Early digital test version of Pete Griffin, RSC & Magic Leap
I have been working for the Royal Shakespeare Company for over 20 years. Most of that time as a Production Manager putting on shows in Stratford-upon-Avon, London and touring many productions around the UK and internationally.
My current role is Digital Development Producer with a focus on developing projects that present the RSC’s core work through the latest technologies. I explore new ways to engage with audiences through virtual, augmented and mixed reality, developing ways to integrate these technologies into live stage performance.
Our Digital Development Department evolved following our production of The Tempest in 2016 which used some of the latest technology: real time motion capture to drive a live projected avatar of Ariel; projection mapping; digital object tracking and live facial capture. We collaborated with Andy Serkis’ Imaginarium and Intel. Our focus was to keep the learnings and skills gained through developing the production, and so Sarah Ellis our Director of Digital and one of the producers on the show, and Gregory Doran, Artistic Director, set up the department.
I am based in a rather old and crumbling Tudor barn in Stratford. I love the irony that we are working with the latest technologies in one of the oldest buildings on the RSC campus. As with most roles in theatre, there is no such thing as a standard week, but that’s what I love about it. One moment I can be researching the graphics capability and battery durations of tablets and then an hour later, Steve Keeley, our Creative Technologist will ask me to pop on a motion capture suit to record a Trojan soldier holding a shield. Either that or take another 120 headshots of me so that he can refine a new pipeline of photogrammetry capture. It is more than a little strange to see yourself on four monitors in various stages of a digital render.
I am very often away from the office, whether at SXSW in Austin, USA, or a day in Bristol with NESTA’s Economies of the Future, demonstrating our ‘Seven Ages of Man Project’. It’s a project that we have developed with Magic Leap, a Florida based technology company. Using their mixed reality Magic Leap One glasses, we have created a 3 minute piece by volumetrically capturing Rob Gilbert, one of the RSC’s acting alumni, performing the speech from As You Like It. We created a digital scene and the wonderful, Jessica Curry composed the music. It’s a little difficult to describe, but the piece is presented as 3D digital performance on a tabletop – think Star Wars, Princess Leia hologram. I love demonstrating this to people and seeing their reactions and then hearing their thoughts and ideas of the potential applications that this demo triggers in people. That is after all, what our department is all about. Developing future uses and integration of technology in performance.
It’s not all, headsets, avatars and glamour of course. There are always budgets, schedules, emails and meetings to be done. But there are also lots of conversations with amazing and creative practitioners both inside and outside the RSC, plus numerous ideas in development.
Currently* we are heads down, finishing an augmented reality piece for our free exhibition space in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The exhibition, ‘Digital Diorama’ gives visitors the opportunity to view Stratford as a young Shakespeare might have seen it. We have built a series of vignette scenes taken from his plays, performed by RSC actors and presented on a tablet in augmented reality. To build the scenes we photogrammetry captured the actors’ heads to build digital avatar likeness. We then recorded their motion and facial data while they performed the scenes, so in effect they were ‘puppeteering’ digital versions of themselves. It is fascinating to see the way an actor approaches and inhabits a role and using these recording techniques how their performance can be translated into a digital form.
I do consider myself very fortunate to be exploring such a brave new world and how these technologies will integrate into future performances and presentation of our work, and what audiences will be able to experience in the future.
Let’s see what tomorrow brings!
*This article first appeared in UK Theatre's Summer 2019 Training and Events Prospectus in April 2019.