The Cast (Performance)

Starting with an early and influential piece of software, LifeForms from Credo Interactive was used by Merce Cunningham in 1989 to choreograph dance movements prior to working with real dancers in a studio environment. The animated figures that were capable of being rendered at this early stage of development were built up using hooped lines to represent head trunk and limbs, but were nonetheless effective enough for Cunningham to visualize specific and complex actions, some of which (he was pleased to discover) were impossible for dancers to emulate.

In keeping with software developments throughout the field of 3D modelling, dance simulation packages are now capable of displaying highly sophisticated representations of human movement. LifeForms (version 4.0) is now branded as ‘character motion software’ whilst DanceForms (version 1.0) is labelled as software specifically aimed at choreographers. The Mega MoCap motion picture library, another in the stable of products on offer from Credo, states that the objects are available in eight different formats to ensure interoperability with all of the most popular 3D applications on the market. As well as 3ds Max and Cinema 4D, these include: Poser; Lightwave 3D; and Maya. At another level entirely, an interesting and freely available java-enabled web-based system that aims for the functionality of a desktop application is Dance Simulation, a package which offers users a chance to position and animate a simple schematic figure.

The casting of fictional animations in choreographed sequences is presumably at its most effective as a pre-performance design tool. Other systems advance that functionality to integrate animations with real-time movement and provide directors and producers of performance works with subtle and highly effective visualization devices to enhance and in some cases reiterate and manipulate the actions, movements and gestures of performers. One such influential piece, again directed by Merce Cunningham, was called BIPED and was premiered in 1999. The technology behind this piece was based on software called Biped (which lent its name to the performance work), which then became embedded into a commercial software package called Character Studio (now integrated into Autodesk 3ds Max).

Cunningham and long-term collaborators, Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar, used Character Studio and another software module called Physique - in conjunction with a motion tracking system - to record the movements of three dancers performing sequences choreographed by Cunningham (see fig.3).

Fig. 3 Still image from BIPED, by Merce Cunningham in collaboration with RiverbedFig. 3 Still image from BIPED, by Merce Cunningham in collaboration with Riverbed

Reflective markers were attached to the joints and body parts of the dancers that allowed multiple cameras to capture movements as animations in 3D space. These sequences were then transferred into Character Studio for manipulation as hand drawn, mercurial, schematic representations of the original dancers, which were then projected during the performance to combine animation with live dancing. The spectral animated figures retained an eerie verisimilitude with their human counterparts and also changed in scale from life-size to thirty feet high during the course of the performance. Steve Dixon and Barry Smith talk about the combination of live and animated figures being seen together for the first time (together with a score composed by Gavin Bryars),

[quote]...the overrall effect, when suddenly combined, appeared to many reviewers of the time as something approaching the supernatural, affording insights into the great unexplained.
Dixon, S. (2007), ‘Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art and Installation’, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA., London [/quote]

Of all the performance disciplines, dance has arguably the strongest interest in examining the ‘corporeality’ of the human form and might therefore be characterized as having the most use for animated visualizations that represent (or mis-represent) bodily movement. Beyond this territory, however, are practitioners who have used artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics to create entities that are programmed to demonstrate the appearance of acting in a performative manner. 'It/I' is a two character play (1997) created by Claudio Pinhanez where the ‘I’ character is played by a real actor and the role of ‘It’ is taken by an autonomous computer character. The forty minute play is essentially an interactive session between the computer and the performer where the computer controls the underlying narrative but is capable of responding to the actions of the performer in real time, using sensory apparatus and a communication language known as ActScript.

In contrast to Pinhanez’s virtual autonomous character, whose presence is manifest by the responsive nature of what appears on a screen and is emitted through speakers, the cacophonous and pyrotechnic productions of the Survival Research Laboratories (SRL) are ritualized spectacles of robotic and mechanized interaction that create visceral environments filled with noise and smoke, redolent of conflict, warfare, destructive science and industrialization that has autonomously and irrationally gone beyond human control (see fig. 4). As pieces of cinematic-like spectacular drama, SRL’s productions might be said to inhabit a space near the boundary of an artistic and dramatic territory that also encompasses less frenetic use of robotic ‘characters’.

Fig. 4 Image of Inchworm taking a hit from the Tesla Coil, image by Garth WebbFig. 4 Image of Inchworm taking a hit from the Tesla Coil, image by Garth Webb

Examples include Amorphic Robot Works, a collaborative group that endeavours to explore the ‘primacy’ of movement and sound using machines that enact and mimic the actions and appearance of organic entities. Another example is the artist Heidi Kumao who favours using video screens and sensors installed into mechanized constructions of everyday objects, an approach reminiscent of some of the kinetic mechanical creations of the artist Rebecca Horn.

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