MassMoCA and Jedediah Wheeler

Robert Wilson: Computer Animation

Philip Glass: Poetry of Rumi

Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company

Kleiser Bio

Monsters of Grace

Critical Reaction

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.

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MassMoCA and Jedediah Wheeler

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 (

"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


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Robert Wilson: Computer Animation

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."

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Philip Glass: Poetry of Rumi

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."

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Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company

"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 (

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.

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Kleiser Bio

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


and Manhattan.

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Monsters of Grace

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

the auditorium.

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

North America.

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.

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Critical Reaction

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


becomes jaded."

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

Monsters of Grace, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-683-8000. $32 & $35. Saturday, February 6, 9 p.m.;


February 7, 2 p.m.

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