma. Although ILLBEGONE started of as a tale on the angels (the good alter ego's of the vampires - so to speak), it turned quite quickly towards more dark themes. The angel became Lucifer - the fallen angel.
Each medium has a message of its own, and is in that sense it is by no means innocent. It's vital to keep that in mind while creating a live project with virtual personages.

* Could we emancipate the public by making them much more aware of the overall invasion of the virtual in daily life?
Virtuality on our every day life is a major issue with far reaching political, ethical and philosophical implications. If contemporary theatre wants to tell something about our present 'state of being', it has to find a way to deal with that subject. One way - as we researched it - is to embrace that technology and use it center stage. We called it: dancing with the devil.
The nice thing is that, since it is technically quite easy to integrate - the public is very easy to trick into believing that a virtual actor is real - one can go quite far in showing 'how-it's done' without breaking the theatrical illusion (if there is such a thing as illusion in theatre: it's rather a moment of suspended disbelief). So instead of hiding all the apparatus and cables, it's probably more interesting to show it bluntly. The public will switch back and forward between 'suspended disbelief' (or fiction, illusion). this generates an awareness on how easy we're to trick. In that sense, theatre is moving back to the principles of a magic show. We now it's a trick, we want to know how it's done but we can't figure it out precisely. That generates a state high alertness - very typical for the magic show - which is extremely intersting within a theatre production.
The public most probably won't throw away their smart phones after the show, but they will gradually become more aware of the tricks virtual technology plays on us. Maybe they will start asking the question to themselves: am I phoning because I nedd to say somthing urgently, or am I phoning because my phone wants me to. And that's the question.