Innovation in the theater world ordinarily occurs in relatively small increments. One little thing gets changed, and then another, until finally something noticeably different emerges. Occasionally, however, a paradigm shift occurs all at once, and a new mode comes into being that doesn’t resemble anything that came before it. The Great War, which will be presented by USCB’s Arts and Lectures at Campbell Hall on Saturday, April 25, and Sunday, April 26, represents one such quantum leap. Although Hotel Modern, the Rottderam-based company responsible for The Great War, does not claim to have invented the genre they refer to as “live animation film,” they have taken it to unprecedented levels of surprise, intensity, and original vision. When I spoke with Hotel Modern’s Pauline Kalker by phone last week, she described the process as one of evolution, but also admitted that the end result has become something bold and remarkably distinct.
Before going further into the history of this new medium of live animation film, it will be useful to describe it as practiced by this company. The artists of Hotel Modern work together at a large table covered with small props, from bits of turf and twigs to toy soldiers, model trains, and the bristles from ordinary push brooms. Together they manipulate these elements in front of a closed circuit video camera that projects images of what’s happening on the table from eye level. The elements are placed, dragged, and dropped in real time by actors who are visible from the audience, but their focus is on creating an end result that’s primarily legible through the big screen. Despite the frequent appearance of the performer’s fingers within the frame, due to a close adherence in the mise en scene to the language of cinema, what the audience experiences is quite seamless. These little towns and country lanes feel like a real place, and, when troops arrive and begin firing their tiny guns, the little village on the table conveys the Great War on the screen very effectively. In addition to manipulating the scenery and figures for the camera, Hotel Modern deploys a pre-recorded soundtrack of actors reading actual letters written by eyewitnesses to World War I. Sound effects are also crucial to the overall impact of the work, and these are created live, by means of the same ‘foley’ techniques often used in conventional film production.
What Pauline Kalker said about the experience of working in this way shed an interesting light on the nature of theatrical illusion. “When we first started working this way, we didn’t use the camera,” she said. Then, when the company realized that the closed circuit projection could amplify their technique so dramatically, they began to reimagine what their subjects might be. “In one show we built a huge model of a skyscraper” said Kalker, “and from there we found out that we could build a whole city on stage. That led us to understand that in this medium, a city could become like a character.” The excitement mounted as Hotel Modern moved further into this new world, discovering that, in Kalker’s words, “with the addition of the camera, we began to use the technique for really big stories, with submarines, burning houses, and other spectacular effects. In film you expect this kind of thing, but when you see it created live by a group of people who are on stage, it’s a great surprise.”
The Great War will be at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Saturday, April 25, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 26, at 2 p.m. For tickets and information, visit arstandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu or call 893-3535.