Animation World Magazine, Issue 3.2, May 1998
Monsters of Grace: High Tech Meets High Art
by Wendy Jackson
Here at Animation World Magazine, during our daily contact with the world animation community, we see countless videos, books, games, toys, tools and products as well as films, performances and themed events employing animation. Every so often, among the volumes of material we see, something or someone that truly stands out as innovative or remarkable. With this new monthly feature, "Dig This!," Animation World Magazine's editors will filter the volumes of material to profile for our readers what we think is the latest and greatest "new thing" related to animation.
Organizers of Monsters of Grace's premiere at
UCLA's newly renovated performance space,
Royce Hall, staged this photograph of the
audience outfitted in polarized lens 3-D glasses
used for viewing the stereoscopic 3-D animation.
Photo courtesy of IPA.
We start this series with Monsters Of Grace, a new, experimental production combining the theatrical direction of Robert Wilson, the music of composer Philip Glass and the 3-D stereoscopic animation of Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company (KWCC). The production, described as "a digital opera in three dimensions," includes live music, stage actors and a 70mm computer-animated film, viewed stereoscopically through custom-designed polarized glasses.
Monsters of Grace 1.0 held its world premiere on Wednesday, April 15, 1998 at UCLA's Royce Hall in Los Angeles. Playing on the metaphor of software releases, the opening show is dubbed the "Beta 1.0" version because the production is a work in progress which will change as it tours to audiences around the world. The opening performance which we saw featured eight animation scenes (about 35 minutes of film) which have been completed for the 13-scene show. As more animation is completed, film will replace live stage scenes. The animation was and is being created on Silicon Graphics O2 workstations using Alias/Wavefront's Maya as well as Alias, TAV, Explore, Dynamation, Kinemation and Composer software. The film's characters, or "Synthespians" (a term trademarked by KWCC to describe virtual actors), were created by adding 3-D scans of live actors' heads to key frame-animated bodies. Motion-capture has not yet been used, but co-director Diana Walczak says they are "entertaining the idea" of using motion-capture technology for one of the as yet uncompleted scenes featuring multiple characters.
One of the computer animated scenes in Monsters of Grace
1.0. Photo courtesy of IPA.
High Tech Meets High Art
"We usually deal with commercial projects which are very short in length and high in cost," said film co-director Jeff Kleiser, whose company, Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company (KWCC), specializes in high-end computer animation for film, educational projects, television and theme park attractions. "We are using the same technology used currently in feature films and in theme park rides to create the visual aspects of this opera." But don't expect to see flashy, loud graphics. "Instead of inundating the viewer with sensational information, Monsters of Grace gives the viewer the opportunity to explore and reflect through sight and sound perception," added film co-director Diana Walczak. KWCC, which has been working on the animation for Monsters of Grace since September 1997 (and in development with Wilson and Glass since October 1996), is aiming to complete all 13 scenes (about 70 minutes of film) by September, in time for a scheduled performance near Washington, D.C. The studio is also currently in production on a 3-D stereoscopic ridefilm for Universal's new theme park in Orlando, Florida.
Meditation at 24 Frames Per Minute
In a lecture preceding the opening performance, the creators described the show as a kind of meditation. The animation itself is in extreme slow motion, so slow that one wonders if it is really moving at all. It's more like 24 frames per minute than the film speed of 24 frames per second. But as time progresses, scenes change and new views become apparent. The imagery is abstract in meaning, seemingly random in placement, yet hyper-realistic in its portrayal of real objects. A little boy rides a bicycle past glowing houses at dusk. A severed hand opens its fist and is sliced by a floating blade. A Japanese tea tray floats in mid-air and turns into television static. A sleeping polar bear is caressed by a child's hand. A helicopter and a bird fly over the Great Wall of China. And in a dramatically different scene, multicolored lines move gracefully across the screen like a motion painting by Oskar Fischinger. What does it all mean? This, according to creators, is open to the viewer's interpretation. "The visuals are simply to help us listen to the music," said Robert Wilson, "Hopefully with this parallelism, the two elements can reinforce one another without having to decorate or illustrate." Philip Glass, who incorporated English translations of Sufi poetry into the music, said that any apparent cooperation of the images and the lyrics are purely coincidental. He said, "The words don't illustrate. If they do it's by accident."
Art for the People
"I consider Monsters of Grace to be 21st century theater," said Jedediah Wheeler, the show's producer, "[it] will appeal to a new generation of theater audiences who may not be familiar with the work of Glass or Wilson, but who will be excited by the digital process." With this in mind, Monsters of Grace is being brought not only to the cosmopolitan cities where Glass and Wilson's work is well-known (London, Munich), but also to areas which do not often see experimental theater works, such as Columbus, Ohio; Madison, Wisconsin; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Iowa City, Iowa; Lubbock, Texas and Tempe, Arizona. Ultimately, after all film production is complete, plans call for Monsters of Grace to exist in purely digital form as a CD-Rom, DVD piece, 3-D enhanced web site or VR installation. Currently, Monsters of Grace information and show dates are available on the web site, www.extremetaste.com.
Wendy Jackson is associate editor of Animation World Magazine.
What else should we dig? Every month, Animation World Magazine will highlight the most interesting, exciting happenings in animation, in "Dig This!" Send us your ideas, suggestions, videos, products or works-in-progress today. You dig?
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