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Backstage: Using motion capture to evoke Shakespeare’s brave new world

Mark Quartley rehearsing as Ariel. Photo: Gramafilm Mark Quartley rehearsing as Ariel. Photo: Gramafilm
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The Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of The Tempest, starring Simon Russell Beale as Prospero, opens this month. Ariel will be presented using extraordinary performance-capture technology that has not previously been used on stage in a live production. This captures facial expressions as well as movement, which sets it apart from traditional motion capture and ensures the actor’s full performance is conveyed by the avatar.

The production is a collaboration with computer technology company Intel, which provided the inspiration for this production. Sarah Ellis and Gregory Doran from the RSC saw Intel’s project Leviathan, in which a whale appeared to swim off a screen and over an audience. Intrigued, Ellis emailed Intel and their enquiry made its way to Tawny Schlieski, director of desktop research: “I was excited from the first moment she spoke to me,” says Schlieski.

The RSC is also working with Imaginarium, co-founded by Andy Serkis, which pioneered performance-capture technology for films, most famously for Gollum in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogies.

Two years of research and development have led to this point, including casting Ariel much earlier than usual, says Ben Lumsden, Imaginarium’s head of studio. “The RSC would never normally think about character sign-offs so early,” he says. “But we told them, ‘You absolutely have to cast Ariel by this date if you want the actor’s likeness to be in the avatar.’ ”

Mark Quartley, who plays Ariel, spent time at Imaginarium’s studios before normal rehearsals with the rest of the cast. The additional technology will be added during two final weeks of technical rehearsals.

Without wanting to spoil any surprises, if the team can pull it all together before the show opens, the effect promises to be spectacular.

1. Learning to use the motion-capture technology

Mark Quartley explains the process: “The joy is that it’s really physical. I can have a relationship with Prospero while the avatar can simultaneously have another. Ariel is an immensely powerful spirit. This sense of power gives a wonderful feeling that I can do anything: I can fly, I can dive into fire. When I rehearse in my jumper and jeans I feel very different – 21st-century, millennial – but although my friends enjoy taking the piss out of me when I’m wearing it, the lycra suit gives me a sense of freedom.”

Mark Quartley and Simon Russell Beale in rehearsals. Photo: Topher McGrillis
Mark Quartley and Simon Russell Beale in rehearsals. Photo: Topher McGrillis

2. A 21st-century twist on 17th-century masque magic

“I got an email from Greg Doran [RSC artistic director] asking if I wanted to do Prospero,” says Russell Beale. “Greg said: ‘I’ve been thinking about what the modern equivalent of 17th-century masque magic technology might be,’ and sent me a link to the Leviathan clip. It was so clever, and not something I’d really thought about. It’s amazing technology about which I know absolutely nothing – and that’s the bit that hooked me. It’s intellectually valid as an approach, as well as exciting, so I said yes.”


Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set design
Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set design

3. Using the latest tools to support creative ingenuity

Tawny Schlieski describes Intel as a company that makes tools. About the process of working with the RSC, she says: “The tools are only interesting when they’re in the hands of artists who do new things with them. So we worked with Imaginarium, who are excruciatingly talented, and gave them these tools and said: ‘What else would you do? How do we make that happen?’ Teaching our team the agility and resourcefulness you need in live theatre has been great. It’s also been great to see the ingenuity of the designer and then rise to that, and think about how they can do their work.”


Silvia Bartoli (designer at Imaginarium Studios) and Stephen Brimson Lewis (RSC production designer) looking at designs. Photo: Gramafilm
Silvia Bartoli (designer at Imaginarium Studios) and Stephen Brimson Lewis (RSC production designer) looking at designs. Photo: Gramafilm

4. Balancing technology with live performance

Brimson Lewis explains the difficulty of integrating the technology into the production without it feeling “tech-heavy” to an audience. “I keep describing it as doing post-production on a film that you haven’t actually filmed yet. You have to work in a sort of back-to-front way compared with how you normally work in a theatre. It’s a very extended creative team, to provide the layers of technology and imagery, and to find good ways of harnessing the technology without it overtaking us.”


Brimson Lewis’ design for the masque scene, including (top) the circular screens that spiral down to form “the cloud”
Brimson Lewis’ design for the masque scene, including (top) the circular screens that spiral down to form “the cloud”

5. Bringing characters to life through projections

Making Ariel appear around the space has not been easy, as the surfaces have to be thick enough to be projected on to but also translucent. The designer says: “We’ve blocked Ariel around this cloud of screens as you would an actor in the space. It’s a kind of choreography. As soon as you start to find the language, you realise it’s all in the play. Shakespeare is constantly asking Ariel to disappear, be there and be invisible, or be there and be seen; or present himself as a water nymph or a flame. We can have fun with that.”


Mark Quartley rehearsing as Ariel. Photo: Topher McGrillis
Mark Quartley rehearsing as Ariel. Photo: Topher McGrillis

6. Rehearsing on stage with the technology

“On my first day at Imaginarium, they put me in a suit resembling a wetsuit,” Quartley says. “It felt really exposing because lots of people were looking at me. Then Andy Serkis put some music on and said: ‘Just play around.’ They put a version of Ariel on various screens around the room. I lost myself in the fun of playing around. It was really liberating. I lost my inhibitions. It’s just acting – the technology can pick up your performance and replicate it.”


Two versions of the Ariel avatar
Two versions of the Ariel avatar

7. The final result – a fruitful collaboration

Imaginarium and Intel worked with the RSC to create avatars for Ariel. Imaginarium’s Ben Lumsden says: “We were blown away by the RSC’s initial idea – it sounded super-cool and right up our street. Andy Serkis has a background in theatre, and has always dreamt of bringing performance-capture technology to various different forms and different media. For this project, we have passed all our content via our games engine to get the different states and forms of Ariel.”

The Tempest runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until January 21, 2017

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