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Live Theatre, Meet Holograms

Director Adam Donen and his team spent three years creating 450 holographic performers who explore the role of the First World War in the present.​​

Major theatrical productions typically only tour the world's major capitals. But one director wants to swap a cast of flesh-and-blood actors with holograms so he can bring his play to smaller, obscure venues in the UK more easily.

"I wanted to create an epic work that brought together the world's finest performers and that wasn't confined to the world's major capitals," Adam Donen, director of Symphony to a Lost Generation, a theatre production composed of 450 holographic actors, told me.


Donen spent the last three years preparing Symphony to a Lost Generation—currently touring the UK—which explores the role of the First World War in the present.

To make his cast of 450 holographic performers, Donen enlisted the help of famous ballerina duo Sergei Polunin and Natalia Osipova, the Vienna Philharmonic Choir and the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra, and a bunch of extras. The production team built a large green screen studio in a former banqueting hall in north London, and filmed all the scenes and actors separately.

A green screen studio allows directors to film characters against a green backdrop, then superimpose them onto other physical or digitally-created backdrops. After this process was complete, the team converted the banqueting hall into a theatre, and edited the holograms in 3D on a canvas that was roughly 10 metres by 5 metres.

"This technique is like doing photoshop in real time," said Donen, explaining how the team augmented the redness of a dress in one scene and the intensity of a fire in another for dramatic effect. "We don't need the live people as we created a world where everybody appears to be there, but nobody is."

Donen said that the use of holograms allowed him to achieve things that would never be possible logistically in real life. The play does, for example, mash together Bollywood actors, Ukrainian ballerinas, and Austrian orchestras, for your cacaphonic viewing pleasure.


But while holographic productions might transcend the bounds of time and space, Donen admitted that the team had faced certain technical challenges. For instance, the amount of processing required to conjure the many frames composing the visual effects worlds requires a lot of computer power.

"We had a whole back room full of very hot computer servers busy churning out footage," said Donen. He added that the production had an "uninterruptible power supply" in case of any energy shortages or sudden power outages.

While Donen's production might be the first to feature this many holograms on stage, holographic performers aren't exactly a new trend; it's actually a pretty crowded scene. In the past, infamous rapper Tupac was temporarily resurrected at desert festival Coachella to dubious effect, hologram crowds have protested in Spain, and one of Japan's most famous pop stars started out life as a hologram.

With regards to holograms in theatre, Donen is convinced he's onto something new.

"I believe that this is an entirely new dramatic form; It's not theatre and it's not film," he said. "My hope is that other people will do this, and that the form will develop its own grammar."