ENO mixes live opera with Stereo 3D

Last night I saw Sunken Garden – a new opera by Michel van der Aa and David Mitchell staged by the English National Opera at the Barbican.

Sunken Garden ENO Poster

During 50 of the show’s 110 minutes stereo 3D images are projected on to a screen that makes the stage appear to ‘extend’ out to the skies beyond, and adds some amazing effects. This mix of live theatre and stereo 3D is a pet interest of mine, so I was keen to see how effective this production was. I wasn’t disappointed. It was spectacularly successful, especially since this is the first time (that I am aware of) this has been done on this scale.

Below is my technical assessment of the show, and it should be understood that my criticisms are the nit-picking of a person working in S3D, and not meant to knock ENO’s considerable achievement, where the planning and forethought are impressive. They must have spent a long time creating this. To be honest though, the music left me cold, but maybe I’m not the right audience, and once the 3D kicked in my concentration was very much elsewhere.

I was fortunate to sit in row D where, when the first 3D set-up was first revealed, the effect was jaw dropping. I appeared to be watching a performer interacting with another performer standing in a garden that extended well beyond the limits of the stage. The stage lighting matched the projection (as best it could), and the floor extended seamlessly. I felt like I was on the Star Trek holodeck.

Sunken Garden Garden

Unfortunately there were a couple of geometric elements where the perspective didn’t quite match what I saw on stage, and the vertical vanishing points differed by quite a large amount.
I judged the ideal seating position was maybe two rows in front of me, which is where the picture above was likely taken from. My being slightly off-axis to one side didn’t seem to affect the illusion.

This is perhaps borne out by the still below that shows the production team at that very spot, and from where they would have made artistic judgements. I was quite surprised at how such a small movement, a couple of rows, could start to challenge the illusion, and I wondered just how well it could possibly work elsewhere, like at the back of the circle. Would the virtual stage appear overly tilted and stretched from up there? Would it work at all? But, it being a large opera, I couldn’t get up and wander around. This choice of sweet spot struck me as odd – why make it the front of the stalls?

SunkenGardenProduction

But I could also see that had I sat there at the front there were elements that still wouldn’t have quite gelled. As my partner noted, the flowers in the foreground, in negative space, were a bit too large. Maybe the camera lens was a little too wide and too close? This led me to wonder whether a longer lens is a better choice for such a production, along with the sweet spot being pushed further back.

At one point an actor was talking to a virtual actress to his side in negative space, but to me he appeared to be talking to a point about six inches behind her head. My girlfriend agreed. Perhaps he’d missed his mark or eyeline? After all, from his POV there’d be nothing there, just empty space to talk to. I marvelled at how, though all the other depth cues were correct, we could still perceive, at maybe thirty feet away, such a small stereo disparity. Would this have looked better from the production sweet spot where she wouldn’t have appeared to come out so far? It must have looked worse at the back of the stalls,  and appalling to anyone at the side where he’d be obscuring her image and edge violations would have been apparent.

There was a scene where an actress feigned scooping water from the on-screen illusion and threw it out deep into negative space in slow-motion over the audience. It was the classic spear-in-yer-face 3D gimmick and it nearly worked, but was compromised when she occluded the falling drops, wasn’t helped by the audience’ eyes needing to converge back and forth between her and the droplets, and was really undermined by a large degree of droplet ‘sparkle’ that wasn’t consistent between the eyes, thus creating an irritating rivalry. A brave attempt though, and again – what would this have looked like further back?

Later in the show some ‘special effects’ were introduced that clumsily warped the image. This completely broke the illusion.

SunkenGardenSFX

There were some curious bits where the onscreen actor was intentionally huge, which reminded me of the Thief of Baghdad. It worked well in terms of space perceived, but the illusion was clearly a fake and not to my eyes convincing, rather as if the actress was talking to a large 3D TV. Interesting to see though.

More successful was when the on-stage set was extended into the screen’s virtual space.
It appeared to go off way into the distance, creating a convincing, almost abstract illusion, and reminded me of some of the more stylized settings you often got in Hollywood musicals. I love those (in fact one scene appeared to have been inspired by Singing In The Rain).  And this is probably where the technique is most successful. The garden was meant to be real, so it was easy to pick flaws, but an abstract setting allows for the illusion to be stretched, and for a greater suspension of disbelief. The illusion would thus have likely worked better for a larger section of the audience.

Singing In The RainSinging In The Rain – imagine that in 3D

Fact is that seeing things in 3D is a completely normal thing to do, and I’ve noticed that after the initial ‘wow’ moment the novelty wears off quickly. When it works well, audiences may be impressed at first, but that interest wanes rapidly. By contrast something that is less rooted in the ‘real world’, without causing discomfort, will hold attention. And anyway, striving for that verisimilitude of reality is ultimately a bit dull, isn’t it?

The image was back projected and very bright, so there were no issues with the stage lighting (predominantly from the side) washing it out. The resolution was remarkably high – higher than I would have thought possible with HD.  Could it have been 4k? I could see no hot spot, nor hint of one, and I’m really puzzled by this. I’ll try to find out more about the projector and its position.

The 3D specs were new to me and carried the Polaroid logo. I found them comfortable and a distinct improvement on the RealD ones I’ve gotten used to in film theatres – they were larger, and more of a wraparound design.

polaroid-3dglasses

Overall a production to be applauded, and well worth catching. I would like to have seen more ideas tried out – I could write a list as long as my arm! – but that wouldn’t have served the narrative. I look forward to similar forays into on-stage stereo 3D.

In fact, there’s one I want to do myself…

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There’s a newspaper article on the production here http://bit.ly/SunkenGardenMail from which many of the stills here were taken.

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Follow me on Twitter Karel Bata

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