And now: special effects come to the theatrical stage
Illusory Characters With Startling Stage Presence
By STEVEN McELROY/NY Times
To the average moviegoer the sight of Eddie Murphy portraying several characters in the same scene is no longer a shock. Such special-effects trickery has become commonplace: a good makeup artist, a few carefully placed cameras, some digital tweaking and presto.
In live theater an actor standing alongside himself would still be a jarring sight — but perhaps not for long.
When “Losing Something,” written and directed by Kevin Cunningham, opens on Friday at the 3LD Art & Technology Center in Lower Manhattan, the production will mark the first use by an American theater company of a high-definition video projection system called Eyeliner. Using Eyeliner together with Isadora — new software that controls digital video — Mr. Cunningham and the creative team at 3LD (or 3-Legged Dog) are hoping to produce some dazzling, perhaps even shocking, effects.
“We don’t have to obey the laws of physics anymore,” Mr. Cunningham, also 3LD’s executive artistic director, said before a recent rehearsal. During a subsequent run-through of the show — an oblique ghost play told from the point of view of a middle-aged man drifting into the oblivion of memory loss — actors routinely floated in space or appeared out of nowhere.
The Eyeliner system makes use of an old stage trick called Pepper’s Ghost that by most accounts was first seen onstage in an 1862 production of Charles Dickens’s “Haunted Man,” at the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London. John Henry Pepper (1821-1900) is usually credited with discovering the illusion, though an engineer named Henry Dircks was really first to suggest placing an angled piece of plate glass between audience and actors, allowing off-stage objects or people to “appear” reflected on the glass as if they were onstage. When the off-stage lights were turned off, the ghosts seemed to vanish.
With Eyeliner, the unwieldy glass pane is replaced with a lighter, nearly invisible screen invented by Uwe Maass, the managing director of Event Works, a company in Dubai. Another company, Vision4, from Denmark, holds the licensing rights for New York.
“We believe that new ground will be found in the symbiosis between art and technology,” Mikael Fock, the director of Vision4, wrote in an e-mail message. “That is why we are enthusiastic to collaborate with the 3-Legged Dog, who share the very same aspirations.” Vision4 will even bring two productions of their own to the 3LD space next year in what is intended to be a continuing partnership between the two companies.
Mr. Maass’s invention has been gaining a higher profile for a while now: many of the millions who saw Madonna sing with the animated rock band the Gorillaz at last year’s Grammy Awards probably did not know that, for part of that performance, they were watching a virtual Madonna — courtesy of Eyeliner. Only now are the possibilities for live theater beginning to be explored.
Early in “Losing Something” the lead character, X (Aldo Perez), contemplates his existence in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center. His older self, also played by Mr. Perez, enters from upstage, crosses to stand beside X, and the two face each other and talk. One is the real Mr. Perez, the other a recorded video image projected onto an offstage mirror and reflected onto the Eyeliner screen.
“Video is often used as a sophisticated set element or backdrop,” Mr. Cunningham said. “But it’s flat, and no other element onstage is flat. Here we’re trying to make all elements fully dimensional — to manipulate time, light and image the same way I would manipulate clay as a sculptor.”
To do this, “Losing Something” employs both recorded video images and traditional Pepper’s Ghost effects — actors hidden offstage are reflected onto the screen, where they appear to be floating. Additional video images, projected from the rear, help to create a sort of three-dimensional movie box.
Then Isadora takes over. The software, invented by Mark Coniglio, a composer and media artist who is a director of the dance company Troika Ranch, gives its user real-time control over the digital video. An operator can make a recorded video character stop, look and listen, as if reacting to a real person onstage.
All of this new technology means that when “Losing Something” is firing on all cylinders, it can be a challenge to distinguish the real actors from the projected images.
Jeff Morey, the video designer, ran Isadora at a recent rehearsal, monitoring two Macintosh computers and making the complex program sound simple. “When you see it onstage with the actors, it’s clear what you need to do,” he said. “But making it work in a way that’s transparent is a different animal.” Mr. Morey said he was trying to create the illusion of depth and distance. “There’s a sense of magic to it,” he said.
Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Morey both said their experimentation with Eyeliner and Isadora was just beginning and would probably continue to reveal surprises.
“We’re babies at this,” Mr. Cunningham said. “We’re really looking forward to the next production because we’re learning so much. Our whole process is turned on its head in a way.”