Edge of Innovation

What do William Shakespeare, Andy Serkis and Intel have in common?

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

In a year that marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Intel and The Imaginarium Studios are joining forces to bring cutting-edge special effects technology to the theatre.

From 8 November 2016 to 21 January 2017, the RSC’s production of The Tempest will be the first play to use movie-style performance capture technology to render a 3D animated character — Ariel the sprite — live on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage.

“We have set ourselves the challenge of creating the most technologically advanced production we have ever staged,” said RSC Artistic Director, Gregory Doran. We are working “to give our audiences something out of the ordinary.”

Shakespeare’s plays are no stranger to the extraordinary. Four hundred years ago, drums would have boomed offstage to create the sound of thunder, magical spells were often marked by popping firecrackers, while actors would appear through smoky trapdoors or find themselves lowered dramatically from the rafters on creaking ropes.

Today, performance capture technology is capable of translating an actor’s movements, facial expressions and vocalisation into extraordinarily lifelike digital characters. It’s a process used widely in video games and blockbuster movies.

The RSC, Intel and The Imaginarium Studios have spent over a year researching how to bring the same technology to the theatre. Ultimately, the fruits of this unique collaboration will not only allow the character of Ariel — the spirit bound to serve the magician Prospero in The Tempest — to be projected on stage, but for an actor behind-the-scenes to deliver a real-time, interactive performance every night.

While The Imaginarium Studios, the performance capture company founded by Andy Serkis, provides the expertise and experience required for the RSC production, Intel contributes much of the technology that makes it all possible.

Intel-powered 3D avatars

“Together we are creating a human-digital interaction that feels ‘alive’,” says Penny Baldwin, ‎VP, General Manager of Global Brand Management & Reputation at Intel.

“Since its first performance in 1610, Shakespeare’s late, great play, The Tempest, has been a vehicle for delivering the greatest spectacle that live theatre could create. Shipwrecks, storms, fantastical creatures and magical masques have challenged the most ambitious companies to deliver their most ground-breaking stagecraft.”

With Intel Xeon and Core i7 processors crunching the huge amounts of data that enable the real-time digital content projection, Baldwin believes that “we have an opportunity to break new ground and thrill our audiences by bringing together the best of live theatre with cutting-edge technology to deliver an amazing experience.”

The RSC’s ambitious production is just part of the celebrations to mark Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary year.

On 23 April, BBC Two and the Royal Shakespeare Company hosted Shakespeare Live! from the RSC, a performance in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre that featured “Shakespeare-inspired work spanning the musical genres — including hip-hop, blues, musical theatre, jazz, opera and classical numbers based on his plays.”

A star-studded cast included Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Rufus Wainwright, Ian McKellen, Joseph Fiennes, Meera Syal, Gregory Porter, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Kinnear, Rufus Hound, Paapa Essiedu, David Suchet, Simon Russell Beale, John Lithgow, Tim Minchin and many more.

Shakespeare Live! From the RSC was screened live in the UK and later in the USA via BBC Worldwide.

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