Tinker is a theatrical performance by live, artificial characters set on the facade of the Stone Opera House for the LUMA Binghamton 2017 projection arts festival. Designed as a theatrical stage for dancing characters, the historical Stone Opera House is the perfect canvas for a narrative play by hand painted, self-animated characters.
The Stone Opera House is a historic building located in Binghamton, NY (click here for details). The building was designed in 1892 by Charles M. Stone who felt that central New York was in need of a decent theater for entertainment. At its high point from 1900-1920, the building hosted famous performs including Sarah Bernhardt, Ethel and John Barrymore. At one point President Roosevelt spoke here himself. Despite its fame the building is currently in need of major repairs. The LUMA Projection Arts Festival revitalizes the Binghamton area by bringing these treasured spaces back to life. TINKER in particular was designed as a narrative, musical play to reflect and honor the theater on which it is performed.
The now forgotten plays that once took place in the Stone Opera House provided the inspiration for a virtual dance performance. For Tinker we developed live, artificially intelligent dancers to perform a new play. Unlike other projection mapping projects which are animated and pre-rendered, the goal of Tinker was to allow the characters themselves to decide and choreograph their own actions. Each performance is unique. As the performance is a 10 minute play for a live audience, there is an expectation of a narrative arc. Narrative cohesion was provided with music that was used to influence, but not strictly determine, the dance motions chosen by avatars. Each character imagines and transitions from its current motion to the next dance move by choosing from a variety of motions based on the current scene.
Character animation is based on the free Carnegie Mellon motion capture library which contains pre-recorded moves for several dance styles. Custom software was developed to enable character animation with real-time performance. This technique disrupts the common method of facade projection mapping by studios which develop pre-rendered animations. One difficulty with live avatars is that character behavior can be unpredictable, for example when characters decide to dance off-stage. To counter this the notion of ‘center stage’ was created to direct motions back on stage. In addition, to improve group choreography, a lead dancer is occasionally selected to guide the others in a dance motion that is performed synchronously.
MODELING & LIGHTING
The set and stage were developed based on photographs of the real building, and a model of the Stone Opera House was created (left) for a virtual environment. Stage lighting and virtual characters were added to the scene using custom software in C++/OpenGL. The character animation was integrated into this virtual model.
MUSIC AND NARRATIVE
The play of Tinker is a novel work based on a transitional theme from classical theater to modern digital media. Musical selections determine the narrative, and include Rachmaninoff, Dvorak, Tango, Polka, and Waltz which give way to Dub step, DJ and experimental tracks. Tinker is a casual reference to bricolage, the French term for improvisation developed by Levi-Strauss, and also a reference to the magic and mischief of the sprite Tinker Bell from Barrie’s Peter Pan. Criticism of the modern spectacle of projection mapping led to the consideration of a play in which the first half of Tinker has ballet performers with theatrical lighting set to classical music. Only toward the very end, as the music becomes digital and experimental, the performers switch to karate while the architectural facade breaks away to expose structure and form. This culminates in a purely geometric ending that brings closure to the historic arc.
The final performance was presented at LUMA Binghamton 2017 projection arts festival to an audience of several thousand viewers. Thanks to an amazing ground crew, a high lumen projector, generator, sound mixing board and directors box were setup across the street from the Stone Opera House. After just one night of preparation and calibration, the live performance was synchronized with the building and presented multiple times that evening for festival attendees.