Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 75
Twenty-first-century wizardry meets the seventeenth-century kind in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest with digital effects created by The Imaginarium, a performance-capture company that’s best known for movie and video game animations.
This production of The Tempest, which premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2016, is being remounted for a seven-week run at the Barbican in London, opening June 30, 2017. Simon Russell Beale plays Prospero.
RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran and Ben Lumsden, Imaginarium’s head of studio, are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published June 13, 2017. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode, “My So Potent Art,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from the RSC head of press, Philippa Harland; from Ed Walker at Sounding Sweet studios in Stratford-Upon-Avon, Marcia Caldwell and Melissa Kuypers at NPR-West in Los Angeles, and Chris Charles at The Sound Company in London.
MICHAEL WITMORE: You're sitting in the theater, watching a performance of The Tempest. Simon Russell Beale is Prospero.
[CLIP: Simon Russell Beale as Prospero in RSC’s The Tempest]
Thou art inclined to sleep. ‘Tis a good dullness,
And give it way.
WITMORE: Miranda has just laid down at Prospero's feet as he picks up a staff, and summons his tricksy spirit-servant.
[CLIP: Beale in RSC’s The Tempest]
I am ready now.
Approach, my Ariel. Come.
WITMORE: But as you sit there, what you see in front of you is not a live actor.
[CLIP: Mark Quartley as Ariel in RSC’s The Tempest]
Grave sir, hail!
WITMORE: Instead, a hologram with wispy, ephemeral arms and legs, but with the face of actor Mark Quartley, floats and tumbles over Prospero's head.
[CLIP: Quartley in RSC’s The Tempest]
Be’t to fly,
To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride
On the curled clouds, to thy strong bidding task
Ariel and all his quality.
WITMORE: The king's ship appears against the theater's back wall, and at the appointed time, as Ariel floats above it, he bursts into flames.
[CLIP: Quartley in RSC’s The Tempest]
On the topmast,
The yards and bowsprit would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join. Jove’s lightning, the precursors
O’ th’ dreadful thunderclaps, more momentary
And sight-outrunning were not.
WITMORE: As you watch, you wonder to yourself, "Is this the future of live theater?" From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger's director. This podcast is called, “My So Potent Art.” As we're recording this, the Royal Shakespeare Company is in rehearsal for the remounting of a remarkable production of The Tempest that premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2016. It featured special effects created by The Imaginarium, the performance capture company co-founded by Andy Serkis that's best known for the dazzling animations it makes for movies and videogames. This Tempest production was the first time their particular type of magic has ever been used in a production of Shakespeare. We asked the RSC's artistic director, Gregory Doran, who's directing the production, to come in and talk to us about how he meshed 21st-century wizardry with the 17th-century kind. Greg was joined by Ben Lumsden, who is Imaginarium's head of studio. Greg and Ben were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Well, let's start with you, Greg. What went into your decision to explore a new, high-tech direction with this production?
GREGORY DORAN: Well, we knew that we had the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death coming up in 2016, and we saw this, you know, two or three, three or four years out, and we wanted there to be something very special to end the year. And I decided that I would look at Shakespeare's last solely authored play, The Tempest, but what's always struck me about The Tempest are the challenges of creating that magic on the stage. And I had, for a long time, been quite obsessive about the inspiration that Shakespeare must have derived from the Jacobean masques of his period at court.
BOGAEV: And Greg, even though this is a Shakespeare podcast and a lot of us know what a Jacobean masque is, remind us again.
DORAN: Yes. Well, a masque, it's really a court performance created specifically to entertain the king and his court, but it's really a series of court hieroglyphics in order to establish certain principles of the magnificence of kingship, and everything was in service to that. So, these court masques, I discovered, were real, spectacular, multimedia events with, you know, lighting effects, stage machinery that could deliver a chariot through clouds… The lightning effects in, you know, The Masque of Blackness, which was the first one that Queen Anne commissioned, had curtain dropped, and a whole sea gushed forward… Sort of two huge life size seahorses seemed to be pounding through the waves, and on their backs were the gods Oceanus and Niger with their sort of azure and gold, and behind that was the… A huge concave shell was drawn in, in which sat Queen Anne and her ladies. You know, one of these masques, the Masque of Oberon, delivered the prince himself in a chariot drawn by live polar bears, so, you know, these were really expensive events.
BOGAEV: That sounds cinematic.
DORAN: Yeah. I mean, really astonishing events. So, clearly, when Shakespeare is writing The Tempest, he is referencing this new media, if you like, and, so, instead of saying to my team, "Look, we're going to recreate a Jacobean masque from 1608 or 1610," I thought, I said to them, "What would be the cutting-edge technology now?" And Sarah Ellis, who is our head of our digital work here at Stratford, she sent me a clip, a YouTube clip, and it was of the CEO of Intel doing a pitch at a conference in Las Vegas, and onto a screen behind him swam this huge whale. Audience clap, and he says, "But what if it could do this?" And the whale turned to face the screen, swam through the screen and over the audience's heads, and I just went, "I want that. That's what I want for The Tempest." [LAUGHS] And, rather with great chutzpah, I have to say, Sarah said... well, she took me at my word, and she phoned customer services in Intel and said, "How do I get to speak to the chief executive officer?" And...
BOGAEV: She just called the main number at Intel?
DORAN: She just called the customer services number to find out how she got through. Great, great initiative. And, essentially, we then approached Intel formally and said, "Look, we would like to do something very special. We need to really look at the new technology, and would you be interested in doing that?" And that was the point where we invited The Imaginarium Studios, Andy Serkis and Ben Lumsden's team...
BOGAEV: Right. And Ben, when the RSC finally got to you and said, "We want a whale flying over people's heads," basically, were you immediately on board? Because you guys, you use motion capture in film and in entertainment settings. It'd never been done in live theater before, right?
BEN LUMSDEN: Well, it had been done a couple of times but not to the extent, and not having a principal character as a real part of the action being a computer graphic live on stage. And so that, you know, as a technological first, that was very exciting, but primarily Andy comes from a theatrical background, and his whole ethos is to try and use performance capture across all media, so he had always wanted to do a project this, so it seemed like a dream come true to get to work on this project.
BOGAEV: Greg, before we get into the process of designing this, I am curious how the audience figured into your decision to develop this technology for the 400th anniversary. Was this also a way for you to draw in younger and more tech-oriented theatergoers, or did you not think that in those kind of business terms?
DORAN: That kind of came next in our thinking, certainly, because, you know, one of the things we had set out to do in everything we were doing in 2016 was to reach new audiences, so The Tempest was a natural progression in that program to attract an audience who kind of, you know… Young kids who are completely familiar with all the digital stuff, all the technology that surrounds that, and excited by avatars and all the computer-generated imagery that we have today, but never perhaps have seen that live on stage.
BOGAEV: So does that mean that even if you hadn't been producing The Tempest, you would have gone to this place? You would have tried to innovate with this technology, or was it something inherent to The Tempest that you were responding to?
DORAN: To me, it always, and I think Ben would back this up, all our work was always to say, "How does this serve this play?" You could say we could have done Midsummer Night's Dream like that, that would've been great, all the fairies, you know, in some kind of virtual world. But we chose The Tempest because of those particular challenges and because I think it is a play that you often go and see, and there's a sort of tick box where you go, "Oh, I see, that's how they're doing the storm," or, "That's how they're doing Ariel," and, "Okay, here's the masque." It has a series of challenges that you have to deliver as the magic that is in people's heads when they read the play.
[CLIP: Joseph Mydell as Gonzalo in RSC’s The Tempest]
If in Naples
I should report this now, would they believe me?
If I should say I saw such islanders—
For, certes, these are people of the island—
Who, though they are of monstrous shape, yet note
Their manners are more gentle, kind, than of
Our human generation you shall find
Many, nay, almost any.
BOGAEV: Well, let's talk about the actual technology, and Ben, if you could help us envision it, describe it for us, what we see on the stage. How does the motion-capture work, and what does it look like?
LUMSDEN: Crucially, Mark is on stage...
BOGAEV: Yeah, this is Mark Quartley.
LUMSDEN: This is Mark Quartley as Ariel, and so, traditionally, motion capture has been done with optical systems, which means that you have an array of cameras which fire out a near-infrared light and reflect back off various different positions on the body with ping pong balls, if you like. A lot of people, you see these unitards and various balls on the joint positions of the actors. But we inverted that technology and used an inertial technology with 17 sensors on the different joints, and we streamed that information into a virtual Mark, and then we used that virtual Mark to puppeteer a virtual Ariel.
BOGAEV: Okay, and just so everyone can picture this...
BOGAEV: Mark Quartley is a wearing a suit where you see skeletal, not really skeletal... looks more like veins running all the way through a skeletal frame, and the suit itself is kind of green. It has a kind of aqua, sea creature feeling to it.
LUMSDEN: Exactly, and that's a skin-tight costume, and then the various different forms, again, very much dependent on how the text describes them, are all conjured as an avatar projected on various different surfaces around the theater using 27 projectors...
BOGAEV: Which means, when he moves, you see him projected. When the actor moves, you see the avatar move...
BOGAEV: The projection of it, and you kind of see his facial features as well.
LUMSDEN: That's right, yeah. You could think of it as a form of digital puppetry, if you like. There's quite a lot of similarities in the way that you have Mark essentially digitally puppeteering his avatar. And then the facial expressions, we puppeteered for one specific moment in the show where he's transformed at Prospero's request into a terrifying harpy.
[CLIP: Quartley in RSC’s The Tempest]
You are three men of sin, whom Destiny,
That hath to instrument this lower world
And what is in ‘t, the never-surfeited sea
Hath caused to belch up you, and on this island,
Where man doth not inhabit, you ‘mongst men
Being most unfit to live. I have made you mad!
BOGAEV: Ariel appears as a terrifying, giant dragon, this harpy.
LUMSDEN: Yes, and at that point, Mark drives the harpy's face as well as this horrific vision, and that's sort of the biggest computer graphic that's used in the show.
BOGAEV: Yeah, that's really shocking. There's also these two big cylinders that you project onto. The vortex, and also the cloud.
DORAN: Yes. What became really interesting… It created a principle very early on that having Mark the actor on the stage clearly, and the avatar projected on what we call the cloud, which was a, sort of, cylinder of this, sort of, mesh, if you like, with smoke pumping through it so it gave a… You could project onto this wonderful cloud that could move around the stage, I believe that if you could just see the avatar, but you didn't see the actor manipulating—the puppeteer, as it were, puppeteering—the puppet, then you very quickly lost interest in the puppet. I had learned from a… I did a production, Venus and Adonis, which we did with the Little Angel Theatre in Islington in London, which had wonderful puppets, but you saw the puppeteers manipulating the puppets, and that was what allowed you to buy into the puppet. You were complicit in an act of theater.
BOGAEV: That's really interesting, because in that you mean, there was a live element that if you remove the puppeteer and you just have the puppet, it seems like, "Ah, it might as well be, what? This is like a movie, only not quite as good."
DORAN: Exactly. Exactly. It lost any sense of spontaneity, so it wasn't a live performance if the live actor wasn't there, because it could just be a projection and therefore the projection… There was no jeopardy apart from the fact that the, you know, the projection could stop. It didn't allow you to invest your belief in that avatar, that projected puppet. And that was a very crucial decision very early on.
BOGAEV: Well, then how did you go about designing the look of Ariel?
DORAN: Well, there were certain appearances where Ariel himself is charged with changing his shape and appearing as something else, so at one point, he appears rather strangely as a sea nymph.
[CLIP: Beale in RSC’s The Tempest]
Go make thyself like a nymph o’ th’ sea. Be subject
To no sight but thine and mine, invisible
To every eyeball else. Go, take this shape,
And hither come in ‘t. Go, hence with diligence!
DORAN: So Ariel turns into this absolutely ravishing looking creature [LAUGHS] that is half a, sort of, anemone, half, sort of, seaweed, and half a beautiful woman, and then later on he's called upon to terrify the sailors by appearing as this cross between an eagle and a woman, so there were times when Ariel had to take on these other forces, and what was amazing was to be able to hone these different images using all sorts of inspiration, whether that was seaweed or a particular kind of species of vulture that we wanted as the basis of the harpy, for instance.
BOGAEV: Well, Ben jump in here. When you got charged with making a vulture-like Ariel, where did you look for inspiration? How did you go about designing that?
LUMSDEN: Well, Silvia, Silvia Bartoli, our character art director, worked very closely with Stephen Brimson Lewis, the designer of the show, and they together looked at inspiration from all sorts of places, like Greg said. They had a shared Pinterest board… They would, sort of, send the more disgusting image, the better, back and forth [LAUGHS] and you know, there was a few different designs early on which were fascinating, which took inspiration from the Body Worlds exhibition, where the skin is peeled off to reveal the human anatomy, and that computer graphic never made it into the final character design of the computer graphic.
BOGAEV: I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing.
DORAN: The computer graphic—
LUMSDEN: –But it was the inspiration for the costume that you described earlier.
LUMSDEN: The skin-tight suit Mark wore.
BOGAEV: And he does look flayed, that's true.
LUMSDEN: Yeah, sort of slightly revealing his anatomy underneath. But it was a long process of back and forth between Sylvia and Stephen, and then taking that look with our other artists in order to experiment with how the final render would look projected, and again, that's a whole separate thing because you play with different looks and aesthetics on a computer monitor, and as soon as you project it, it has a whole different life of its own. And we played with a few different projection surfaces and we always were looking to get the ethereal nature of Ariel, who is a spirit, do you get that spiritual and ethereal nature from the pixels, or from the projection surface? And in the end, it was very much the projection surface, which the favored one was mosquito net, which really captured the light, and also together with the smoke, as Greg was describing, inside the cloud, broke it up and gave Ariel a sort of a mystical, otherworldly quality.
BOGAEV: Otherworldly as opposed to just, “I'm looking at a video game.”
DORAN: Yeah, and you know, one of the most important things for me was those moments when Ariel is called upon by Shakespeare to be a sea nymph, or a harpy, or whatever, but also, what was brilliant was looking at other elements in the text where, for instance, where Prospero reminds Ariel, when he gets a bit moody, that when he came to the island twelve years ago, Ariel had been locked inside a cloven pine by the witch Sycorax, and what we were able to do was to create for Ariel a sort of sense memory of what it was like when he was trapped and metamorphosed, if you like, into that pine tree.
[CLIP: Beale in RSC’s The Tempest]
And for thou wast a spirit too delicate
To act her earthy and abhorred commands,
Refusing her grand hests, she did confine thee,
By the help of her more potent ministers
And in her most unmitigable rage,
Into a cloven pine, within which rift
Imprisoned thou didst painfully remain
A dozen years, within which space she died
And left thee there…
DORAN: The team at Imaginarium created this extraordinary creature that was recognizably Mark Quartley as Ariel, but he had turned into a sort of knotty, wrinkled, bark-ridden creature projected into the center of this tree, and then when Prospero banished that memory, the whole tree could disappear and Ariel could be released from the pine one more time.
[CLIP: Beale and Quartley in RSC’s The Tempest]
It was mine art,
When I arrived and heard thee, that made gape
The pine and let thee out.
I thank thee, master.
If thou more murmur’st, I will rend an oak
And peg thee in his knotty entrails till
Thou hast howled away twelve winters.
DORAN: In other words, what I'm saying is I think we were able to enhance the text occasionally with visual imagery just to tell the story and define those extraordinary images that Shakespeare writes in a way that amplified it.
BOGAEV: And that's a really delicate balance, and that anticipates the question I wanted to ask you, which is how did you think or adjust the technology so it didn't take over the whole production?
DORAN: It's always a balance. It was always a conversation we were having. I had originally thought that Ariel would remain as an avatar through the whole production, and it was the first time we worked in their studios in Ealing, and we brought Simon Russell Beale, who is playing Prospero, and Mark Quartley together, we tried experiments where Simon interacted with the avatar floating in the air and we sort of realized that that itself, as magnificent as it was in its first iteration, very quickly, the conversation… It wouldn't hold it for the whole time. It was constantly negotiating what best told the story and what best served the play.
BOGAEV: Ben, what were the negotiations like for you? Were you ever in the position where you'd say, "Oh, we could do this, but maybe we should dial it down."
LUMSDEN: [LAUGHS] Well, very much we were sensitive to Greg's artistic interpretation, which was that we should always be in service to the text, and that's, you know, that was always the starting point, and it was really important that we were to take the tools and knowledge that we would use in video games, or in films, or TV, and computer graphics, and visual effects into the theatrical world and not be a huge burden during the technical rehearsal process, so it was absolutely of crucial importance to make sure that all of our technology was going to be able to be driven by the theatrical team and the RSC's in-house team.
DORAN: And, you know, it was, to begin with, as if we were both speaking different languages. And of course, you know, from Ben's point of view, in Ben's world, they could go, "Yeah, that's okay for now, we'll fix that in post," I think is the phrase.
LUMSDEN: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
DORAN: And, of course, you can't fix it in post, you've got to get it right that night, and then it's got to carry on being right for the entire run.
BOGAEV: Well, how did integrating the technology influence your whole directing process, Greg? Because I imagine it's completely different. You have a rehearsal phase where you don't have tech, you know, people don't have the tech, the images to bounce off of?
DORAN: Well, do you know, we all thought it was going to be a really complicated process, but in fact, they sort of happened in two different rooms, in a way, in that the way that we rehearsed the scenes between Ariel and Prospero, we often did with, instead of having the avatar, we would use Mark and his understudy, Caleb Frederick, who would play the avatar so that Simon could interact with the real person of Caleb as the avatar, and Mark could, as it were, puppeteer, so, actually, you know, in the end, it was like a normal rehearsal process with actors, you know, in a bare room using make-believe, and then the process alongside that was a very complicated process of working out all the technology. We would set the pattern in the rehearsal room, for instance, of what we might call the blocking of where Ariel would be at a certain time, so that then we could work out what projection screen Simon would be looking at in order to interact with the avatar. But in the end, the play, the beating heart of the play, had to be the relationships—the text and the relationships between the actors, and, you know, the beating heart of it—and the magnificence of the technology could only enhance that if it was true at the center.
BOGAEV: It is always a question with these kinds of effects when things are going to inevitably go wrong, so I have to ask you, you know, what's been your greatest, your most memorable screw-up?
DORAN: There was a moment in the, was it the dress rehearsal, Ben? I can't remember, where Ariel had a distinct list to the right. Something had happened with the calibration and he looked very… Unwell at one point. I do remember that.
LUMSDEN: [LAUGHS] Yeah. Yeah, as soon as you get a slightly off calibration then, you know, you might have a leg that's going the wrong way or a head that's twisted the wrong way, so…
DORAN: It was nail-biting, I have to tell you, Barbara. It was a real nail-biting thing on many occasions, but we were doing, you know, the point was… This was absolutely brand new, you know? I learned to call this not cutting-edge technology, but bleeding edge technology. It's that raw or that fresh, and we were also delighted, the very special nature of the technology being that there was no latency at all between the actions that Mark did on the stage and the action that the avatar did above him, so there was no delay between the two. And what was amazing about that technology and how cutting edge we realized it was, we discovered that Lady Gaga had been trying to get the same technology and we had beat her. We'd got there before her, so we thought that's really… That is bleeding edge. [LAUGHS]
BOGAEV: [LAUGHS] That is a feather in your cap, to beat out Lady Gaga.
DORAN: How about that.
BOGAEV: So Ben, is your phone ringing off the hook with theater companies wanting to do this? Is this what we're going to see in live theater?
LUMSDEN: There have been a few calls, and I think that it's definitely going to be the future. I mean, I think, crucially, the price point is coming down with motion capture as a whole, and so the barrier for entry is that much lower, and I think it's great that we've sort of broken new ground and that lots of others will follow in our wake. The inertial suits now, there was a Kickstarter campaign where those sorts of inertial mo-cap systems are now available for $1000 or less, and the rendering technology that we used, the video games engine technology, is free for use in non-video games uses. So there's absolutely the tools for other artists and technicians to do the same, and I know of a couple of projects that are out there already doing it, but I'm sure that over the next couple of years we'll see lots more.
BOGAEV: Well, Greg, we've heard your excitement about this, but where do you see this going? Because we do see in theater this movement toward immersive theatrical experiences that's more like virtual reality, or a virtual reality video game through the stage in theatrical spaces. I can see how it opens up doors for directors, but I can also see that you might have concerns about how it might detract or perhaps make it less likely for young audiences to have the patience for just, you know, people, live human beings, talking to each other onstage.
DORAN: Yeah, well, you know, I think at Stratford and here at the RSC, we're always about the live actor on the stage connecting with a live audience. We're aware that technology is moving on and there are all sorts of different ways of reaching that audience, and indeed of exploring that experience. To me, it will always be about the spoken word and, you know, the use of this technology, the experiment, if you like, of working with Intel and with The Imaginarium Studios was partly to kind of go, "Here is an amazing toolbox. Other people will use it in different ways; we will always use it in a way that is specific to that Shakespeare play and will create that magic in the context in which it is required." But I think think there's room for both. There's room for something that's very simple and stripped down and two planks and a passion, and there's room for innovative, new technology as well, and I think Shakespeare clearly was demonstrating that by tapping into the magic of the Jacobean masques at the banqueting house at Whitehall that he presumably had attended. So, to me it's a brave new world, and an exciting one. I think we shouldn't be too concerned about that.
LUMSDEN: And coming at your question from another angle, Barbara, the emergence of virtual reality, mixed reality, augmented reality, there's a language there that is still being explored, and it's an unknown, you know? Who are the next virtual reality filmmakers? Are they the young and aspiring film directors, or are they the young and aspiring theatrical directors? And I would say, from my experience with a bunch of these different media, that theater is the closest thing that you have to virtual reality, and that a lot of the theatrical techniques and ways of telling stories, certainly in theater in the round, is the most comparable to narrative storytelling in virtual reality.
DORAN: And, you know, I was right at the beginning of the process, at the beginning of our first day of rehearsals, I showed the company a 1912, I think, silent film of The Tempest. It was black and white, it was wobbly, the scenery was wobbly, there was a great tempest out there and a big cardboard ship came across the screen, and, of course, we laughed at it. They didn't, I guess, laugh at it in 1912, but maybe in a few years' time we'll look back at the technology we're using in The Tempest today and go, "Wow, that is so 2016." [LAUGHS] You know, things move so fast, and I'm just pretty sure that Shakespeare, for one, would've wanted to keep up with any possibility to engage an audience and excite an audience. And our job is to keep that in balance with those exceptional words that he wrote.
BOGAEV: Well, thank you, both of you, for taking the time to walk us through this, and it was such fun talking with you. Thank you.
DORAN: Thank you.
LUMSDEN: Thank you.
[CLIP: Quartley in RSC’s The Tempest]
(Singing) Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take these hands.
Curtsied when you have, and kissed
The wild waves whist.
WITMORE: Ben Lumsden is head of studio at The Imaginarium, a London-based digital effects house that specializes in animations for movies and video games. Gregory Doran is artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. His production of The Tempest opens June 30, 2017, for a seven-week run at the Barbican in London. “My So Potent Art” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from the RSC's head of press, Philippa Harland, from Ed Walker at Sounding Sweet Studios in Stratford-upon-Avon, Marcia Caldwell, and Melissa Kuypers at NPR-West in Los Angeles, and Chris Charles at The Sound Company in London. We'd like to ask you a favor. If you've been enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited, I hope you'll consider reviewing the podcasts on whatever platform you get the podcast from. It helps us get the word out to people who haven't heard it, people who might enjoy it. We'd really appreciate your help. Thanks. Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world's largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger director Michael Witmore.