The moment of truth…

Filed under:Visualisation — posted by Hugh Denard on February 7, 2011 @ 6:31 pm

All the archival research, discussions and journeys have been leading up to this: the modelling of the Theatre.

I met up with Niall Ó hOisín again this morning at the now, newly-refurbished, NOHO offices (nice job!). I’m particularly lucky it’s going to be Niall himself, the founder of NOHO (did the name give it away?), who’s going to work on the project. I have to say, it’s fantastic to find someone to collaborate with who is every bit as crazy about the Old Abbey Theatre project as I am!

We ran through the scope, methodology and schedule of the project, before getting down to the nuts and bolts of reviewing and interpreting the sources for the 1904 theatre, which are several, and complicated.

Let me outline the plan here, and I’ll blog the discussion of sources separately.

We’ve only a short time-span and limited funds for the project (this phase of it, at least), and my primary focus is on what avenues of theatre-historical exploration we can open up by modelling and exploring performance and spectatorship in the Old Abbey Theatre, so we’re going to concentrate on the Auditorium and Stage only of the Theatre, trying to model it as closely as possible to its state on its opening night, 27th December 1904.

Keeping in mind, as always, the London Charter‘s precepts on documentation, Niall will create three versions of the model:

  1. Forensic Massing Model (FMM): this model will be a reconstruction of the architecture, but not surface textures, of the auditorium and stage. It will include stairs, doors, windows, seating, ceiling, fittings for lighting and heating, and the position of the paintings and other decorative features that were hung within the auditorium. Unfortunately, there will be conflicts and gaps in our information. To give just two examples: we already know that it’s proving difficult to pin down details of the original ceiling; and there’s also a troublesome window high above the left-hand gallery that appears in some sources but not in others. The FMM will therefore use a “traffic lights” system, using green, amber and red to make it easy for viewers to distinguish between “known”, “probable” and “speculative” elements in the model.
  2. Artists’ Impression (AI): again, a full architectural reconstruction, but this time also restoring as accurately as possible the surface textures of the space, from the colour of paint on the walls, to the materials and textiles used in the columns, railings, floors, seating, curtains etc. The purpose of this model is to allow us to experience as close a simulation as evidence permits of the full spatial-visual array that the Theatre presented to both actors and spectators from 27th December 1904. This version of the model will be used when, in the summer, we come to populate the theatre with animated virtual figures in an attempt to discover how far we can recreate the “Playboy” riots of 1907.
  3. Forensic Textured Model (FTM): this final version will combine the approaches used in the FMM and the AI, overlaying textures AI with semi-transparent colour shading, so that viewers will be able to see, at a glance, the levels of confidence we have in our restoration of surface information (colours, materials, textiles etc.).

We need to keep the door open for future edits or additions to the model should resources become available, and we also have to ensure that the models have a reasonable chance of surviving beyond the lifespan of the project (see the London Charter on sustainability), so NOHO is going to deliver the digital models in three industry-standard file formats:

  • XSI (the native format of Autodesk’s Softimage software, which NOHO will be using for this project)
  • 3DS (the format of files for 3d Studio Max, another industry-standard 3d modelling software package by Autodesk)
  • OBJ (an almost universally-accepted format for 3d graphics).

In addition to the three versions of the model, Niall will render still images of selected viewpoints of each of the models, which we can publish on the website and even in print, when the time comes. And, finally, he’ll export the complete AI model into the Metropolis real-time engine, so that Carol O’Sullivan’s summer-time intern can develop virtual characters for it.

There are several additional bits of visualisation we’d love to do, to help to contextualise the models and also to explore the experience of 1904 audience members, depending on whether they were bound for the Stalls, Gallery or the “cheap seats” in the Pit. That would involve modelling the entire architectural layout of the Theater: it’s famous Vestibule on Marlborough Street, as well as the Lower Abbey Street entrance to the Pit. And we could also learn a great deal from attempting to model the backstage areas, including the Green Room and workshop.

It would also be helpful for people more familiar with the new Abbey to superimpose models of the old and new theatres onto each other on the 1907 Ordnance Survey map of the area, which I’ll hopefully be able to acquire tomorrow afternoon when I meet Trinity Map Librarian, Paul Ferguson at the Glucksman Map Library. (Back in my – surprisingly not entirely misspent – youth, I spent one long, sweaty, student summer extracting dirty, heavy, waxed bundles of OS maps from the basement of No.6 Front Square and carting them down to the Map Library, then in the “Science end” of College, where, under Paul’s kindly, watchful eye, we straightened and sorted them. Ah, them were the days!)

However, if we do have any time to spare, we’re going to prioritise putting onto the stage some scenery and three-dimensionalised photographs of Abbey actors in costume, to give a sense of its scale, and to see how the visual style of the plays worked in the Theatre for which they were written. An obvious choice would be the 1907 Playboy of the Western World, but we’ll see what we have best evidence for.

I was going to blog about how we’re going to organize and capture the modelling process, but this entry is far too long as it is, so that’ll have to wait another day.


  1. Hi Hugh, great to read this. I’d love to see how a model like this is actually made, but perhaps another time. Did you say before that the model would be available on Theatron in Second Life?
    Different: would there be various lighting versions (house lights up before performance, during performance, during riot – if different – and if there is info)?

    Comment by Ildi Solti — February 8, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

  2. Yes, once we have the model safe and sound in all three formats, we’ll be able to bring it into Second Life (or Open Simulator?) without too much difficulty (though the texturing will have to be re-done “in world”). That phase, though, is going to have to wait until I’m back in London and can work more closely with Drew Baker, the SL wizard in our King’s Visualisation Lab team.
    For lighting in the early Abbey, see the earlier blog entry, Meeting Zia Holly:

    Comment by Hugh Denard — February 8, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

  3. Oh, yes, actors generously doing lighting, backstage, etc – why is that so familiar to me? What I meant was that the implications of lighting having been used for the bare functional reasons, not bothering with creating its own effects, plus the size of the total interior (smallish), together with the occasional ‘flooding of the stage with amber light’ (how much of it can be assumed to ‘spill’ into auditorium?) – whether, taken together, these could amount to much less separation between ‘imaginative’ and ‘actual’ realities, between stage and audience, as we usually have it today. Plus no footlights. What I’m thinking of is possible factors encouraging audience-audience-actor interaction, of people more easily assuming, perhaps, that the joke is on them, and, maybe, the odd rioting..? Precisely the kind of thing on which it’s next to impossible to do a thought experiment, so much appreciating your travails…
    Re the SL model – can’t wait.

    Comment by Ildi Solti — February 8, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

  4. A couple of days after I posted this blog entry, I met Cillian Byrne, a talented final-year student of Ancient History and Archaeology at Trinity, who was writing his dissertation on the use of 3d modelling in archaeology, using the gate of a Roman fort at Arbeia (South Sheilds, Tyne and Wear) as his test study. I pointed him in the direction of the London Charter, but also the “traffic lights” idea I’d just blogged about. He thought this was a great idea, and to my delight asked if he might implement it in his own project. The results are terrific! Have a look at his website: where he publishes the full text of his dissertation, together with his interactive 3d models. Great work, Cillian!

    Comment by Hugh Denard — March 24, 2011 @ 4:43 pm

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image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace