How Intel, the RSC and The Imaginarium Studios reimagined Shakespeare’s The Tempest for a 21st century audience

It's now possible to digitally render characters in real-time using Intel technology

The plays of William Shakespeare may not always be associated with cutting-edge computing technology. But this year’s production of The Tempest by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) uses the latest in real-time performance capture to help conjure up a truly magical character.

The Tempest project is a collaboration between Intel, the RSC and The Imaginarium Studios – the performance capture studio co-founded by Jonathan Cavendish and Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

“I asked myself, if Shakespeare was alive today what technology would he be exploring?” said Gregory Doran, Artistic Director at the RSC. “So I asked my digital team and I described what I wanted with The Tempest and asked: how could we do this?”

Sarah Ellis, Head of Digital Development at the RSC, found the answer. 

“What I wanted to do was try and think, if Shakespeare was alive today what would be the technology that he was exploring?”

Gregory Doran, Artistic Director at the RSC.

For this 2016 production of The Tempest, the actor playing Ariel wears a suit laden with motion sensors. The Imaginarium uses PCs based on Intel Core i7 technology to process the data of the actor’s actions, and maps those to a digital avatar projected live on stage via 27 projectors, strategically placed throughout the theatre. Another Core i7 PC runs Unreal, the game engine that renders the avatar’s motion. The character is then rendered in real time by the Xeon-powered “beasts,” enabling Ariel to take on various forms including a flock of birds and a ball of fire.

“The Tempest was Shakespeare’s summer blockbuster,” Schlieski said. “It was designed to amaze with the latest explosions and gadgets available. It’s been performed by theatre companies for the last 400 years with that in mind and it’s always been the vehicle for the latest and greatest technologies.”

The Tempest is just one example of how technology can enable and inspire the creative arts. Earlier this year, Intel worked with Nombumici Asai who is pushing the boundaries of 3D facial projection mapping and dancer Paige Fraser, who shared the stage with a digital version of herself. Technology is helping DJ group Thud Rumble reimagine the turntable and designer Becca McCharen transform clothing.

“I think that’s our job,” said Schlieski, “to help people make amazing things happen and know that the technology is there to inspire and catch them.”

Gregory Doran described it best when he said that his team had been given a new paint box, but not given any limitations on how it can be used.

“I think the understanding of the provision of new exciting methods of doing things from Intel, and then the development of ideas of how to use that technology, has been a very creative symbiosis,” Doran said.

“Both RSC and Intel are in the business of communication and we wanted to share those disciplines. I think it has been really interesting, my team have found the process very exciting.”

The reimagined production of The Tempest is pushing technology in a way that’s never been done before in live theatre. Schlieski believes it will inspire artists and creators in any genre to create something they never thought possible – whether they’re working on small personal projects or large-scale productions.

“We’re shifting perceptions of what’s possible,” she said. “It’s so exciting to think about the transformation of entertainment.”

The Tempest is being performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Previews from 8 November 2016, opening 17 November until 21 January 2017. The play will also be broadcast Live From Stratford-upon-Avon in cinemas in the UK and Europe on 11 January 2017 and in encore screenings worldwide.  www.rsc.org.uk

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