by Nick Riddle
On one corner of the Theatre Computer Visualization Center stands a box. Displayed inside are two large, identical color photographs of a young woman. "Those are copies of Kodak test subjects," says Robert Shakespeare, associate professor of theatre and drama and director of the center at Indiana University Bloomington. "The test box was designed years ago by General Electric to evaluate the effect of different colors of fluorescent lamps." Human skin tones, being both familiar and subtle, make a perfect test target. "Lighting design is the art of revealing things," Shakespeare explains. "It's the art of influencing what you see and what you don't see, and how you feel about what you're seeing." That definition of Shakespeare's speciality is unlikely to change; the methods involved, on the other hand, are undergoing a transformation.
Move a few feet to the left, and you cross several decades of lighting design history, coming to rest in the present day. On the screen of Shakespeare's PC is another woman--an actor bathed in a soft orange light. Shakespeare brings up a window and changes the settings; now a second, brighter beam illuminates her from above, making the effect more dramatic. The actor, of course, is computer-generated, but the behavior of light in the simulation is uncanny in its accuracy--some of it even reflects off the floor. "I had a student in here earlier today exploring the lighting for a musical," Shakespeare says. "She was testing out her gel colors and finding out what would happen." Such things are now possible through Shakespeare's work with Radiance, an "open software" package devoted to predicting the behavior of light. The tools he has developed can simulate light conditions in complicated environments, producing easily accessible numerical results if required and pictures of near-photographic quality.
Robert Shakespeare, associate professor of theatre and drama, Indiana University Bloomington --credit
Shakespeare brings to the project a wealth of experience in lighting design, having notched more than 170 production credits in drama, opera, and dance. Born in England, he trained in Canada and moved back to the United Kingdom in 1973, where he became resident lighting designer at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre Company. He moved permanently to the United States in 1978, coming to Indiana in 1985 after a spell at the University of Massachusetts.
His interest in computing began when he realized "there was a resource that could handle some of the repetitive and tedious tasks involved in creating a lighting design." When he arrived at IU, personal computers were just beginning their rise to prominence. Shakespeare had learned Fortran and was writing programs to help build designs more quickly; meanwhile, scientists and engineers had begun to explore simulations that could predict how simple lighting arrangements would affect a given environment. "Until that point," he remembers, "lighting design ideas were communicated verbally, through simplistic sketches or some cryptic numerics." But things were changing.
Shakespeare joined the Computer Committee of the Illuminating Engineering Society and played a role in creating a new file standard for conveying photometric data. This work introduced him in 1989 to Greg Ward Larson, who was involved in writing a set of programs for a powerful lighting simulation system at Lawrence Berkeley Labs. These fifty-odd programs would become the Radiance package. Although the primary uses for Larson's work were in architectural design, road lighting, and other environmental issues, Shakespeare immediately saw the possibilities of Radiance in his own field. With support from IU's Center for Innovative Computer Applications (CICA), he began to explore these possibilities, working with both theatre and architecture. "I don't know how many universities in the country would have had the willingness to do this," Shakespeare says. "They gave me some wonderful training--and some engineers to do some code work--to test these ideas and see if they would come to fruition."
The success of this early work led to the birth in 1992 of the Theatre Computer Visualization Center, with funding from the Office of Research and the University Graduate School's Research Facilities Fund, support from the College of Arts and Sciences, and practical backup from CICA. Much of Shakespeare's work since then has been on developing and refining the Radiance software to make it both more user friendly and capable of answering the specific needs of theatre lighting design. Along the way he has been collecting real-world descriptions of properties and materials--skin colors, fabric samples, reflective surfaces--and seeking ways of manipulating them that will make sense to someone looking at lighting design for the first time. He does a good deal of fine-tuning and problem-solving: "When I run into a problem in the field," Shakespeare explains, "I talk to my science colleagues, we brainstorm, and more often than not we find the solution, and that goes toward making this resource more robust."
Painting a complexly lighted stage/studio environment has required a designer to tediously address dimmers, luminaires, and color scrollers through hundreds of control channels and intensity settings. This storyboard represents a new concept of lighting control which is being explored by Shakespeare. It will be built upon a live video image of the stage, high-speed simulation, and an augmented reality overlay of arrows that provide the ability to graphically select and interactively manipulate all lighting effects. --credit
He collaborated with Larson on a book, Rendering with Radiance: The Art and Science of Lighting Visualization, which has met with acclaim from experts in the industry, such as Microsoft's Andrew Glassner and renowned lighting designer Richard Pilbrow. Pilbrow believes the work is pioneering and "will have a profound impact on the future of lighting design."
To the untrained eye, some images produced through Radiance bear a strong resemblance to the computer-generated animation in movies like Toy Story or Jurassic Park, but the similarity, Shakespeare says, isn't even skin-deep. "There's a very different end product from PIXAR and Industrial Light & Magic," he explains. "When PIXAR made Toy Story, they had stacks and stacks of computers running for months, and it wasn't even light-accurate. It's the detailed calculation of the behavior of light and its interaction with surfaces, following the laws of physics, that separates the predictive pictures I work with from those beautiful, dramatic images produced by Industrial Light & Magic in Jurassic Park. The computer graphic dinosaurs are painted with pseudo light and shadows to suggest that their illumination is from the same light sources that reveal the real actors. If it were possible to photograph a real dinosaur with those actors and compare it with the Jurassic Park illusion, the movie image would appear artificial and contrived.
Shakespeare's work has less to do with dinosaurs and more to do with real-world scenarios. He teaches twenty to thirty undergraduates every semester in a first-level lighting class for theatre majors at IUB. Not long ago the course was heavy on theory and paperwork projects, with limited ways for students to see the outcome of their design choices. The paperwork and theory are still essential, but the students' experience of stage lighting has taken on a new dimension. By using the interface with Radiance, they can mix colors, experiment with lighting angles, and choose from a range of brightnesses and effects to convey mood or time of day. Thanks to Shakespeare's refinements of the Radiance software, the students' grasp of lighting simulation is rapid, and ideas can be pursued by every member of a large class without the paraphernalia, liability, and time required for a real-world exercise in a fully equipped theatre.
This is an arrangement that can do wonders for any size of venue, as Shakespeare illustrates with a tale of rock and roll excess: "A few years ago, the Rolling Stones were going on tour. They hired a brilliant lighting designer to light the set, which filled two thirds of a football field. The only way he felt he could really explore a new, dynamic lighting design for this space was to mock it up in half-size scale in an aircraft hangar in London, and then to rent hundreds of these extraordinarily expensive robotic lighting instruments for months on end, to preprogram them in all their movements for the hour-and-a-half show." Some of this kind of work could now be done in computer simulation; and, as computing speeds increase, all lighting design exploration, on any scale, will be done in simulation. Shakespeare's early work with Radiance had him tackling some sizeable real-world projects as a lighting consultant, including the lighting of the Tsing-Ma suspension bridge in Hong Kong, at the time the largest structure of its kind in the world. What he produced, with the help of IU's twenty-processor computer, was one of the largest photoaccurate simulations anyone had yet attempted. And it wasn't ivory-tower doodling: choices were made based on the consequences.
Even the smallest of staged productions can benefit from photoaccurate visualization. This storyboard from the IU Theatre spring production of the Peer Panel was presented weeks before the first rehearsal, enabling the creative team to accurately preview and evaluate the production's visual impact. Note the differing times of day and mood changes depicted in the top four pictures. The pictures are physically based simulations incorporating stage lighting photometry, gel colors, and surfaces measured at the IU Theatre Computer Visualization Center. --credit
"Because of the accuracy of the data we put in and the accuracy of the algorithms, the pictures were predictive, and all involved were very satisfied," Shakespeare says. "I had to predict what it would look like four years before it was opened, and there's no way to mock-up the effect of light on the proposed structure in one of the world's busiest harbors. You can't shut the harbor down for a night while you try to see if the pilots who are steering these boats are mistaking your lighting mock-up for navigational aids. Simulation was the way to test those ideas."
Radiance and its user interfaces are emerging as the tools of the future, which makes the Theatre Computer Visualization Center's presence at IU especially fortunate. Students of theatre, interior design, architecture, fine art, or any discipline involving the use of light can acquire the skills for a brand new methodology as undergraduates. "Last semester we were looking at lighting the Washington Monument or the Statue of Liberty," Shakespeare recalls. "Well, it's impractical to go out and do that, or to have a little plastic model in a room and shine flashlights on it. But we can do it in simulation, with measured photometry and the right data sets."
The future promises some ground-breaking developments. With robotic lighting instruments becoming increasingly common, the prospect of a fully integrated theatre space, with in-house simulation programs sending commands directly to lighting and sound systems, is not far off.Indeed, "talking to light," instead of the current system of manual interfaces, is a concept that is gaining ground. "You could use a video picture as your addressing system," Shakespeare says, outlining some of the newest ideas in media technology. Already TV networks have experimented in "remote virtual interaction," in which two or more actors in different cities share the same performance space, and a set is generated from a third location. So if the product is a high-definition television picture, Shakespeare says, "Why don't we talk to the technology in those studios and that synthetic scenery through the end-product picture? Currently there is no automated synchronization between the physical lighting of actors and scenic elements in remote TV studios with the pseudo illumination of the virtual set that surrounds them. This situation poses many interesting challenges, which my lab is ready to explore." Shakespeare has just received a Fulbright Award, enabling him to travel to Helsinki for the 1999-2000 academic year, where he will pursue some of these ideas at the new Finnish Center for Media Research and Development.
The current climate is right for such new ideas to find wide acceptance; the computer has been fully integrated into the home and the office, and therefore into the popular mind. Shakespeare remembers that, when he began making presentations on computer visualization in the early '90s, there was "a feeling of ÔRob is working out there on the high end, out in blue sky compared with the rest of us.'" But that was before the PC revolution. "Now, if I'm giving a presentation, I take a computer that's probably slower than what many of them have on their desktops. I'm simply showing other ways to use a resource that they've become very comfortable with."
As computing technology becomes ever more accessible, so the age-old distinction between the arts and sciences is crumbling. Collaboration across disciplines is becoming more common, and some tools developed through Radiance will eventually have a wealth of different applications, from meteorology to medical imaging. These ideas are shaping the path to the future. Rob Shakespeare is ensuring that this path will be well lit.
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