Corrections or additions?
`Monsters:’ 3-D & Digital
This article by Nicole Plett
was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
February 3, 1999. All rights reserved.
It all began with a 50-foot-high human foot that would
eventually make its impossibly slow way across the scene in the new
Robert Wilson and Philip Glass opera, "Monsters of Grace."
Producer Jedediah Wheeler was meeting with Jeff Kleiser and Diana
Walczak to talk about a Wilson-Glass work-in-progress, their first
collaboration in the more than 20 years since their now classic
"Einstein on the Beach." Wheeler, who had revived and launched
"Einstein" on its 20th anniversary world tour from McCarter
Theater in 1996, knew what traveling with Wilson’s big foot was likely
to entail. Too well he remembered how "Einstein" required
something like 250 crew-days — that’s a crew of 50 working for
five straight days — to set up at each tour stop.
As Jeff Kleiser tells it, in a recent phone interview, Wheeler had
come to tour the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA),
a new multi-use arts facility currently under development on the
site of a former electrical components factory in the Berkshires.
Kleiser, with his wife and partner, Diana Walczak, moved their
motion picture company, Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company (KWCC),
to MassMoCa in 1995 (http://www.kwcc.com).
"Jed Wheeler came up to visit the facilities and we showed him
some stereoscopic imagery that we were doing for a theme park,"
Kleiser recalls. "Jed explained his problem that Bob [Wilson]
and Phil [Glass] had conceived this new project that was even more
technologically difficult than `Einstein on the Beach.’ He talked
about how they were coming up with even more gargantuan effects —
for instance a 50-foot tall human foot that comes down on the right
side of the stage. You can imagine the expense of building such a
thing and transporting it around. So he asked if we could project
a large foot onto a screen. Then Diana proposed to do the whole thing
with computer animation — to get Bob out of the theatrical
Today Wilson is well and truly out of his "theatrical box."
Kleiser and Walczak created and directed the computer-animated film
that is "Monsters of Grace." The new opera tours with
and a traveling 70-millimeter stereoscopic projection system.
Billed as "a digital opera in three dimensions," "Monsters
of Grace" not only dispenses with narrative, but does away with
scenery and live actors as well. With a libretto of sung poetry by
the 13th-century Persian mystic Jalaluddin Rumi, it features live
music performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble and vocal soloists in
the pit, and on stage, a 70-millimeter film that the audience views
stereoscopically through polarized glasses much like the geeky
ones that endure as signature icons of 1950s pop culture. The opera
is at McCarter Theater on Saturday, February 6, at 9 p.m., and Sunday,
February 7, at 2 p.m.
"We’re not giving you puzzles to solve, only pictures to
explains Wilson, whose theatrical innovations over decades has made
his name mythic in theater circles here and abroad. Evidence of the
borrowings from Asian theater and puppetry that Wilson made in the
1970s, can be found today in Broadway’s "Lion King." "You
go to this opera like you go to a museum."
The sensual 13th-century poetry of Rumi, that became an unexpected
bestseller for translator Coleman Barks, was chosen by Glass to soften
what he feared would be the hard-edge effect of the animated film.
"I was a little apprehensive about the computer imagery being
too cold, and I wanted something passionate and human," Glass
explains. "Monsters of Grace" is scored for four live
voices, woodwinds, keyboards, Macintosh computers, MIDI interface,
and custom-designed samples of Middle Eastern string and percussion
instruments. (Coleman Barks was in Princeton in May, 1997, for a
of Rumi’s poetry at the University Chapel accompanied by dancer
and members of the Paul Winter Consort.)
Describing his collaboration with Wilson that spanned
three years, Glass says: "Since `Einstein on the Beach’ in ’76,
we have come together on several occasions to create new works, but
unlike those projects, with this present work, we have had a real
opportunity to sit together and engage in a new world of ideas. Of
course image, music, and structure are at the root of what we are
thinking. We are, moreover, addressing a challenge of new technology
and its impact on a developing artistic view."
"These are two very different worlds reaching out to each
observes Kleiser, who lustily tells the story of how unknown each
world was to the other. Having sold the artists on the idea, they
were bound to present the work in performance in Los Angeles about
six months hence. Looking back KWCC estimates that, if this had been
a commercial project, it would have required $10 million and three
years production time.
"`Monsters of Grace’ is unique for us because we have an
to work with a great theatrical designer and help expand his ideas
into a powerful new medium; a medium that gives him complete freedom
to stage his vision in a way that would be impossible on any stage.
The limitless capability of digital techniques for image creation
make for an amazing playground for Robert Wilson to explore,"
says Kleiser (http://www.extremetaste.com).
Ironically, the "Monsters" running time of 70 minutes may
qualify as the longest digital film in history — but hardly rivals
the Wilson/Glass team’s four-and-a-half-hour "Einstein on the
Beach." One of the little-known contradictions of today’s
high-speed digital age is that constructing pictures by computer is
almost as slow and painstaking a task as asking medieval scribes to
copy an illuminated manuscript. "In the theater, you can just
tell some actors what to do it and they do," says Kleiser.
us [changing a facial expression] represents three or four months
of hard labor."
Kleiser learned of his time bind after work one afternoon. "Philip
sent me a CD of a music rehearsal of the 13 scenes," he recalled,
"so I put it on in my car when I left the Hollywood studio to
drive down to Santa Monica. Forty-five minutes later I was still
— and the CD was still playing! And I’m asking myself, `How am
I going to fill all this with stereoscopic film — two reels, one
for each eye — in less than a year? It got to me."
Kleiser explains the challenge: "One frame of `Monsters of Grace’
consists of 2,000 horizontal lines of resolution, equivalent to 16
television sets (with 480 lines of resolution each) stacked into a
rectangle. It might take a high-speed computer 30 or 40 minutes to
calculate an image. We have 200,000 individual frames in the 70-minute
film, so it would take a single computer 10 years to perform the
As an arts project, KWCC sought support from manufacturers and vendors
to work on a non-commercial budget. "Fortunately we were able
to get Silicon Graphics to support the project," says Kleiser.
Kleiser, 44, began his career in computer animation
in 1974 at Colgate University where he directed short films and
while earning his degree in computer graphics. After a brief stint
working with holograms, he co-founded Digital Effects, the first
animation company in New York City, where he worked for the first
photographically animated sci-fi feature, "Tron," and as an
optical effects cameraman and editor.
He married Walczak, who studied engineering and computer science at
Boston University before graduating with a degree in sculpture. The
pair started their company in 1985, with Walczak responsible for the
sculptural models that serve as the foundation for some of the
The company has provided the computer-generated imagery for
Kombat Annihilation," "Stargate," "Clear and Present
Danger," including a stunt double for Sylvester Stallone in the
1995 adventure film, "Judge Dredd." It also produces
commercials from Michelin tires to Kenner Star Wars toys. In addition
to its Massachusetts headquarters, the company has studios in
We asked Kleiser how "Monsters of Grace" differed in any way
from the array of credits on the company resume. "It’s
different," is his immediate response. "The work we’ve been
doing in the past has been feature film, special effects, and now
theme parks." A KWCC ride film, "The Adventures of
is due to open at the Universal Studios Florida theme park this
Its fast-moving, spinning ride sends riders hurtling through acres
of sets and into the vortex of a super-hero battle raging in the New
York City streets.
"These are high-end computer-animated characters, and every scene
makes use of 3-D for an assault on the senses of the passengers on
a ride," says Kleiser. "It’s four minutes of jarring,
action adventure. `Monsters of Grace’ is exactly the opposite.
"It’s very, very low budget, 70 minutes long, and, following
sense of esthetics, everything moves at an extraordinarily slow pace.
It’s more like a dream space that people can use to go off in any
number of directions mentally. he’s not trying to say anything to
his audience, he’s trying to provide a place where his audience can
go to in their psyche."
The mystery of Wilson’s 13 evocative, dreamlike scenes, each of which
unfolds at a slow, attenuated pace, includes a couple standing atop
their two-story, white clapboard house as it floats down river —
past a jungle, a city, an iceberg — and out to sea. In another
scene, a child on a bicycle rides out of the night directly toward
the viewer, and a small songbird flies slowly across the middle of
One of the more shocking scenes opens with a twisted pair of red and
blue tubes, pulsing with blood, that snake across a table and into
an enormous severed — but living — hand. To the audience,
it appears as if the hand is reaching out to them. As they watch its
graceful, slow-moving progress a scalpel comes down and makes an
across the palm, when a blade from nowhere slices the hand (Wilson’s
homage to Luis Bunuel’s pioneering surrealist film, "Un Chien
"The 13 scenes do not necessarily relate to each other,"
reminds us, "although there are some common themes, such as man,
woman, and child, and structure that has to do with how far away
appear to float." Says Walczak: "Adding a new dimension in
theater-space is the most exciting aspect of the project; visual
will at times appear to be within arm’s reach of the viewer and at
other times as far as the eye can see."
At the scheduled premiere in Los Angeles in April, 1998, the opera
was billed as "Monsters of Grace 1.0" (computer-speak for
the first release). Eight completed film sequences were augmented
by five live action scenes. Since then "Monsters of Grace"
has embarked on a world tour that included London, Munich, Palermo,
Belfast, and Amsterdam, the film growing steadily all the time. The
completed version was first seen at the 10-day engagement at Brooklyn
Academy of Music in December. Capitalizing on the new portability
of their medium, the Princeton dates are part of a North American
tour that will take "Monsters" to cities and towns across
Every scene created for "Monsters of Grace"
had a team of at least three people working on it. Depending upon
the complexity of the scene, the entire process would take from 4
to 12 weeks. The company hired 20 animators to help them meet their
Once the art department finalized the storyboards designed by Robert
Wilson, a modeler was assigned to "build" the elements of
the scene using the computer software tools most suited for the task.
The completed models were then handed over to an animator who
and executed the desired action within the scene.
Lighting proved to be the key to bringing Wilson’s inimical stage
vision to film. Kleiser says his team worked closely with lighting
technicians to understand the esthetic enough to try to reproduce
it on film. The challenge was to light the scene as though it were
a traditionally staged scene — or at least a scene on a proscenium
stage lighted within Wilson’s unique esthetic.
Theater and music critics, while crediting the show with its
advances, have been more reserved about how "Monsters of
measures up against Wilson’s best work. David Littlejohn of the Wall
Street Journal writes: "On the whole, I would rather listen to
the CD, when it comes out, than sit through the theater piece again.
It runs just 70 minutes, but the close-range focusing required for
the 3-D portions can be headaching."
But in the Christian Science Monitor, David Sterritt describes
of Grace" as "an extraordinarily imaginative and abashedly
beautiful evening in which delicate, occasionally unsettling images
play in rich counterpoint against a pulsing, unpredictable score."
Is 3-D or virtual reality something the public craves or is it
that computer wizards want to play with, we ask Kleiser.
"When 3-D movies came out in the ’50s there were technical reasons
why people didn’t enjoy them as much as they might have,170 he says.
"The optical distortion is different in the right and left eye
and the brain, when trying to equalize difference, makes the eyes
tired. It’s called optical fatigue. So there’s a real optical reason
people weren’t comfortable. The subject matter was all `golly gee,’
in-your-face." But today’s better projection systems have changed
the industry, says Kleiser, adding that "Monsters of Grace"
uses these techniques for a "completely different set of
"Having the right and left images on two pieces of 70-millimeter
film gives a much bigger, brighter, flatter images and with computer
animation you don’t have any optical distortion, they can be precisely
aligned so there’s no fatigue." These left and right eye images
are projected through polarized filters, with corresponding polarized
lenses in the viewer’s 3-D glasses.
"It’s very exciting that Hollywood is embracing computer graphics
as a feature-length medium," says Kleiser. "There’s been an
explosion of computer animation in the ’90s, but the bar has been
raised every year in terms of visual complexity, and the public
Thus, at the same time that Universal Studios launches its massive
TV and print media blitz to promote "The Adventures of
in Orlando, an audience of vastly different interests will be seated
in McCarter Theater. And we’ll all be wearing 3-D glasses.
— Nicole Plett
Place, 609-683-8000. $32 & $35. Saturday, February 6, 9 p.m.;
February 7, 2 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.