The Technology behind Shakespeare

‘On a ship at sea: a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard.’

By Museum of Engineering Innovation

The Tempest production (2017-04-04) by ©IntelMuseum of Engineering Innovation

From this opening stage direction of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it is clear that the audience is in for a night of electrifying special effects to match the actors’ performances. 

Packed with dramatic storms, a shipwreck and powerful magic, it is perhaps one of the trickiest of the playwright’s works to translate from the page to the stage. 

The digital avatar of the character Ariel in the Royal Shakespeare Comapny's production of The Tempest (2017-04-04) by ©IntelMuseum of Engineering Innovation

Even when performed during Shakespeare’s life, the play was a feast of special effects and backstage technology: wheels of canvas spun at high speed and fireworks were used to recreate the sounds of a raging storm; trapdoors made characters disappear; false tabletops made props vanish; and cast members were carried aloft by elaborate pulley systems. 

While the techniques available to directors have advanced considerably since then, recreating Shakespeare’s vision in a live theatre performance has always remained a challenge.   

Motion capture suit used in The Tempest (2017-04-04) by ©IntelMuseum of Engineering Innovation

In a 2017 production of The Tempest, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), in collaboration with Intel and Imaginarium Studios, used motion capture – a technique that uses cameras and computers to track an actor’s movements – live on stage to create a three-dimensional (3D) digital character in front of audiences.

In the adaptation, the character of Ariel was performed live on stage while motion-capture sensors embedded in the actor’s suit turned his movement in real time into a 3D animation that prances, dances and flies above the stage.

The digital avatar of the character Ariel in the Royal Shakespeare Comapny's production of The Tempest (2017-04-04) by ©IntelMuseum of Engineering Innovation

It allowed Ariel to transform into a sea nymph or a terrifying harpy at the command of the wizard Prospero, with the digital character integrated throughout the whole performance.

Adapting a technique that is usually used in feature films with long production times to a live stage performance was no easy task. 

The digital avatar of the character Ariel in the Royal Shakespeare Comapny's production of The Tempest (2017-04-04) by ©IntelMuseum of Engineering Innovation

The technology had to be robust enough for eight shows a week in a live environment and work with all the other technologies used on stage.

The fast pace of technology meant that new miniaturised wireless sensors that use a combination of gyroscopes, accelerometers and magnetometers could capture motion in three dimensions. 

Motion capture suit used in The Tempest (2017-04-04) by ©IntelMuseum of Engineering Innovation

These sensors were built into the fabric of the figure-hugging bodysuit that actor Mark Quartley wore during the play. 

In total, 17 sensors were attached to the suit: one on each hand, one on each forearm, one on each upper arm and so on. 

Motion capture suit used in The Tempest (2017-04-04) by ©IntelMuseum of Engineering Innovation

Each sensor was tethered to a wireless transmitter that would stream the data back to a router, allowing engineers to calculate the rotations of the actor’s joints relative to each other and get the joint angles. 

The team focused on tracking the movement of the actor’s upper body and mapping this onto the digital characters beamed above the stage. 

Engineers creating the digital avatar of Ariel live in The Tempest (2017-04-04) by ©IntelMuseum of Engineering Innovation

Even so, the resulting digital avatar of Ariel has 336 joints that can be animated, which is almost as many as the human body. 

Actions such as making the creature look as if it was flying or swimming could be achieved using pre-programmed computer graphics. 

Powering Ariel’s avatar required more than 200,000 lines of code to be running at the same time, which took some formidable computing power.

The digital avatar of the character Ariel in the Royal Shakespeare Comapny's production of The Tempest (2017-04-04) by ©IntelMuseum of Engineering Innovation

For Shakespeare, The Tempest was an Elizabethan technological feast that would use state-of-the-art effects to bring his words alive. Now, 400 years later, modern technology brought even more magic to the stage.

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