Live motion-capture theater performance mixes song and dentistry in hi-tech show that puts grins on faces
James Speck – an award winning animator and designer who has worked on Hollywood films in the past – is bringing real-time motion capture to Cambodia in a unique format in collaboration with local dental and health professionals.
My Dentist is Groovy (Teeth! The Story of Life) is an interactive art, music and theater experience that opens on May 21, 2022 at the Meta House German-Cambodian Cultural Center in the capital.
It was written and directed by Speck, an American who has been living in Southeast-Asia for the past 30 years.
Speck, 65, says that the show was directly inspired by his own experience undergoing periodontal surgery at the Roomchang Dental Hospital in Phnom Penh, which he characterized as “very positive.”
“Upon seeing my dental x-ray, I could clearly see my entire life story in front of me. Decades of dental care, decades of the story of my life – all right there on the x-ray,” Speck told The Post at a rehearsal recently. “And the other thing was my pleasant surprise at the excellent and affordable dental care available here in Cambodia.”
Inspired by the original show Call for Proposals from the Berliner Ensemble in Germany, Speck says his show expands on their concept and he hopes to schedule more performances of it both locally and internationally in 2022.
The tech Speck used for the show is real-time motion-capture software called Motionbuilder, which is published by Autodesk. Speck says that there are three parts of the show with aspects that introduce the audience to the new combination of art and technology that real-time motion-capture offers.
“The first is the Mental Dental Scan. Before the play starts, audience members can sit down in a real dental chair and see a live video of their face overlaid onto a 3D computer skull model,” Speck says. “The software picks up the face and voice of the viewer and displays the internal workings of their teeth and speech.”
He says that the original posters for the show also explain how software was used to create elements of the production, thus turning the process “inside-out” for the audience. These original prints will be on sale at the performances.
And then there’s the performance itself, a 45-minute live theater production of the original play My Dentist is Groovy (Teeth! The Story of Life), which is performed around a real dental chair.
“The main concepts of the play, which is based on traditional Khmer storytelling, are the Buddhist philosophy of ‘acceptance’ and the abstract ‘absurdist concepts’ of French author Albert Camus,” Speck says.
The play will have live actors engaging with real-time animation and avatars and is being produced with support from the University of Puthisastra and local dental and health professionals.
Since the “metaverse” is opening up a lot of new forms of interactive entertainment and Japan and Korea are well-known for having celebrity virtual avatars as performers, Speck thought – why not virtual Cambodian stars as well?
“I believe this is the first theater performance in Cambodia that uses motion-capture and human actors interacting with live animation and virtual characters,” says Speck.
Speck got his first job as animator making educational software after he graduated from the University of Arizona with a computer-aided design degree.
At that time, Speck says, they were in the very early days of digital graphics and it opened him up to a whole new world of visual digital effects production for use in television and film.
Speck spent three years acquiring real-world computer graphics work experience before he moved to Hollywood to work for Universal Studios on a made-for-TV movie called The Annihilator, which was trying to take advantage of the recent success of James Cameron’s The Terminator starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“It was exciting to work at the studio. Their digital film equipment was amazing and on my breaks I got to walk around historic film sets and see a lot of movie stars as well as getting a look at how big-time films were made,” he recalls.
However, Speck became disenchanted with life in Los Angeles, which frequently included a morning commute of up to four hours to reach Hollywood from his house in the suburbs.
“So when the film wrapped I took a job as an art director that was 2,000 miles away (3,200 km) in the mid-west at a TV station in Minneapolis, Minnesota,” he says.
But a year or so in the cold Minneapolis climate was enough for Speck, and when Hollywood beckoned again he went to work on the film Free Jack starring Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones and Anthony Hopkins.
Though California’s climate is much milder than Minnesota’s, Speck was still tormented by LA’s never-ending traffic jams and despite being physically warmer there he found he never really warmed to the place personally.
“Over the years, various film production jobs from Hollywood have come my way and I’ve always declined,” says Speck. “I guess you could say that the LA traffic killed my movie career.”
In 1991, Speck was hired by the software animation company Softimage based in Montreal, Canada to work at their Jakarta, Indonesia and Singapore offices. After that he set up his own animation company in Singapore and worked on productions all over Southeast-Asia and Australia.
In 1998, MTV Asia – owned by media conglomerate Viacom based in New York City – became Speck’s client. The company worked with the Singaporean government, hiring Speck to work on a new type of show using motion-capture.
“Once again I found myself in the very early stages of a new kind of digital production. We created a real-time avatar that spoke four different languages called Lili for a production that won the 2001 Asian Television Award for ‘Most Innovative’ show,” Speck says.
Through MTV Asia, Speck says he got to work on real-time animation performances with some of the biggest and most talented musicians in the world.
“We also did live shows at the MTV Europe Music Awards in Stockholm, Sweden and at various large venues across Asia and our work was mentioned on CNN and in Time Magazine,” he says.
“Ever since then, motion-capture and real-time live animation performances have been my main focus,” says Speck.
Speck was able to enlist some of the faculty and students of the University of Puthisastra as cast members in the play with the help of Daniel Gillard – a long-time expat who heads the university’s Faculty of English and is also co-owner of Bosporus restaurant in Tuol Tom Puong.
Eng Sokchan – an English lecturer and faculty member with the English Excellence & Employability program at the University of Puthisastra – plays the role of Dr Groovy in My Dentist is Groovy.
“It has been my pleasure to work with James and be apart of this play. Having worked with James for weeks, I have learned that we both believe in dedication, teamwork and discipline,” Sokchan says.
Sokchan says it has been a rewarding experience to work with the animator and designer on this project, which will be the first time he’s ever performed in anything on stage.
Speck says that having Sokchan step-up and agree to act in the play was a stroke of luck and he’s been impressed by Sokchan’s courage and openness to trying out anything while developing the role.
“His strong knowledge of traditional Cambodian music has been the bridge to mix and connect it with today’s western-style music,” says Speck
Sokchan says there will be just four full dress rehearsals – two at the university and two at Meta House – where he’ll be able to practice dancing on stage, speaking to the audience and singing traditional Cambodian chapei music.
“I love listening to Cambodian chapei musicians, including Kram Ngoy, Prach Chhoun and Master Kong Nai,” says Sokchan, adding that he never learned how to sing formally and had taught himself by singing along with recordings.
Speck says that the students, teachers, and faculty from the University of Puthisastra have been “amazing” and that Gillard fully embraced the play as a positive humanities-oriented project and was instrumental in opening the doors of the school to participate.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” says Gillard. “The University of Puthisastra is happy to support the production because it gives our students and staff a unique opportunity to get outside of their comfort zones and learn from new experiences.”
My Dentist is Groovy (Teeth! The Story of Life!) will be performed on Saturday, May 21 at Meta House German-Cambodian Cultural Center, which is located at #48 St 228 in the Daun Penh district of Phnom Penh.
The Mental Dental Scan interactive exhibit starts at 6:00pm. The theatrical performance begins at 7:30 p.m. There will be an after-show party with music that the public is welcome to attend that begins at 9:30pm.
For more information via Facebook:@MetaHousePhnomPenh