November 2014

Virtual Reality is Here

Virtual Reality (VR) technology is going to introduce a new aesthetic to the theatrical experience.  It will be a little while yet, but it is coming.  Imagine watching a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar; but, instead of sitting in an auditorium watching actors on a stage or screen, you are standing five feet away from the Emperor when Brutus and the boys start stabbing him.  You are, first of all, physically close to violence and, secondly, you feel like you could reach out and pull Caesar out of harm's way.  Your breath quickens and your heart beat increases by half.  You can look behind you to see if anybody else is coming to help.  You can, in fact, turn a full 360 degrees, watching Roman politicins scattering in a panic.

Two weeks ago, while teaching an Acting for Animators class at Valve Software, a major videogame company (Half Life, Left 4 Dead, Dota 2) in Bellevue, Washington, I was treated to a demo tour of the studio's VR lab.  After half an hour immersed in Virtual Reality, I know how witnesses to Wilbur and Orville Wright's 1903 first-powered-flight felt.  The experience is difficult to describe because it is so visceral, but it is like you are being beamed down from Star Trek's Starship Enterprise!  One moment you are standing in a little room pulling a bulky, ugly black canvas-rubber-circuit panel headset over your eyes, then – flip a switch – you are suddenly standing precariously on a construction platform of a skyscraper mid-day, 15th floor, no railing.  You look down, and there is the street way down there, complete with ant-size people; look behind you and you can see directly through the construction site to the sky on the other side.  You have an intense impulse to sit down before you fall off.  You remind yourself that you are, in fact, still standing in a safe and secure little room, knowing full well that this is not happening.  Yet, what you see is playing tricks on your brain.  You could swear you feel a breeze because breezes accompany such high perches. My preconception about VR was that the visuals inside would be obviously digital and fake, like watching a game of Asteroids or Donkey Kong.  But the daylight is glinting off of metal beams and you can make out splinters in the flooring.  It looks and feels, well, real.  Virtually real.

SAG-AFTRA better get ready because union actors are going to need a different kind of contract once this thing gets going.  If I was a gambling man, I would estimate we will have actors playing scripted roles in VR movies within ten years. The technology is sophisticated enough to make my knees shake.  Add characters with a story, and theatre will  have a wholly new aesthetic.

VR is also going to hit education like a tidal wave.  Medical students are going to be taken inside the human heart to see plaque build-up at eye level. School children will be walking on virtual melting polar ice caps. In courtrooms, jury members will be watching VR crime re-enactments. Mark Zuckerberg recently paid $2 billion for Oculus, a start-up manufacturer of VR devices, and I have a strong hunch that Facebook "Friends" will soon be visiting with one another in virtual reality.  And just imagine the impact this will have on commerce!  Shoppers will be able to get up close and personal in VR showrooms, lifting the hood, sitting in the driver's seat.

I realize that I must sound like I have lost my mind.  This whole thing feels like sci-fi except that I have seen it myself, in reality, at Valve Software in Bellevue, Washington, two weeks ago.  It exists, and it is coming to stores and theatres near you. The headsets will be minaturized and Blue-Toothed, so the experience will be like slipping on a pair of sunglasses.  Imagine your local multiplex with seats but no screens.  VR headsets attached to the arm of each seat instead.

If you want to see my first VR experience, go to my Facebook page.  My host at Valve took a cellphone video of me with the head set on.  Yes, I look like an idiot.

"I've learned that many of the worst things lead to the best things, that no great thing is achieved without a couple of bad, bad things on the way to them, and that the bad things that happen to you bring, in some cases, the good things."        Mike Nichols (1931-2014)

Acting for Animators Workshop Schedule

February 9-13, Animex Int'l Festival of Animation and Computer Games, Teesside, England

April 10-12, Weekend with Animation Masters, London, England

April - May 2015,  China, Taiwan + more.  Developing.

May 5-8, FMX Conference on Amimation, Effects, Games and Transmedia, Stuttgart, Germany


Craft Notes:
"Show them how it will be..."

Producer Glen Larson died  in Los Angeles last week (Nov. 14th) at age 77.  I was fortunate to know him and to be one of the character actors in his go-to list.  It is no exaggeration to say that, without Glen Larson, I might not have had a Hollywood career at all, and his death brings a rush of memories, some of which may be instructive for my students and readers.  Let me tell you how I landed my first job with Glen, on the TV show The Fall Guy.  It was 1981, and the auditions were held on the 20th-Century Fox lot.   It was a typically high-pressure situation, me plus ten other actors that looked like my twins sitting in a waiting room while the casting director called us in one by one.  Most of those other guys had a lot more TV experience than me, which was in itself intimidating.  I had been in LA for four years at that point but still listed on my resume more New York stage credits than TV or film.  My competitors were mostly already routinely working Guest Star roles.  But I pretended not to notice, burying my head in the script sides.

The role - I forget the character's name -  was a guy behind the counter of rural small-town liquor store, and the action in my scene included me taking a Lee Majors knock-out punch to the jaw.  The only biographical background I had on the character was that he was a Viet Nam vet.  He talked non-stop, one of those annoying people who want to talk about anything at all, and don't know when to shut up.  That is what led to the knock-out punch.  Lee was knocking me out for my own good, to protect me from the episode's bad-guy who was standing next to him and getting progressively angry at what I was saying.  When it was my turn to audition, I entered with the casting director. Typical of movie-lot offices, the place looked more like a living room than an office, complete with sofas and a big coffee table. Half a dozen men  were lounging around when I entered, flipping through stacks of 8x10 glossies, and I waved and greeted everybody.  They mumbled amiably in my direction, and the audition began.

It didn't go well.  I read the scene as if Arthur Miller had written it, trying to make my character as smart as I could.  Like I say, there were a lot of lines for a one-day role, and I justified every one of them.  After I finished, there was silence in the room and the auditors looked at one another.  One of them, who I would later learn was Glen Larson, said, "Did we write that?"  They assured him that they had indeed written it, even as awful as it was.  In that moment, my career turned a corner.  I knew from past auditions that the next words I would hear would be a polite and perfunctory, "Thanks very much.  Appreciate you coming in."  Something snapped inside me that roughly equated to a survival mode.  "Listen," I said, "Would you mind if I improv on the scene a little?  Do it again?"  The men deferred to the guy who was Glen who said, "Sure, go ahead. Do whatever you want." This kind of thing makes casting directors nervous because the actor is suddenly in charge of the room.  I admit that I enjoyed the sensation.

I tossed the sides on the coffee table, faced the casting director and made a bold acting choice, totally opposite of what I had done the first time.  Instead of justifying every line a la Death of a Salesman, I played it as a recluse basket case.  I added lines, chatted away with the casting director, who did not have a clue where I was going with this.  I took the one thing I knew about the character, being a Vietnam vet, and amplified it.  I decided I was working at a small town liquor store because I was too screwed up by Vietnam to be functional in civilized society.  I babbled on and made no sense at all, suddenly unable to make eye contact with other humans.  Somewhere mid-scene, I became aware that the men on the sofa were almost weeping with laughter, literally slapping their knees.  It crossed my mind that maybe I had gone too far, but it was too late to turn back now.  The casting director had given up all attempts to interact with me. Then, suddenly, it was all over and the room fell silent.  Glen wiped tears from his eyes, picked up a script and handed it to me.  "Yeah, that's it!  Do it like that!"  Still in a semi-shocked state of mind, I waved good-bye and returned to the waiting room, the casting director following behind me.  When we got out there, I asked her if there was going to be call-backs, and she said (...exact words, I'll never forget them), "No.  You got the part.  It's yours."

And that was how I got my first job for Glen Larson.  It also was the only time I ever had to audition for him.  During the following fifteen or so years, I worked a lot for him on various shows, and the drill was always the same.  My phone would suddenly start ringing off the hook:  "Glen Larson wants to know if you're available to go to Palm Springs (or Long Beach or Phoenix, whereever...) next week.  He's doing a pilot, and he has a role for you."  A short time later, the wardrobe department would call.   Half the time, I didn't even know what role I was playing until the wardrobe person called.  It was a wild experience.

Ours is an industry of relationships, and there is no "right" way for those relationships to be formed.  For me, it happened because I tossed caution out the window in an audition at 20th-Century Fox, in front of one of television's busiest producers.  Instead of trying to be what I thought they wanted to see, I showed them how the role would play if they cast me.  It is a practical lesson that you can take to the bank.

Glen's shows were never nominated for Emmy's.  Most of them were built around ideas that had previously shown up in feature films.  No matter.  They were immensely popular with the TV audience and, thanks to Glen Larson, I got to be a familiar face.  Ours is an industry built on relationships, and there is no "right" way to create them.  The take-away acting lesson from my experience is, "At an audition, do not try to be what you think they want to see.  Show them how it will be if they cast you."

RIP, Glen Larson.  With gratitude.

Until next month...

Be safe!

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