Tuesday, January 29, 2008

WWED (What Would Euripides Do?)

I've always been a technology buff. The formative influences in my youth were the polio vaccine, the Mercury Seven, pictures from Mars and deep-sea submarines. I can recall watching open-heart surgery on local television. It was shown late at night so as to avoid disturbing the squeamish but the image of a surgeon holding a beating, human heart in his hand will always stay with me. Good theatre should have a similar gee-whiz factor, either in production, performance or at best, a combination of the two.

While theatrical plotlines remain essentially the same (seven-count em, seven), science, engineering and the audience drive the technological advances in the theatre. Moving lights can produce millions of colors, hydraulics can move tons with ease and high tensile steels and alloys allow for scenery and cables of incredible strength. But the audience doesn't want to see a show about moving lights or scenery or flying people. It still boils down to telling a captivating story. And that human element can still trump technology.

A case in point is automated follow spots. They've been trying for years to find a way to allow an automated moving light to replace a human spot operator. Cheaper and flashier, theoretically you could put twenty spots on a single performer. Its been tried with rock and roll and more recently on a Broadway show. There are two major problems. Lag time and head fakes. Currently a performer carries tracking device that the unit tries to follow. The problem is processing time. Even in milliseconds, the time it takes for a signal to get from performer to processor to the motors is long enough to create a visible lag or jerkiness in the moving head. If you try to preprogram moving head for a point to point cross following an actor, well, unexpected things happen in live theatre. Even the fastest computer processing power will not react faster to a head fake or the suddenly reblocking of a scene than an stagehand who can decide, on the fly, to open the iris and follow the changes as best they can until the regular blocking is restored. Try that with software.

In the first Darpa Grand Challenge in 2004 the furthest an autonomous vehicle got was 7 miles out of the 150-mile course. In the 2007 Urban Challenge, this clip shows how unmanned technology mixed with human traffic . It did pretty well for the most part. For the most part. However imagine being the robot car being a piece of automation and the actors name is Taurus. Ford Taurus. The bugs for follow spots will be worked out.

One potential answer for follow spots may lie in joining facial recognition software in a unit such as High End Systems DL.2 with its built in camera and infrared sensors. By eliminating the need receive a signal from a homing device and introducing the process directly into the software, you may cut down on the lag time. Which could make automated follow spots a reality.

Do I want to hang on to carbon arc follow spots for the sake of job preservation? I would if, with their heat and foul odors, a carbon arc would put fannies in seats. If not, give the people what they want and give me a healthier work environment. Bring on the next deus ex machina. Since the Greeks, it’s always been about spectacle and the story. Why change now?


Spot 2 said...

I have never operated a carbon arc, but from what I understand they are not fun!

And, I always say that the only job they cannot replace with technology is a spotlight operator, because only a human can react to a human's actions. But, I hadn't thought of facial recognition technology. I would love to see that in use at a Van Halen show (back in their day of course) with David Lee Roth running around the stage up & down the ego ramps. LOL. And, what happens when the target runs out into the audience?? Will the software get confused?? I'm sure they will try this technology, but I'm skeptical of automation's reliability.

When this doesn't work, hopefully, they will just use technology to make spotlights smaller and lighter to carry - they are a pain in the ass to carry up to the spot booth for every show! LOL.

One thing I do like about the current technology, is when I have to run a truss spot, and the light is almost completely controlled from the FOH position. All you do is point and shoot. I was lucky enough to have that experience the last time Motley Crue came around. I was on Tommy Lee;)

Joel Genung said...

Give me the warm light and challenge of a carbon-arc lamp and I'll tell you I'm in heaven! Nothing will ever equal running a carbon-arc Super on an ice show while dealing with a moving skater (often being lifted by her partner), a "roll" from frame 1 to 6 and anticipating the coming fade 5 seconds later. Now that was "theater!"