Drama Mouse

I was really excited to read the thoughtful comments on my post about Animation as Live Theatre. I completely agree with Alec’s observation that puppets are to animation as theater is to film. And that would be all there is to it, in a pre-computer world.

Heather gave a wonderful description of cyber-puppetry, framing it as a kind of performative Turing test. But not exactly the Turing test, because in the scenario she describes, there is indeed a live human performer in the real-time loop, remotely operating a puppet through the internet.

All four commenters alluded to what I was really getting at — that the introduction of computers allows us to think seriously about non-trivial automatons as real-time performers. In other words, get the human performer out of the real-time performance loop.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying get the human out of the loop entirely. Computers don’t have aesthetic judgement — they are merely machines that do what we humans program them to do. What I’m saying is that there is an opportunity to use computers to evolve puppetry in new and exciting ways.

Generally speaking, a computer graphic or robot puppet can be infused with human performance chops in one of two ways: (1) Before the performance starts, and (2) While the performance is taking place. Traditional puppets operate almost entirely via (2). I say almost entirely because well designed marionettes do indeed have “talent” built into them, by virtue of how they are weighted and strung, which can cause them to move in ways that can look remarkably alive. Well designed marionettes shift and balance their weight by dint of the physics that is literally constructed into them.

Computers allow us to increase this “before the performance aesthetics” manyfold. We can think of a cyber-puppet as a blank slate that can be infused with ways of moving, of gazing, of walking and speaking. And we can think of the person who imparts these qualities into cyber-puppets as a kind of acting coach.

This concept is well understood in the field of electronic music. For years, computer software has been used to allow modern jazz composers to pre-train their computers. Such already-trained cyber-instruments allow a real-time performance to bring out riffs, sequences, inversions, arpeggiations and modulations that were programmed in beforehand. Unlike a traditional musical instrument (such as a piano or cello), a cyber musical instrument behaves in a way that reflects the complex musical ideas of its programmer, and therefore can actively interact with a performer in interesting and sometimes surprising ways.

It’s not that such a cyber musical instrument is “talented”. We don’t need to anthropomorphize here. It’s just that it has been pre-trained by a talented musician/composer who has programmed in her own musical choices. One of the first people I know of who did this for music in really interesting ways was Laurie Spiegel, with her revolutionary 1985 software Music Mouse. When you create music with Music Mouse, in a sense you are always collaborating with Laurie, because her aesthetic methods and choices continually inform the music you make.

It might be time to try to create a sort of “Drama Mouse” — a technology that does for computer enhanced interactive cyber actors what Laurie Spiegel did a quarter of a century ago for the computer enhanced performance of music.

2 Responses to “Drama Mouse”

  1. Mari says:

    Yes Laurie’s system seems a bit like what Marvin talked about at AMNH, brain that can live beyond the body… but nevertheless it is in a way, still cast in stone…. Our ‘sensing the future’ thing isn’t going too great (calibration and tolerance problems), but I now can change the past 🙂 And I’m definitely on the “Toyota” = Système D, on the Radio France on thursday. I gave the Lamborghini until Monday to get its act together.

  2. Jim Parker says:

    I tried to make clearer why my project in virtual theatre was was ‘live’, but spoke poorly. Indeed, animation and puppetry differ in that respect. Puppetry is live (except animatronics, obviously a compound of animation and electronics) and is a form of theatre. Animation is not live, and more strongly resembles traditional film, don’t you think? Actors desire (need) audience feedback. This is harder to get online, filtered as it is through the avatars, but it is nonetheless present.

    Now online computer games … here we have a form near to theatre, and in fact one that is almost indistinguishable from improvisational theatre.

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