Based in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company is one of the world’s most renowned theater companies. Known for performing the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the organization puts on around 20 productions a year, regularly tours the UK and internationally, and has produced the multi-award-winning Matilda: The Musical.
Ever eager to push boundaries and bring the works of William Shakespeare to a younger audience, the theater company set about creating a ground-breaking production of The Tempest in collaboration with Intel and in association with the Imaginarium Studios, to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016. Evoking the same magic as that of the masques of Shakespeare’s day, the production stars Simon Russell Beale as Prospero and Mark Quartley as the sprite Ariel. Premiering on stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in November 2016 before transferring into London in summer 2017 and being broadcast live into cinemas, the innovative production has gone down in history as the first major stage production to feature live motion capture.
Alongside their collaboration with Intel, the RSC worked closely with leading production company and Vicon customer The Imaginarium Studios, as motion capture technology featured heavily throughout the performance, allowing the production team to create digital characters live on stage. In order to seamlessly combine classical theater with contemporary technology, Vicon’s optical camera system was used to track the whereabouts of moving objects on stage – some of which were held by the actors themselves.
‘The biggest challenge for us was making sure that the worlds integrated correctly, as this theatrical production of The Tempest included technology which had never been used on stage. By bringing in the expertise of Vicon and the use of their motion capture cameras, the performance was further enhanced and greatly added to the audiences' experience.’ said Ben Lumsden, then Head of Studio at The Imaginarium Studio.
Opening in Stratford-upon-Avon
Using Vicon’s cameras and object-tracking software, Tracker, members of the Royal Shakespeare Company were able to capture and track various objects, such as the tambours, on stage. It also allowed them to monitor the position of screens used to project virtual characters like Ariel. This meant that the production team could automate the projection of animated visual elements onto the moving objects on stage to provide the audience with a Pepper’s ghost effect. With precision tracking capabilities, the Vicon system maximized the impact of this illusory experience.
Tracker data also enabled the augmented reality aspects of the production and allowed imagery to be projected onto screens in real time.
"Certainly, the RSC haven't done anything like this before and to my knowledge it has never been done to this scale or this ambition on the stage," says Pete Griffin, production manager at the RSC. "I think for me the most exciting bit was being able to apply cutting-edge technology to a live environment."
The set-up was complex and required a bespoke software solution, which saw a collaboration between Vicon and d3 technologies to develop a new pipeline. Using the data generated by Tracker, the team was able to drive d3’s software using the PosiStageNet protocol – an industry standard that is used to drive interactive effects and lighting on stage.
The d3 system with Vicon integration "performed robustly and reliably for the whole run in Stratford – 82 performances, which although expected from my point of view, is still pretty impressive, given how hard we were pushing the tech, " Griffin reports.
Taking a final bow at the Barbican
With a long-standing relationship with one of London’s most iconic theaters, it was only right that the cast of The Tempest took their final bow at the Barbican. As the Barbican stage is larger and wider (proscenium arch format) than that of the thrust stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, this final performance required a slightly different technical set-up in order to utilize the acclaimed cutting-edge technology.
Typically, cameras would be placed farther away in order to extend the tracking area of a space. However, with limited auditorium space at the Barbican, this wasn’t an option for the production team, who instead utilized Vicon’s Vero cameras. As the Vero cameras have a wider field of view, it was easy for technicians to place the cameras around the stage and continue to capture the movements as they happened on stage. This afforded the team a greater level of flexibility and the capacity to efficiently track movements at a very low latency. The Vicon cameras and Tracker software ensured that the performance finished its successful run and set the stage for future use of motion capture technology in theatrical performances.
The RSC production is now available to buy on DVD (www.rsc.org.uk).