Glasschord’s Future Shock features Death & the Powers

Tod Machover shares his thoughts about “Death and the Powers” in Glasschord, a magazine of arts and culture founded by a community of emerging artists. The current issue is dedicated to artists confronting the future, certainly a theme that is central to DATP. In the opera, the opportunities and challenges of the future are explored through both the message and the medium.  “The integration of materials and experiences – within and beyond sound – in POWERS feels new in my work,” Tod writes, “and it is something that I will continue to pursue in my future projects.”

Read the full article.

Glasschord magazine is a gorgeous and provocative read, well worth exploring!


What’s up this week

SAGE Gateshead on the banks of the Tyne

Check out the updated official Death and the Powers website. We appreciate feedback!

Tod is on a whirlwind trip to Europe this week, giving talks and meeting with collaborators. He’s in Prague today (June 19), where he’ll be speaking about the production design and technology of Death and the Powers to audiences attending the Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space.

On June 21, he’ll be at the SAGE Gateshead in Newcastle, England, where his opera Skellig debuted in 2008. This time, he’ll be addressing delegates to the  European Concert Hall Organisation (ECHO) Digital Conference.

For the 23rd, Tod heads down to the south of France for the Cannes Lions Festival, which is billed as ” the world’s only truly global meeting place for creative professionals in the communications industry.” He’ll be part of a session on what the music industry can teach advertisers, sharing the stage with Check out Cannes Countdown: What Not to Miss This Year.

We keep coming across commentaries from people who saw or heard about Death and the Powers. Here’s one posted at high SCORE New Music Center: “The medium is the message in Tod Machover’s opera ‘Death and the Powers’. To quote: “In fact, the communication of the theme of this opera is heightened to the utmost by its highly technological delivery. A fine 21st century example of Canadian Philosopher Marshal McLuhan’s maxim ‘the medium is the message'(5). In fact, should ‘the System’ ever become reality, it may make use of innovations not unlike those developed by Peter Torpey, research assistant at MIT Media Lab and creator of ‘the System’ as it appeared on-stage.”

Designing Operabots

Alex McDowell, production designer for Death and the Powers, shared these notes with us detailing his experience working on the production design of Death and the Powers. We thought they were worth sharing. Thanks Alex!

DEATH & THE POWERS – designing operabots
Alex McDowell, March 9 2011

Alex McDowell

Death and the Powers was my first experience working with live theater. One of the differences that emerged between developing sophisticated visual ideas for film and doing the same for theater, is that in film there is a huge resource of special and visual effects – in other words the ability to create a fictional reality that is primarily animation in its most sophisticated expression. Sadly, perhaps, this has created in the audience an expectation of polish and flair in any vision of the future, however thin the underlying ideas often may be.

So when it comes to developing, say, a new robot, one cannot hope to ‘compete’ between this animated fiction and the possibilities of a practical live theater prop.

For this reason alone, it made good design sense rather to focus on supporting the text and performance with a designed group of metaphorical set pieces, whether chandelier, library wall (that transforms as a symbol from bookshelf, to computer mainframe, to DNA,  and is the primary expressive medium for Simon Powers), or robot – all as the System’s cellular extensions of Simon’s earth-bound abilities. As a result, Tod, Diane and I tended to lean towards a minimalist simplicity that could exploit what theater does best: the visceral, reactive, live-chaotic performance that would engage both human performers and audience.  This is not finally about the technology at all, but about the music, the performance and the meaning of the text.

As a designer one tries to use any constraints of a project as a driving force.  In film these constraints might be more about time than money (though it’s always about the budget). In my involvement in this opera, the joy of this collaboration was the amount of time we had to develop the piece together. The heavy constraints were budget and resources. The design and outcome of the robots ultimately developed from the way the Media Lab works, and each design decision I made came from the options and possibilities of working with Tod’s group and with Diane’s team’s theater experience.  Here we had a group of young people who have more engineering, programming and creative capability than many of the practitioners in Hollywood, joining in an unprecedented and fascinating interaction between a deeply experienced team of Diane’s theater collaborators from ART and in Broadway production.

The final outcome of our process led to the Lab team (led by Bob Hsiung and Mike Miller) creating an artisanal workshop to produce and manufacture the whole idiosyncratic group of robots, which ultimately gave more individual personality and identity to the Operabots than any translation of my initial design would have received in a Hollywood production system.

It was a wonderful learning experience for all of us, one that also injected me with more adrenaline and intellectual stimulation than many of the film projects I’ve designed!

Article: Alex McDowell on Death and the Powers

Check out “A Night at the High-Tech Opera,” an article at Animation World Network that delves into production designer Alex McDowell’s work on the set of Death and the Powers. In an extensive interview, Alex describes the origins of his role in the opera, how his concepts for the production design evolved over time, the nature of his collaboration with the M.I.T. Media Lab team and the artistic vision driving the development of the technology.


Simon Powers beckons Miranda to enter The System


Working on Death and the Powers “really opened [me] up,” McDowell is quoted as saying in the article. “There’s the whole art/science thing that John [Underkoffler, Media Lab graduate and data interface designer for Minority Report] and I have been doing for a long time. Media Lab’s right in the center of that conversation: they have artistic people who are great scientists and programmers and computer engineers. They are these multi-talented kids who don’t see a difference between one or the other, whereas in our industry, we’re going, ‘Well, this is art and this is science, and this is production and this is post,’ making all these silos and separations.”

Meet the Artists – Alex McDowell (Production Designer)

Alex McDowell

Alex McDowell is one of the most innovative and influential designers working in narrative media, with the impact of his ideas extending far beyond his background in cinema.  Alex advocates an immersive design process that acknowledges the key world-building role of design in storytelling. He currently serves as adjunct professor at the Interactive Media Department/School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California.

With Death and the Powers, Alex brings his considerable experience in film design and animatronics to the stage for the first time. The stage represents Simon Powers’ house, but this room will gradually reveal itself to be a vast, interconnected, intelligent system—Simon has turned himself into the room, or vice versa. To accomplish this effect, Alex and the Opera of the Future team at the MIT Media Lab designed a “robotic architecture” that appears to change its shape, undulating, vibrating, pulsating, or pounding. The System, programmed to create sculptural images, moving patterns, and even human-like gestures and expressions, will show the audience the disparate, fleeting thoughts and memories from Simon’s inner world. Just as Tod Machover’s Valis and Brain Opera completely changed the nature of live, interactive musical performance, we believe that Death and the Powers will launch a new era of opera production.

Here is an excerpt from Scene 7 of Death and the Powers, shot at rehearsal in Boston, August 2010. In this scene, Miranda and Nicholas feel Simon’s disembodied presence all around them in the System.

Alex trained as a painter in London in the seventies, then opened a graphic design firm where he built his reputation designing album covers for seminal groups in the London punk scene. He moved into production design for music videos and commercials, settled in Los Angeles in the mid-Eighties, and moved into film in 1990. Since then he has designed in cinema for directors as diverse as Steven Spielberg (The Terminal and Minority Report) and Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; and The Crow), Tim Burton (Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and David Fincher (Fight Club).

Alex most recently completed work as production designer for Warner Brothers recent release Watchmen, directed by Zack Snyder. He is also making his producing debut as a co-producer on the upcoming indie film Bunraku, starring Woody Harrelson, Ron Perlman and Josh Hartnett, for which he collaborated with director Guy Moshe on a new approach to story development using design and visualization tools.

With many awards for his film design work, Alex was named Royal Designer for Industry by the UK’s most prestigious design society, the Royal Society of Arts, in 2006.

Further reading

The Minority Report Blu-ray Future with Alex McDowell

TED Talk 2010Minority Report science adviser and inventor John Underkoffler (an M.I.T. Media Lab alumnus) demos g-speak — the real-life version of the film’s eye-popping, tai chi-meets-cyberspace computer interface.

Faculty profile at USC School of Cinematic Arts.