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NewsSep 14, 2022

VFX takes ‘Cosmic Cowboy’ opera out of this world

Lesley students, faculty create live action 3D for theater production

A CGI eye in a dark sky
"Cosmic Cowboy" characters Tia and Marduk chase each other through space.

Family drama takes on mythic and intergalactic proportions in the sci-fi space opera “Cosmic Cowboy,” a production that pushes the boundaries of technology with the help of students from our College of Art and Design.

“Cosmic Cowboy,” which debuts Friday at the Paramount Theater, is the product of years of collaboration between our College of Art and Design and White Snake, an “activist opera company” headed by Cerise Lim Jacobs. Based on an ancient creation story, the play spans eons and locales from Plymouth Rock to outer space as an incestuous love affair sparks jealousy and revenge.

“The characters and environments created by the students enhance the traditional stage performances and set design by providing an additional layer of visual elements projected onto a large see-through curtain at the front of the stage,” says VFX artist and Design Professor Curvin Huber.

Lesley students spent a year developing the visuals that will be projected during the production, which goes beyond traditional film and video game design applications.

Theater stage with people and a backdrop
"Cosmic Cowboy" director Sam Helfrich gives direction on the stage.

“It teaches the students that they don’t have to only think they can only go into film animation or game design,” says Huber. “There are so many other industries that they can use their skills in.”

Huber began working with Jacobs while on the faculty at Becker College. When that school closed in 2021, he became a core faculty member at the College of Art and Design, working in our VFX department.

Under Huber’s direction, VFX and animation students created the visuals and avatars for “Cosmic Cowboy” during a course at Lesley. Six students in that course were selected for a paid summer internship to continue the work.

Starting with Jacobs’ script and guidelines, they created models of the characters, later fleshing them out into 3D images and animating them.

Cosmic Cowboy back of theater photo with lots of screens and equipment
Visual effects are controlled from the back of the theater and will change based on the singer's movements.

One member of the production team, Paola Almonte, animated three characters for a total of 7 minutes for the finale.

"Working as an intern, the hardest challenge was working with arm and hand gestures for the human, due to controlling each finger and saving the poses, making Tia fly and dance like a ballerina," she says. "I had to keep in mind they are in space, so I had to change certain animation, like making jumps higher due to (lesser) gravity.

"This has been a huge learning experience for me and I am grateful."

The CGI projection they created will be used for approximately 15 minutes in the two-hour opera, and as with any live production, no two performances will be the same. The animations developed at Lesley were designed to respond to the cast members. iPhones will track the facial movements of the singers as they perform, and that information will be translated into avatars projected above the stage.

“The digital content is changing depending on what they do on stage,” explains Huber, who is also director of innovation at White Snake. “We can feed things into the system and have it update while the performance is happening.”

The opportunity to get “real production experience,” is invaluable for students, he says.

“It puts them into an applicable environment. That’s the most important thing.”

“Cosmic Cowboy” performances are Sept. 16 and 17 at 7:30 pm and Sept. 18 at 3 pm.at Paramount Theater, 559 Washington St, Boston. For more information and tickets, visit www.whitesnakeprojects.org. Students can get free tickets by putting $0 at checkout.

Lesley graduates and students who worked on the project include:

Matt Stratoti - VFX Artist and Tech Artist

Ksenia Novikova - 3D Modeler

Paola Almonte - Character Animator

Eduardo Berganza - Tech Artist

Noelle Duffy - Character Animator

Lucas Fanjoy - Storyboard Artist

Alexa Febles Rodriguez - 3D Modeler

Sia Hallie - Digital Sound Artist

Tyler Higgins - Storyboard Artist

Makana Wrightington - Character Animator

Siana DiGregorio - Character Animator