Pursuit of Performance

Cinematic Special Effects Come to Live Theater

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter
Special effects headgear

A digital reinvention of Ariel the sprite is set to wow live audiences with cinematic special effects in England, the birthplace of Shakespeare and the home of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. 

If you think computer-generated special effects are only for blockbuster movies, then the 2016 stage production of The Tempest by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) might surprise you.

Working with Intel and The Imaginarium Studios – the performance capture studio co-founded by actor Andy Serkis and Jonathan Cavendish – the RSC wanted to reinvent Shakespeare’s epic tale in a way that could excite and amaze 21st-century audiences. The challenge was to use the latest technology to create something live theater audiences had never seen before.

special effects equipment

For the first time ever, a digital reinvention of Ariel the sprite, one of The Tempest’s key characters, will take to the stage. And unlike movies and video games, which rely on post-production rendering and integration, in this production, Ariel’s avatar will be performing on stage alongside human actors in real time.

“Because Ariel is not of this world, we can be really imaginative,” said Sarah Ellis, Head of Digital Development at the RSC. “We can do things we haven’t been able to do before in terms of how we show the character live on stage. We can make him very small or we can make him the width of the stage with the technology we are using.”

Played by an actor wearing a motion capture suit, Ariel’s movements are captured by inertia-detecting sensors, rendered using two Xeon-powered servers, and then projected onto the stage as a computer-generated avatar.

Ariel takes on many magical forms during Shakespeare’s play, keen to do Prospero’s bidding ‘be’t to fly, to swim, to dive into the fire, to ride on the curl’d clouds…’ Using the latest digital technology, RSC’s Artistic Director Gregory Doran and Director of Design Stephen Brimson Lewis, along with the production and digital teams, discovered that they could interpret the sprite’s various tricks literally.

man "flying" using rolling chair

“At first, I had no idea just how extraordinary you could make the figure of Ariel using the technology,” Doran said. For example: “Ariel boasts that he can burst into flame, split into three and ride on the curled clouds. The Imaginarium said to me: ‘Well, what about the whole avatar turning into flame?’ So we developed that.”

In Act III, Ariel takes on the form of a vengeful harpy, a mythological beast classically depicted as a bird with a woman’s face.

drawing on a tablet

“We talked about how that bird might appear, and what kind of bird we might use – a crow or a great Marabou stork, or an eagle,” explained Doran. “But then someone brought in an extraordinary piece of footage where a shoal of mackerel seemed to impersonate a shark.”

This created an effect where the shoal resembled one huge fish, rather than a million little fish.

“We used that idea for the harpy, which appears as a whole flock of birds that come together to form one entity.”

The Tempest has always been a spectacular play, a marriage between art and technology. Over the years, imaginative productions have used trapdoors, trapezes, pulleys and hoists, fog machines, lasers, turntables and fireworks to great effect. To strange effect, too. In the RSC’s 2006 production of the play, Ariel’s harpy rose eerily from the body of a dead whale.

One thing is certain, the creative possibilities digital technology opens up are vast.

man looking at computer screens

“It’s not only directors and designers thinking ‘oh I can do this [digitally],’” said Doran. “But also writers thinking ‘that’s interesting, I don’t have to be limited by what we can do with two planks and a passion!’ With technology like this, I believe we can find all kinds of new ways to create new kinds of theater.”


Editor’s Note: In this Experience Amazing series, iQ explores how computer technology inside is enabling incredible experiences outside. We look at how computer technology powers new experiences and discoveries in science, the maker movement, fashion, sports and entertainment. To learn more about the tech behind these stories, visit Experience Amazing.

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