Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 3 (March 2000)

Virtual Limelight

As an undergraduate studying scenic design in the early 1990s, I once spent 20 or more hours creating a physical model for a director-meticulously gluing, cutting, painting, and texturing. At the first design meeting, when I proudly displayed my creation, the director looked at it and said, "But what if we took this," as she ripped a balcony from one wall, "and put it over here?" as she stuck the piece on an opposite wall with her chewing gum. After I started to breathe again, I realized she had a point, and I took a mental note to correct the problem. But as the meeting progressed and the model was manhandled by an increasing number of people, the thing seemed to take on the role of martyr for creativity. When the meeting was over, I took the model back to the land of glue and Styrofoam to make the necessary repairs. After 20 additional hours of surgery, I returned to the next meeting, only to have the destruction begin again. There has to be a better way, I thought.
A virtual storyboard lets designers explore the visual drama of a scene months before it is rehearsed.

Thanks to a university computer lab, I found it. While e-mailing a friend one day, I noticed a ball bouncing down a corridor on the screen of the person next to me. I suppose I should have been most interested by the movement, but as a frustrated set designer, I saw only the walls and floor of the corridor. When the user changed the wooden, planked floor to an intricate tile and then, in an instant, changed the wall color from eggshell white to slate blue, a believer was born.

I wasn't the only theater designer who was experiencing such revelations, as is clear from the growing number of university theater departments across the US that have begun using computer graphics for various aspects of production. For example, using 3D modeling software and Adobe Systems' Photoshop, models that would have taken hours-perhaps days-to reconstruct can now be fixed in less than an hour as walls are moved, colors changed, staircases redesigned, and textures enhanced virtually.

And, thanks to digital modeling, preconceptualization-the process of designing the set before it is actually constructed-has taken on a shape of its own. In days gone by, because of the time required to make balsa-wood models, the line be tween preconceptualization and actual communication was far more rigid. Today, the process might more accurately be described as a radial sharing of ideas as opposed to a linear process. Several 3D programs enable this kind of give-and-take by allowing a designer to explore a design while simultaneously modeling and drafting it. Software such as Strata's StudioPro, Maxon Computer's Cinema4DXL, New Tek's LightWave, and Discreet's 3D Studio Max and Viz are gaining popularity among students of theater, who use the tools to conceptualize their designs.

Once (finally) approved, the finished 3D models can easily be imported into Autodesk's AutoCAD and or Diehl Graph soft's VectorWorks, where dimensions are drawn, structures defined, and the specifics of how to build the set in real life are printed to paper. These drafts are then handed from the designer to the technical director, who in turn uses the dimensional drafts to build the actual, physical set pieces.
Far left: The author's virtual model of a set for the Utah State University production of Pools Paradise was created in Strata's StudioPro. Left: A photograph of the final, physical set shows minor differences from the virtual prototype, such as the numb

Theatrical design is an art firmly rooted in tradition and resistant to change. Thus, the entry of computers into a scenic-design classroom that once consisted of mechanical pencils and drafting tables comes as a unwelcome surprise to some.

But while many seek to canonize the art of hand-drafting scenery and costumes, or the martyrdom associated with a designer's fifth fully constructed balsa-wood model, some educators embrace a new ideology of flexibility and expressionism. "Speed and accuracy are the main points," says Mark Reaney, virtual reality specialist and designer at the University of Kansas' Department of theater and film. "What stage designers need is a new instrument that will allow them to visualize a design quickly and, ideally, facilitate communication among theater artists. For us, [that instrument] is virtual reality."

"It's our responsibility to provide the future of our theater practice with access to information-age tools and the discernment to use them meaningfully," says Rob Shakespeare, director of the Theatre Com puter Visualization Center and associate professor and head of the MFA Lighting Design program at Indiana University.
A student created this rendering of a stage set in Strata's StudioPro after three weeks in a "Beginning Computers in Theatre" class at Utah State University.

For decades, and perhaps even for centuries, theater design has faced two enemies: time and space. The creative process on a full-length theatrical production can begin more than a year before an actor sets foot on a stage. Naturally, once the actual set, lighting, or costume design be gins, changes are needed: Directors' con cepts evolve, extra walls are required, actors demand that extra costume, and a pivotal scene suddenly seems to make more sense to the playwright if it takes place at midnight in the study as opposed to dawn in the kitchen.

As a result, designers' working lives have revolved around the whims of a director and the rigidity of their own drawings. Later on, when renderings are finally ap proved, limited space or resources hinder experimentation when it is needed most. Lighting designers, for example, fall to the bottom of the list for obtaining time in the theater, often gaining the opportunity to hang, focus, adjust, and gel instruments only in the middle of the night or barely a week before the production opens. Because computer graphics technology holds the promise of alleviating some of these difficulties, it's making headway despite the hallowed traditions.

Dennis Hassan, assistant professor of scenic design at Utah State University's (USU) Theatre Arts Department, teaches both StudioPro and MiniCAD in conjunction with Adobe Photoshop. Though a relatively new curriculum at USU for theater design students, the acceptance of these programs is a significant achievement. "Now my students, along with many directors, are eager to learn and accept computer design applications, which was unheard of just a few years ago," he says.

His students incorporate drafting, modeling, and photo-manipulation in settings ranging from the creation of projected scenery to the dimensionalized working drawings from which carpenters build the actual set pieces. Creating libraries of models is also a time investment that is starting to pay off at USU. Indeed, for the hand-draftsperson, creating a model that accurately replicates a piece of furniture hiding in the depths of prop storage is cumbersome and exhausting. But by creating digital models in StudioPro and applying textures with Photoshop a few at a time, and stockpiling them, designers can use the same pieces again and again while continuing to build new, reusable models of existing furniture in their company's warehouse. If nonspecific pieces are needed for the purposes of blocking (to determine the movement of actors on stage), a variety of models can also easily be downloaded off the Web.

"The stigma of 'if it ain't created with a pencil it ain't art' is loosening," says Hassan. "I think the theater world in general is beginning to see the power of the flexibility that computers can provide. Our students now have the advantage of exploring more possibilities in less time, thus creating better design."

Indiana University's Shakespeare focuses his digital efforts on lighting with the aid of Ra diance, a Unix freeware program for lighting design and rendering that was developed by the US Department of Energy and the Swiss government. Co-author with Greg Ward Larsen of the book Rendering with Radiance: The Art and Science of Lighting Visualization, Shake speare is an advocate for light-accurate rendering in the arts. Radiance is engineered to depict specific light sources and to calculate the reflected light.

Shakespeare's use of computer graphics has allowed him to more accurately and confidently convey the intensity, diffusion, and shape of light. More important, it provides insight into the production and how an audience might see it. The technology far surpasses the personal explorations of a lighting designer with a 1/22 model lit by a Luxo lamp, or the ambiguity of a sketch or traditional rendering.

"I use physically based computer simulations as part of my design process," says Shakespeare. "The system I use broadcasts accurately measured photometry and lamp/gel color over surfaces that correlate closely with their real-world counterparts. The resulting images predict the visual impact of design and blocking choices." Shakespeare also participates in nontheatrical lighting projects. Recently, he served as consultant on a lighting project for the Tsing-Ma bridge in Hong Kong, the world's largest suspension bridge.
With Effect, a proprietary interface for the lighting program Radiance developed by Indiana University's Rob Shakespeare, designers can experiment with various scenarios for actor lighting.

But Shakespeare sees difficulties that must be overcome before computers and lighting designers walk down the aisle. "This is a time of transition. It's unreasonable to expect seasoned professionals to change practices that have been honed through perhaps hundreds of

production experiences. However, new challenges to the traditional audience/ actor/scenery relationship are upon us, because computers will shift audience ex pectations and, as a consequence, will affect the 'live' stage experience."

Some software and related techniques are changing not only the way the stage is designed, but the stage itself. At the University of Kansas in Lawrence, students are using computers to model and draft, but they are also experimenting with creating computer-generated storyboards for lighting designs and building real-time walkthroughs of scenery and set changes.

Mark Reaney, a virtual reality specialist and designer for the Department of Theatre and Film at the university, is head of its Institute for the Exploration of Vir tual Realities. "VR's primary mission is to explore new real-time graphics technologies in live performance," he says. "The culmination of our various research initiatives is the occasional live performance before a theater audience. Each production is a showcase and a testing ground for new ideas, techniques, and technologies."

Reaney's latest theatrical offering featured Sophie Treadwell's 1920s expressionistic play, Machinal. "The main scenic elements consisted of virtual environments projected in stereoscopic 3D onto rear-projection screens," says Reaney. Among those environments was a courtroom created for one of the scenes in the play, in which huge, virtual scales of justice tip up and down during the trial, and the face of the judge is eventually superimposed over a section of the courtroom scenery. "The scene doesn't realistically depict any known courtroom," says Reaney. "Instead it depicts it as seen through the emotionally charged viewpoint of the main character."

The production's real-time 3D environments were enabled by WorldUp R4 software from Sense8 (EAI) and a custom-built dual 450mhz Pentium II workstation equipped with dual Evans & Sutherland Tornado 3000 monitor video cards. Live actors performed in front of 10-foot by 15-foot gray rear-projection screens that surrounded the stage on three sides. Polarized 3D glasses provided the final stage for the audience's immersion into Treadwell's play.

Reaney is already working on CG scenery for a "new media" version of A Midsummer's Night Dream, to be performed at the University of Kent in Can terbury, England, this summer.
At the University of Kansas, a surrealistic courtroom scene is modeled in 3D Studio Max above, then, using Sense8's WorldUp software, presented in real time as the background in a scene from the play "Machinal," at right.

The professional theater world has been slower than academia to embrace these new tools. At present, the Broadway design scene operates on a master-and-apprentice system, in which the masters are masters of the old ways. Without the resources of a university, the costs of buying and learning new CG tools are prohibitive for individual designers. However, more and more theater companies are looking for computer drafting and conceptualization skills in their apprentices. And there are pockets of computer graphics usage in the professional theater world, as in the recent Broadway production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which featured computer-animated sets displayed on a video wall at the back of the stage. As computer-graphics-wielding ap prentices become mas ters, we will un doubtedly see more CG influence within the professional realm.

Meanwhile, in the educational world, the flight between computer graphics and theater has taken off with few foreseeable delays in sight. What was once thought of as unthinkable is now commonplace as designers communicate via a world of 3D software that enhances an art rich with tradition and finesse.

Kirsten Watkins is a freelance writer in theater and arts administration. Adam Watkins is a graduate student at Utah State University who is completing an MFA in 3D computer animation.

Adobe Systems
San Jose, CA

San Rafael, CA

Columbia, MD

3D Studio Viz
Montreal, Canada

Maxon Computer
Thousand Oaks, CA

San Antonio, TX

Unix freeware

Mill Valley, CA

St. George, UT