Spectacles of shadow: Fellows Friday with Christine Marie

Imagine 20-foot-tall shadows — animated by live performers — that pop out right next to you. TED Fellow Christine Marie creates an immersive, experimental theater of shadows that layers textured, colored light into wordless storytelling. But while her productions involve 3D stereoscopic effects and feel amazingly cinematic, it’s all done without the aid of computers or projectors.

As her most recent production, 4 TRAINS/Signaling Arcana, opens this weekend at Z-Space in San Francisco, California, the TED Blog reached out to Marie to talk about how she’s reinvented old stereoscopic technology and merged it with her knowledge of filmmaking and traditional Indonesian puppetry to create something utterly unique.

Describe how your shadow theatre productions work.

This will be my fourth original production where I take multiple large screens and create a concave, visually immersive experience for the audience. One description I’ve been using is “primordial 3D IMAX,” because there’s 3D, it’s high spectacle, it’s cinematic — but it’s all created non-digitally. No computers, and no projectors.

I hand-make all of the lights myself — small halogen lights — and in this production we use up to 10. There’s a really intricate choreography of people behind the screens casting shadows of their bodies and objects they hold. We cross-dissolve between the different lights. So we’re setting up one shot on one, and then going to light two, and then light three, and so on. The performers are behind the screen, and the audience is on the other side, we’re both front projecting and rear projecting. I like the audience to see a bit of the mechanism in plain view so they know it’s not another projected experience, like television or film or a billboard — screens that emit light at us. The theory is that the shadow is what’s drawing us in. I feel it’s much more physiologically interactive when our own eyes have to complete the information that’s not there.

The storytelling is like that as well. It’s all done with no dialogue, no language — it is set to beautiful live music. This show has piano and cello. Composer Dan Cantrell played with Tom Waits, Joanna Newsome and the San Francisco symphony. Also playing live is cellist Alex Kelley and a sound designer who’s creating a surround sound design that moves throughout the theater.


How do you generate 3D shadows?

Halfway through the play, there’s a dream sequence, and many of the images that we’ve seen come back, but this time the audience puts on 3D viewers, and 20-foot giant shadow images pop out at them! We do this with an age-old technology called the stereograph, created in the 1900s. I’m basically using the same technology, but I’m the first person to create the shadows up to 40-feet tall. My 3D shadow light is a small light that you can put any object in front of, and the cast shadow of it pops out into cubic space, into the Z axis.

I’ve seen people reaching out and ducking from the 3D shadow. I’ve never seen anyone do that while watching a 3D film. I feel that the homemade 3D is much more impactful. There is built in motion tracking. While you have the glasses on, anywhere you’re sitting in the audience, the shadow is going to come right at you.

It’s also very intimate. The image is so close to you, it’s an individual experience you don’t get in other performance based work. I’m still sort of mining for meaning in the 3D shadow, and the ways in which I can keep expanding on it throughout my work.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>