July 22, 2015

The Met’s Unreal Return of Adam

By Brian Sharon

Art can be very difficult to define. By nature it defies arrangement, taking many shapes and forms. Without structure, it’s limitless, bound only by the tools at hand and the creative ingenuity of those who wield them.

Yet some aspects of art are universally understood, standing the test of the ages. One such marvel is Tullio Lombardo’s profound sculpture, Adam. Created during the Renaissance era (1455–1532), the life-sized marble statue has been beloved for centuries, standing tall -- both literally and figuratively -- as one of the greatest pieces of its time.

Heralded as the flawless representation of humanity, Adam symbolized God’s perfect man. Yet, humanity is anything but flawless, and in 2002 Lombardo’s perfect man met with an imperfect fate, as the timeless wonder came crashing down to the floor of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. A wooden pedestal proved to be less timeless than the statute it held, turning Adam from whole to fragments in the matter of moments.

The loss weighed heavily not only on the museum -- known affectionately as “The Met” -- but throughout the art community. It seemed as though a piece of history had been lost forever.

Determined to atone for their role in the incident, the museum set out on a steadfast mission to restore the sculpture, returning it to its original appearance and form as closely as possible. Now, more than a decade later, Lombardo’s Adam is set to stand tall once again as The Metropolitan Museum of Art plans a thrilling revival fittingly titled The Return, combining traditional and digital media.

Adam Screenshot 1

Designed and directed by New Media Artis Reid Farrington, and commissioned by the live arts series Met Museum Presents, The Return utilizes IKinema’s LiveAction technology for Unreal Engine 4, blending digital animation with real-time performance capture to bring the history of Adam to life.

“This is one great example, and I’m sure IKinema and Epic Games will continue to play a

role in this highly creative field, “exclaimed IKinema Chief Executive Alexandre Pechev. “Bringing Adam to life has been extraordinary and ground-breaking work and we’re delighted that LiveAction and Unreal Engine 4 have been able to deliver the level of realism required.”

More than two years in development, the exhibit pushes the boundaries of digital interaction. With zero pre-recorded material, the entire performance is generated live, offering each visitor an experience that is personal and unique.

“My vision was to bring Adam to life in a believable and genuinely interactive way,” explained Farrington. “By using a motion-capture rig and IKinema LiveAction for Unreal Engine 4 to drive the animation in real time, I’ve been able to deliver the level of realism I wanted.”

Adam Screenshot 2

The exhibit contains an impressive 14 scenes of material that spans the length of two hours. Guests will interact with a ‘digital Adam’, as well as a museum ‘docent’ who leads them throughout the performance. Three pairs of performers will take the virtual stage, each trained to drive an intricate puppetry system that allows guests to speak directly to Adam, without having to actually perform during the full-day run of the exhibit.

“The ease with which we've been able use LiveAction to integrate real-time motion-capture data onto characters in the virtual environments in UE4 is what's made it possible for us to create this performance.” said animation design consultant Athomas Goldberg. “LiveAction has enabled us to seamlessly retarget the motion capture data from each of our performers onto the digital avatar, which was essential as we obviously can't go back and clean up the data in post.“

Goldberg’s resume includes 20 years of experience in interactive 3D animation, including time spent at Electronic Arts, and more recently Microsoft’s Black Tusk Studios (now The Coalition), making him an invaluable contributor to such an innovative project. Yet, it’s a deep-rooted history of lighting and production design for live music, theater and dance that made the The Return such a pleasure for him.

“It's always been a dream of mine to marry my passion for interactive animation and game technologies with my love for live performance, and with the release of UE4, it became apparent that this dream was finally within reach,” Golberg revealed.

Despite its larger-than-life ambitions, The Return is created by a team numbering less than a dozen, performers included. With the inclusion of several talented artists and creative technologists, Goldberg stood as the only member of the team with any previous experience with the demanding high-end, gaming-related technologies necessary to achieve the visual fidelity sought for the exhibit.

Thanks in part to the accessible nature of Unreal Engine 4, the inexperienced team was able to quickly begin creating content and putting together the performance of their dreams.

'UE4 enabled the art team to jump in quickly and start producing content and rehearsing ‘in-engine’ almost immediately,” began Goldberg. “A few years ago, a project of this scale would have required dozens of highly trained engineers and technical artists, and a budget orders of magnitude beyond what we had available.”

The Return is a unrivaled example of art and technology working hand-in-hand to surpass limits, destroy boundaries and expand horizons. Live performers working in real-time to reunite us with our history, allowing us to interact with our long-forgotten past. Though Adam may have fallen, he is, today, more alive than ever.