London (CNN)In a spectacular finale to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, the Royal Shakespeare Company has boldly embraced digital special effects for a new production of "The Tempest" in his birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon.
Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' gets a high-tech makeover using Hollywood magic
It's believed that this is the first time that a character (Shakespearean or otherwise) has been "live motion captured" on stage using the latest technology.
A great English stage actor, Simon Russell Beale, is Prospero, the magician orchestrating "the tempest" that shipwrecks old enemies onto his enchanted island. In the play Prospero is barefoot and dressed drably in black like a university don.
In contrast, his spirit servant, Ariel, lithely played by Mark Quartley, is in an elaborately painted skin tight Xsens body suit. Tucked inside are 17 motion capture sensors, including one strapped under his cockatoo hair and one on each foot.
Uniquely, this is an Ariel that can shape-shift before our eyes. When on stage, he is always visible but can recede into the shadows and conjure up various avatars of himself at will -- a blue Ariel, a sea nymph and a harpy (half woman, half bird) -- that flit around in real time moving exactly as he does.
The RSC's artistic director, Gregory Doran cites early 17th century Jacobean masques as "astonishing -- the multimedia events of their time."
So why not experiment with their modern equivalent?
Two years ago, Doran approached the American technology giant Intel after seeing a YouTube video of a 3-D whale exhibited at an electronics trade fair in Las Vegas.
The whale emerged from a large screen and swam back and fourth over an amazed audience.
"That," Doran exclaimed to us, "is what I wanted for 'The Tempest!'"
After 20 years at the RSC, this is the first time he has directed Shakespeare's last solely authored play.
Motion capture expertise was additionally supplied by a British company, Imaginarium, founded by actor and director Andy Serkis -- famous for playing Gollum in "Lord of the Rings."
The technology has advanced rapidly in the last few years. Serkis believes an actor "can now play anything under the sun," and calls it "performance capture -- not just capturing physical motions but emotions."
Mark Quartley's face was scanned and Ariel avatars were sculpted from this. During the harpy sequence, he also wears a head-mounted camera.
Imaginarium's Studio Head, Ben Lumsden explained, "we drive the harpy's facial expressions with Mark's facial expressions."
Quartley himself found the experience, "mostly liberating. It gives you more options as an actor. My avatar can do things physically that I can't do."
The RSC designer, Stephen Brimson Lewis has created a striking set -- a galleon split asunder, its wooden ribs flanking the sides of the thrust stage. Motion capture is mostly used so that Ariel can "show off to his master."
Brimson Lewis believes the technology "can capture the spirit of an actor's performance. It's puppeteering on a very finite level."
This has probably been the most fiendishly complex production in the RSC's history (four or five times more complex than anything else, according to one young computer programmer) and in all likelihood the most expensive, although neither the RSC nor Intel were prepared to discuss costs.
After two years of planning and consultation it is a meld of traditional stagecraft -- set, sound, music and lighting design -- with extensive video projection and state of the art motion capture.
Twenty-seven video projectors and 26 motion capture cameras are trained on the stage. When we dropped in during technical rehearsals, some 20 designers and programmers were encamped in the front stalls behind a flickering bank of computers.
In Russell Beale's view, "the theater has always been very catholic. I think it will nick anything of interest. As another tool in the box and a very impressive one, then yes it will be around and I'm sure it will develop."