Celestial Dance of Tang

Academic Work
Digital 3D Animation | Immersive Exhibition

Role:Designer, Production, Responsible for ACT2 Celestial Dance of Tang
Venue:Harvard University



Cave Dance is the second project I have worked on since joining Harvard CAMLab. Based on the Dunhuang murals, Cave Dance is a modernized version of the Celestial Dance of Tang, combining motion capture and AI-generated algorithms. In the immersive images of the Celestial Dance, I sought to depict the Buddha of the Dunhuang culture dancing like ghosts and gods. The dancers are both real and imaginary, moving on the edge of the visible and invisible.


Among all art forms, dance is unique. It is totally abstract and speechless. Since ancient times, people have been using silent bodies to convey emotions. This abstraction gives dance a purer character, and the purer the art form, the more detached it is from the real world. It becomes a “fracture of time and space.”

This is why I am very passionate about digital dance, and why I did not hesitate to join this project. In this section, the dances are extracted from the Dunhuang murals and then choreographed by professional dancers into coherent dance movements. Lastly, these movements are learned and regenerated by AI algorithms, to design the celestial part.

The first half of the flying music and dance evokes a quiet treacherous mood. In the continuous darkness, dancers perform the dance of ghosts and gods. As we gradually reach the climax, the magnificent and gorgeous golden palace is alight with flame. There, we climb to the extreme point of beauty—and it abruptly ends. The immortals, like smoke, scatter. The world is like a house of fire, and the ultimate bliss is followed by the great sorrow that returns to silence. Beauty cannot last forever. The Buddha has burned himself out.

Story Board

Act I 01

A figure dances alone in the infinite darkness, surrounded by lighted trees that faintly illuminate the dark.
Act I 02

As the dancer’s movements improve, a second dancer appears. The two of them echo the other's dance, with the lighted trees flickering on and off.
Act I 03

There are now four dancers in the scene, performing occasional spins and jumps.
Act II 01

The blue-toned hall of the sleeping Elysium gradually emerges, and two dancers dance in front of the palace.
Act II 02

A golden palace with an infinite mirror appears. The dancers move from the cold color of the smoke to the warm color of fire. The whole scene is washed in a gorgeous, extreme golden light.

Dance: Between Real and Virtual

I tried many different effects for the dancer. These included fabric simulation with different materials, object tracking, normal trailing effects, trailing effect with strokes, and a following effect made by overlaying complex materials. All of these methods attempt to place the dancer’s image somewhere between illusion and reality. They are neither very realistic, nor very material (the common fluid simulation or particle tracking effects will have a kind of over-industrialized feeling). They are also not completely visible nor invisible to the human figure.

Dancing in this glazed world are flying celestials, immortals, bodhisattvas—otherwise known as gods and Buddhas. They wear "heavenly clothes" that are as light as nothing, and can dance on the ground or in the air. Based on these legal principles, I finally tried to superimpose three effects on the dancers.

The first effect is the fabric simulation.

I have always insisted that even digital dancers should wear dancing cloths. Though I am not a dance major, I have seen dozens of dance productions, both large and small. In European and American dances such as ballet, flamenco, and national standard, the costumes are a bright accent to highlight the identity of the character. They add color and have a certain role in supporting the dance. This, by extension, remains the same in Western modern dance. So many modern dances intentionally or unintentionally simplify costumes to the point of abstraction because modern dance focuses on pure body language.

However, in Chinese classical dance, the costume is an extension of the body. An example of this is the water sleeves; the costume must be designed to keep up with and complement the dancer's hands and feet. I design my dancers’ costumes based on this philosophy. During the process, I ask myself a simple question. Do the lines of this fabric have a fluid aesthetic when they move?

The second effect is a trailing effect between the brushstroke and the fabric.

With the trailing, I still insist that all the effects serve to extend the dancer's body. With a certain distance between the dancer's body trailing, the effect is more like the dancer's hand in the air to draw strokes, rather than appear as strokes generated behind the dancer.

The third effect is the fog/burning effect.

Firstly, using object cloning, I let the ball dance around the dancer. Next, I add a scan to the path tracked out by the ball. Then, I let this scan out of the model to produce smoke. This is enhanced by adding smoke collision to the dancer and fabric. Together, these efforts create a fog effect similar to the dancer's limbs crossed. The air will produce fog rather than the dancer itself.

After the triple effect is superimposed.

The dancer's figure can be seen vaguely in the dance. This figure is outlined by light and fabric together. It is surrounded by fog and brush strokes, both real and fantastic.

Infinite Mirror and Heavenly Palace

Dance in the fire to extend life

Before I began designing ACT2 the Celestial Dance of Tang, the project team had created an initial design of the palace scene (Figure 1). This version of the design already had the initial scale of the palace. Yet, the theme of the visual performance was not clear. The building seemed to be submerged in the ashes of the setting sun and felt very ambiguous.

With this preliminary idea, I determined the mood of the architectural scene: from the dark silence of the night into golden splendor. Based on this mood shift, I designed the whole scene.

When the silent palace first appears, the tone is a deliberately dark blue-green. This is the final "sad" pavement, which also functions as a prelude to the brief glory. How should this atmosphere of "silence" and "sadness" be reflected? In the initial design, I took reference from the Chinese landscape scrolls and designed a completely flat scene (Figure 2). By doing so, I massively reduced the architecture of the whole scene, leaving only two pavilions. I also shifted the entire color palette into a dark blue-green, with a purely flat perspective to create the effect of an oriental landscape painting. This effect is visually too thin to support such a deep core of Dunhuang culture. Thus, it is going in the direction of 3D again, still using the previous complete building complex. Again, I felt that the space should be vast and infinite. Therefore, I set up a glossy material with 0 index around the buildings. This created the visual effect of infinite reflection and infinite circulation in the space. These buildings are all made of a single dark material(Figure 3, 4 and 5);meanwhile, the light source mainly comes from the candle flame floating in the air and the dancers themselves.

As it happens, this space can be smoothly connected to the second state: a gorgeous scene that echoed both reality and fantasy. Afterwards, I changed the building material to a luminous edge and transparency and adjusted the placement of the mirror(Figure 6 and 7). As a result, the luminous building will be infinitely reflected in the mirror material, creating a gorgeous fantasy effect. Next, is the transition: I caused the mirror to rise from the ground and made the building material gradually change. The speed of the mirror rises from slow to fast. After its last rush into the sky, the gorgeous side of the glazed world will instantly appear in front of the audience, which will create a great effect.