Animation as live theatre

Live theatre has something that film does not have — it is live. An audience seeing a play is in a unique moment in time, together with the actors up on the stage. If the mood of the audience changes, the performance itself will change, as the cast picks up on that changing mood and reflects it back across the footlights.

There is no equivalent in film. Every time you see Casablanca, or The Godfather, as magnificent as those films are, you will see exactly the same performances, the identical artistic choices. A film is a frozen artifact, a fixed point in aesthetic space, not an organic entity that interacts with its audience.

In this way, animation is of course like film. Every time you see Toy Story or Princess Mononoke, you are seeing exactly the same performances.

But what if animation could be more like theatre? What if the virtual actors could improvise, based on audience response? Would it still feel like watching an animated film, or would it start to feel more like live theatre?

Computer games do something vaguely similar, but they generally do not privilege deep and psychologically engaging characters. What if we wanted real-time animated performances, right on our computer screens, of stories about characters with emotional depth and resonance? As Janet Murray asked back in 1997, will we ever get Hamlet on the Holodeck?

5 Responses to “Animation as live theatre”

  1. Mari says:

    Funny we were just discussing a similar thing here: in computer video games (I confess I played a lot…my husband made me) even there are choices you can make, it is pre-programmed and you can’t really interact with a character, since he/she will have one of several things that they are supposed to say depending on what you do.

    I am trying to improvise using pre-determined phrases (similar to those game characters) but I could potentially not have to do “pre-recording”. But since every phrases (of music in my case) have different substance and character, the sensing interface needs different “tolerance threshold”. Since we cannot predict the future (what I’m GOING to play) then how do one set the tolerance level for things I am GOING to play?? Do we have to go into measuring blood sugar? Brain wave? Library of all sounds I have ever heard? :):) I casually told that to the team in the hallway yesterday and left them standing as their necks were bent like that dog in the old “Victor” record label logo…

  2. Marcelo says:

    I think we (I mean, computers) are not currently capable, although it seems there has been some serious attempts to capture human emotions (http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~pr10/publications/presenccia07.pdf). But audience emotion is obviously different from single-person emotion. On the other hand, are the actors influenced by audience emotion or is the contrary that happens? I’ve been discussing with a friend about a similar situation involving music. Sometimes the way we feel music depends on our current state of mind, and we chose some songs depending on our mood. In other situations, our mood is influenced by the music we listen to.

  3. Alec says:

    Puppet shows are probably the closest for the analogy of film -> live theatre.
    Computer games, I think, are a stretch for live theatre version of animation. But it’s interesting to think instead in the other direction. What is the film or live theatre analog of animation -> computer game? Is it sports? Not sure that would cover everything. Is it just live games in general? Then it’s not clear where the computer/animation distinction appears.
    But that’s also interesting in itself. Where does the computer enter in? Certainly with animations and puppet shows a computer doesn’t need to be involved. The puppet show has the same ephemeral qualities of a live performance because there are humans holding the puppets. If a (naive) computer moved the puppets it would stagnate the same way as film.
    the challenge seems to be either to make it easy for humans to manipulate their animated characters as easily as puppet masters during a live animation performance. Or to make computers react to nervousness, excitement, appreciation, fear, rejection, expectation, etc.

  4. Jim Parker says:

    The virtual theatre stuff we talked about last week in Calgary is very much live theatre in virtual spaces, including all four shows that we mounted last year. The actors manipulate their avatars on the stage in real time and deliver their lines simultaneously. Each performance is unique – although it would be possible to have some of the characters be controlled by ‘bots’, that’s really not feasible right now.

    The advantages are quite numerous: audiences can be collected from all over the world, costumes and sets are fast and cheap, and can be revised very quickly (sets are 3D!), collaboration across distances is simplified, larger and more diverse productions can be mounted.

    We are working on the technical problems right now, and my partner (a playwright, Clem Martini) is setting down some artistic criteria. One tech problem of great interest to me ( a vision guy) is to use motion capture to allow actors to send their motions to the avatars. In particular, I’m trying to use cheap webcams to do this so that the technology is accessible.

    Puppetry is certainly close to what this kind of virtual theatre is now, but is not where it is going.

  5. Heather says:

    As a first test — Is it possible to make a Skype-based theater emulate that coexistance and symbiosis of mood? A remotely present screen that could share the electricity of New York and London. What additional sensors and actions could augment the experience? Shared breezes, sounds, smells?? Maybe we need 3D glasses…

    I find it likely that it is the embodiment and the shared physical presence that is key to the connection. Could an Anybot telepresence robot tease you as it nears the stage edge, make your heart pound as it tears across the floor in circles. There’s a human inside somewhere, far away, but would they know the audience like you would?

    I’m sure you know where I’m leading here… I certainly hope technology could better understand an audience, what is it that the actors are sensing? What is it that the audience senses about the actors?

    What is this psychology that makes us uniquely human? why would it resonate to have a performance that is uniquely yours? what is that crackle when eyes meet? And why is it, that despite all these advantages, makes so many live productions still fall flat?

    Happy to visit that holodeck… we’ve definitely got some work ahead of ourselves!

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