Monday, June 29, 2009

Inside a Live Reptile Tent

On fall 2006, I took a minor subject in University of Art and Design Helsinki, Medialab department. I took a variety of courses, from drama theory to game analysis and design, learning a lot of new things and getting some much needed perspective. But the big production course, Inside a Live Reptile tent, from January to March 2007, was by far the most intense.

The Course

The course was directed by Teijo Pellinen, Chris Hales, Pipsa Asiala, and Jouko-Thomas Kleine. I could say a lot about the course arrangements (and I did) but that's not the topic of this blog. Let's just say it was a learning experience for us all, in lots of different ways.

The objective was to create a stage show that uses interactive audiovisual elements. The actual contents of the show were in a flux for most of the course's duration, but we ended up playing with the themes of death and motifs of fire and water. It was a two-month intensive course, during which we had little time for other studies and activities.

We began by doing some excersizes and brainstorming, then split into groups based on individual interests. I ended up in the groups dedicated to story and the dramatic arc of the show, but ended up doing lots of different things in the end. In the following sections, I'll describe a few of the more important sub-projects I was involved in:

The Fireman's Miniroom

In the story, there was a fireman who suffocated in a burning building. In the show, there was a small, dark room the audience would enter with flashlights. They'd point them at various items from toy firetrucks and burnt-down chairs to the body of the fireman (me!). This triggered images, depicting the events leading to his death, to be projected on the wall (images created by the very talented Diana de Sousa).

So, I got to play with light sensors, two Arduino boards, lots of wire and duct tape, and Macromedia Director. I had only used wire and duct tape before, but after five hectic days on site, it all worked together smoothly. Of course, when the D-Day came, way too many people entered the room and once, practically flooding it with light and rendering the whole interaction moot. Oh well.

The Black River Arcade Game

In line with the ever-mutating story, I programmed a small Java game, in retro style, depicting the fireman and a swimmer on the Black River. I used the same arcade game base code as in Lemmings Remake and A Dog's Job.

It's a two-player collaborative arcade game: The swimmer tries to swim upstream to a raft, avoiding dangers brought down by the currents (logs, zombie crocodiles and black swans). The fireman, standing on the raft, tries to destroy these dangers with his axe. Extra complexity is added by the varying speeds of the currents, forcing the swimmer to swim sideways to slower currents or be swept away.

The graphics are by me, except for the swimmer, who was created by Katarzyna Miron. The sounds were provided by Antti Mäki.

Staging and Propping

In addition to my main projects, I ended up doing some staging and propping work, mostly for the fireman's room. For this purpose, I frequently visited the prop room, a wondrous collection of... things (I don't think there's a narrower category to encompass that all). We also went a bit pyromaniac with some old furniture to create an atmosphere of a burning building, and borrowed a real fireman's suit from the fire department. In addition, I helped with some sewing as well as hanging cheap flashlights from the ceiling.

Random Ideas

During the production process, there was a lot of brainstorming and cool ideas, but unfortunately most of them never saw the light of day (or, well, the darkness of the stage but anyway...). Here are a couple of mine:
  • Divine Discourse: An installation entered by one audience member at a time. There's an altar with a pillow in front of it. Under the pillow, there's a pressure sensor connected to a computer, connected in turn to a hidden speaker. When the audience member enters, a voice of a goddess starts to speak, demanding they kneel down before her. If they refuse, the demands become more forceful, if they comply, the story takes another direction.
  • Interactive Instruments: There's a live stage performance and some instruments the audience can play (no skill needed to make strange sounds). Some of the instruments make sounds of harmony, while the others represent discord. The actors adjust their performance based on which instruments are played more.

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