Audiences at the Mondavi Center at the University of California at Davis saw something recently that few people have ever seen: movies come to life. As characters in Paris move about on a movie screen, in the blink of an eye, they appear to lift off the screen and walk about the stage, and then appear blown up on a huge scrim, which suddenly appears before them while the original film image fades in and out of sight behind.

This is the world of The End of Cinematics, the brainchild of director/producer Mikel Rouse. Part of a three-part “opera verité” trilogy, the show attempts to comment on the decay of cinema, according to Rouse, by allowing audiences to view a 3D world of film, live action, video, and sound. The project was developed with support from the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as the Mondavi Center.

Rouse originally started the project with the recording of music in 1999 and a film shot in Paris in 2002, The End of Cinematics, which premiered at the Jacksonville Film Festival in 2003. His intention, however, was to create a multidimensional experience for audiences. “I wanted to make a kind of hyper-real 3D experience,” he says.

A visit to the University's National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) inspired him to develop the show. “They showed me a lot of amazing things happening with technology, from motion sensing to three-dimensional rooms. But the thing that really attracted me was stereo television,” he says. 3D TV would have been prohibitively expensive and would have required audiences to wear polarized glasses, so Rouse began sketching out ideas for staging that would involve depth perception and projection in an attempt to simulate the 3D experience.

“We did a couple of tests with video edits and burned them to DVD and took them back to Krannert and did some mini projector tests, just to see if it would work, and, to everybody's surprise, it did,” Rouse says.

Rouse brought in production designer Tom Kamm, a veteran of other projected scenery projects. “My challenge was to reinterpret what was music and two-dimensional art, video art, into the spatial realm of the stage,” Kamm explains. “As a set designer, you're usually working with text — a play or screenplay. In this case, the text became a score and a set of visual images. And what Mikel had conceived, really, was a three-dimensional movie which mixes live and pre-recorded film in a way that the audience, at times, can't tell one from the other.”

The setting involves a grid of six screens (two rows of three) onto which footage from Rouse's film and other material is rear-projected. Twenty feet downstage from those screens is a 50'×30' white scrim, which receives front-projected imagery. In between the two is a performance area with a raked floor that rises 30" upstage, on which six live performers act and sing.

The material projected on the rear screens from Rouse's original film was painstakingly edited and manipulated by the director over a one year period at the Krannert's NCSA. The team broke the film into, alternately, six individual images that represented different parts of the scene or images in only a few of the six screens. “They also had some amazing footage they'd created using computer animation of collapsing galaxies and other depictions that we looked at to incorporate,” Rouse says. “So we started to break the film down and deconstruct it from its original form into the six-panel rear projection display.”

The NCSA also applied digital manipulation to the footage by, in some cases, removing the actors shot in Paris. In such instances, a live performer, dressed in the same costume as the actor who, moments before, had been seen on one of the six rear-projected screens, appears in front of that screen, which is then showing the now-vacant background. The actor is captured as a live video image by one of several video cameras. This image is then projected, blown up several times via front-projection, onto the front scrim, with lighting and the various video images dropping the various layers in and out throughout the piece.

“There are times where there are multiple views of the performers happening simultaneously,” notes Kamm. “So you'll often have a very interesting set of perspectival tricks going on, where you have a live performer who's shot in front of a previously filmed background. That close-up is blown up onto the full downstage screen. So you get a real sense of a blurring between what is live and what is previously recorded and a great sense of depth.”

Kamm's concept was to make the audience feel as if they are looking through a monitor. “At the front of the stage, there's a large white scrim that covers the entire proscenium opening,” he explains. “In front of that, there's a full stage portal, so it's almost as if you're looking at a large flat screen monitor. So right away, you're looking through something into a world beyond.”

The stage then rakes upward toward the six rear screens. Those screens, also designed to appear as six individual monitors, are actually comprised of 1" steel tubular framing in front of a single sheet of dark gray rear projection material. “We didn't want a white surface back there because we didn't want the audience to see this white area beyond the front screen. We wanted it to be black,” explains Krannert technical director Tom Korder. “It's also a way to control bounce and ambient light when we didn't want it.”

Six individual images are projected onto the material, making the grid of six images. Like the front scrim, Kamm surrounded the image areas with a gray bevel, again, to provide a monitor frame look for the audience. In addition, lighting director Hideaki Tsutsui added a line of blue LEDs around each frame. “It's a product called Neo-Light from Borderline,” Tsutsui explains. “I originally thought it might be interesting to surround each screen with a different color but then decided it might look a little too busy. So I put a frame of the blue LED neon around each projection area, and these can be operated to make six individual squares, one big square, an L-shape, whatever is desired.”

Tsutsui's lighting approach met Rouse's wish to avoid light being shown directly onto the stage floor. “I approached it almost like I was lighting a dance piece,” he says. “I had side booms, as well as a lot of overhead lights. I mainly used ETC Source Fours® on the booms. The Source Fours have a shutter, which enabled me to cut the light and avoid spillage onto the screen. In addition, Mikel wanted a very isolated look for lighting the actors, and the shutters enabled me to achieve that as well.”

For video projection, video systems designer Jeff Sugg opted for a simple and affordable approach. Instead of a complicated system using a single projector which would split the rear-projected material into six programs, it was decided to simply have NCSA output the content for the six screen image areas onto individual DVDs, which played back simultaneously on six Pioneer 7400 DVD players. An additional 7400 played back the front scrim projection content, while an eighth played entrance material for the audience. Images for each of the six rear screens was projected from six Electrohome Roadie 7000 projectors, purchased second-hand by Krannert from AVHQ.

The imagery for the front screen, projected from a Barco R12 projector, is a combination of DVD content (which also contained preprogrammed black, when it was desired to show the rear screen material or the actors through the scrim) and live video from various cameras. Three Sony PD-150 cameras are located behind the front scrim area and focused on the three lower screens of the rear-projection grid to capture the actors as they perform in front of those screens. Another “flying” PD-150 operates on a line set, which captures actors appearing on a steel bridge in front of the top row of three screens on the rear projection set.

In addition, a Sony DXC-990 camera, outfitted with a Fujinon zoom lens, operates on a 48' Telemetrics automated tracking system just behind the front scrim. “It also has a boom arm, called a Televator, which allows the camera to move up and down,” explains Sugg. A pair of remote controls, operated by director of photography Richard Connors, moves the rig up and down the track (as well as operating the Televator), along with pan, tilt, focus, and zoom.

Sugg utilizes a Panasonic WJ-MX50 video mixer for the front projection, to switch between the DVD media and the live video. The live video itself is switched with a second mixer, a Panasonic AG-MX70, which is switched manually by Sugg.

The entire system — the seven DVD players, the MX50 video mixer, and even Tsutsui's lighting (itself controlled by an ETC Express console with preprogrammed lighting cues) — is operated by a Dataton Trax control system run from an Apple Mac PowerBook. “It was originally going to run the DVD players and maybe some of the lighting cues,” says Korder. “But it turned out that what Mikel really wanted was quick edits and changes, jumping from the front screen to the back, etc. It became apparent that trying to get a lighting operator and a video person to hit those right at the same time just wasn't going to work.”

Adds Tsutsui, “You might have four or five cues happening within one or two seconds. It's just impossible for a stage manager to call cues like that.” The automation also freed up Sugg to focus more on live video mixing, without having to worry about switching the other material at the same time.

Sugg went with Trax, as opposed to Dataton's popular Watchout system, mainly due to cost. “The Dataton Trax is rock solid. It really doesn't miss a beat,” he says. “Even switching between the main computer and a backup, it was clean, clean, clean.”

The only problem that crept up was DVD slippage. “We're essentially starting all of those players and just letting them run,” says Sugg. “They get a black burst signal from the mixer, but that's basically the only thing holding them together. And that's totally essential, because over the course of a 70-minute show, if your cut commands are half a frame or two frames off, it can throw the whole show off. In most of the world, that amount doesn't matter, but here, it makes a huge difference to have them on the money every time. And the Dataton was wonderful for that.”

Blurring the line between film and reality couldn't have been achieved, says Rouse, without the support of his friends at the Krannert Center. “They not only made it possible financially, but also in terms of concentrated time — not just with the theatre, where the show was first performed, but with the human resources and the technology,” he says. Rouse's own creative vision drove his creative partners, says Tsutsui. “He likes to have a very open book. He doesn't restrict your creativity, and the result is a show that leaves the audience to make their own conclusions about what the piece is about.”

THE END OF CINEMATICS

Lighting:
3 Altman 20°
Shakespeare
Ellipsoidal
23 Altman 30°
Shakespeare
Ellipsoidal
17 Altman 40°
Shakespeare
Ellipsoidal
8 ETC Source Four
26° Ellipsoidal
10 ETC Source Four
36° Ellipsoidal
6 ETC Source Four
50° Ellipsoidal
5 8" Fresnel
1 PAR64 MFL
3 PAR64 VNSP
9 4' Mini Footlight
17 Borderline 9' LED
Blue Neo-Light
6 Birdies
1 Diversitronics
Mark II Strobe
1 ETC Express
Console
Video:
1 Barco R12
Projector
6 Electrohome
Roadie 7000
Projector
8 Pioneer
DVD-V7400
DVD Player
1 Panasonic
AG-MX70
Video Mixer
1 Panasonic
WJ-MX50
Video Mixer
5 Sony PD-150
Camera
1 Sony DXC-990
Camera
1 Sony
S16X73BMDD8
Fujinon Lens
1 48' Telemetrics
Camera Tracking
System w/
Televator and
Remote Control
2 Kramer 1×4 Video
DA
2 4×3" Monitor
Racks - Sony
PVM-4B1U
5 9" Color Preview
Monitors - Sony
PVM8041Q
1 13" Monitor -
Sony PVM14L1
2 Dataton Control
Computer, Apple
Mac PowerBook
2 Dataton
Trax Cable
4 Dataton SmartPax
8 Dataton Pioneer
SmartLink Cable
1 Dataton RS-232
SmartLink Cable
1 Dataton MIDI
SmartLink Cable