As Ariel the sprite flies effortlessly on to the stage during a 2017 production of The Tempest, it’s hard to believe this is not exactly how Shakespeare would have imagined him 400 years ago. The ‘airy spirit’ has been recreated as a digital avatar, bringing to life the sense of magic that weaves through the play’s plot.
Ariel’s new form is part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) vision to modernise one of Shakespeare’s most imaginative plays. The company partnered with Intel and Imaginarium Studios to create an avatar that could interact with live actors and take on new forms in real time. RSC’s director of digital development Sarah Ellis calls this ’21st-century puppetry’. “The human actor is driving all the real time movement of Ariel in his digital form.”
The technology, which is powered by Intel processors, is what audiences are used to seeing in pre-recorded films and gaming. In live theatre, the margin for error is much smaller. The actor who plays Ariel, Mark Quartley, is onstage wearing a motion capture suit covered in 17 gyroscopic sensors that pick up every movement and facial expression. What they pick up is channelled over Wi-Fi to a games engine – a series of Intel Core i7 processors that map Quarterly’s skeletal information and a machine with 120 cores, known as the Big Beast. To keep up with the spontaneity of theatre, the avatar is created with 336 joints, the equivalent to recreating every joint in the human body, and it is powered by a PC that has 50 million times more memory than the one that put man on the Moon. There are 27 projectors around the theatre that project his actions onto different surfaces placed around the stage. “The human actor is driving all the real time movement of Ariel in his digital form,” Ellis says. “You’re seeing the results of a very complex pipeline to realise what is a very integrated, beautiful realisation.”
Live performance comes with its challenges – keeping things robust, resilient, and keeping unwanted noise to a minimum. Ellis says these have all been overcome in The Tempest production through the RSC’s two-year collaboration with Intel. The partnership allowed them to create systems that seamlessly talk to each other and stage an immersive theatre production. “For example, we can change Ariel’s state through the lighting desk, which means that we can make changes in real time,” she says.
In 2014, Intel created a digital avatar of Leviathan, and for a few minutes made the monster swim above the heads of an audience at a CES keynote. Inspired by this imaginative recreation and in the early stages of planning for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the RSC joined with Intel and spent the next two years creating a full-length theatre production using the technology. “We’ve gone from a two-minute YouTube clip to a three-hour-long magical performance in a huge theatre space showing to a thousand people every night of the week,” Ellis says.
Ellis says what has been most exciting is bringing together specialists in this type of technology and pairing them with creatives to recreate a story of magic and wonder to an extent that would have been imagined by Shakespeare himself. “I walked into a technical rehearsal in November and everyone was on the same team,” she says.
“I think that takes time and trust and you can do amazing things if you go into other people’s spaces and want to innovate and push your specialism further.” Rather than overpowering the story and production with digital, Ellis says the aim has been to enhance and integrate. “We see that embracing these technologies is a way of extending our theatrical toolkit,” she says. “We’ve taken technologies that have been used in other industries and applied them to the theatre aesthetic – that’s a significant shift.”
Ellis says putting this type of technology into the hands of artists means that what can be achieved is only limited by imagination. “Unexpected and unimaginable things can happen and I think the technologists allow us to approach the creativity differently as well.”
After its successful debut at Stratford last year, the critically-acclaimed production is now at London’s Barbican Centre for a 2017 run. Audiences can head along during July and August to see the 21st-century reproduction of Shakespeare’s The Tempest driven by Intel, Imaginarium Studios and the Royal Shakespeare Company.