3D Modeling Comes to Life in Peter Pan
Kathleen Maher
May 24, 2010

3D Modeling Comes to Life in Peter Pan

In the spring, the San Francisco Embarcadero is a wonderful place to see a play. The great wall of downtown San Francisco's buildings give way to parks, walkways, playgrounds, impromptu skate parks, and the busy San Francisco Bay. The thing is, there’s no actual theater at the Embarcadero, and that’s just fine for Threesixty Theater– a production group from England that brought their own giant tent and plopped it down in an Embarcadero park for the production of Peter Pan.

Directed by Ben Harrison, the play is unique in its use of wrap-around digital sets created by William Dudley, the set, costume, and 3D projection designer. Dudley has been a fan of digital sets since he began exploring their possibilities in 2002 with the production of Tom Stoppard's trilogy, the Coast of Utopia. It was also used in 2004 for Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White, staged in London and on Broadway.

The production originally was created to be played in Kensington Gardens, the stomping grounds of J.M. Barrie and the families he befriended; Peter Pan was inspired by the children of Barrie's friends.

This version of Peter Pan combines the real with the ephemeral. In some ways, the imaginary is at times technically sophisticated, and at others, engagingly whimsical. For the digital sets, Dudley and his crew--including Matthew O'Neill, Richard Kenyon, Kai Pederson, Dick Straker, Sven Ortel, Ian Gallway, Quintion Willison, Paul Scullion, Chris Kurtz, Malcom Mellows, and Gerry Cory--created 3D models of the rooftops of London, the jungles of Neverland, an underwater vision, and flying cannon balls. As everyone who has ever seen a version of Peter Pan knows, the defining moment in the play comes as the children fly out their window to take up full-time residence in the realm of their imagination, Neverland. In Dudley's production, the children rise on wires to fly over the rooftops of London, under bridges, through arches--the effect works beautifully even as there's no attempt to hide the wires. Rather, the trickery is celebrated, and we believe because we want to believe.

The Threesixty Theater digital set combines with real-world props and sets to open up a fantasy world. (Source: Threesixty)

The Threesixty Theater tent was designed by arhitectural designer Teresa Hoskyns. It is supported by an external exoskeleton of massive girders so that there are no poles or supports inside the theater to interfere with the view. Inside, the walls of the tent provide a massive display space for the projected images. Twelve high-resolution Barco projectors are used sideways to get a wide 9-to-1 image atio. They project a 360-degree image that has been distorted to conform to the convex shape of the tent. The magic of the process includes stitching the overlapping images from the projectors to avoid any seams. In all, Peter Pan uses a 10 million-pixel digital set featuring 15,000 square feet of CGI. (For full details on the set creation, see “Theater Takes Flight” in the June issue of CGW.)

Describing the model of London, which includes 400 square miles of the city, Dudley says, ''We took a vast slice of London to give a sense of space from any angle at all times.'' He notes that a hundred machines chugged away for nearly three weeks to render the images. The team worked wtih Maxon's Cinema 4D and Adobe's Photoshop and After Effects to create the sets.

The results? Decidedly whizzy and decidedly fun. Complementing the digital magic are simple details that call attention to the artifice. The characters attach wires to their harnesses before they're about to take wing. The character of Nana the dog looks like a happy tangle of white and gray rags until a puppeteer brings the dog to life. Likewise, an inquisitive bird walks around in Neverland with the help of another puppeteer, and then there's the crocodile, which probably shouldn't even be described. Let's just say that the arrival of the clanking, ticking, scary/funny crocodile is a high point of the play. The point is that this production of Peter Pan doesn't want to trick you into believing children can fly away to Neverland, that fairies with a lot of attitude are all around us, or that Peter Pan lives; it wants to show off the illusion and invite the audience in. The tent, the beautiful setting on the San Francisco Bay, the real-life and unscripted chiming bells of the nearby Ferry Building all add to the experience.

William Dudley, the production designer for Theater Threesixty's Peter Pan in San Francisco, briefs a dozen members of the press before a rehearsal demonstration of the play's special effects. Maxon's CEO Paul Babb (standing, wearing sunglasses) was also in attendance. (Source: Jon Peddie Research)

Although digital sets are not really new, this production is the first example of a wrap-around digital set. Dudley gravitated toward digital sets because they are so flexible. They don't have to be carried, folded, shipped, stored in warehouses, painted, or repaired. It's easy to make changes to accomodate the demands of directors or the sets. But perhaps the most telling comment Dudley makes is that once he discovered digital sets, he became a convert.

''The strangest thing was that I lost interest in the craft of model-making and traditional painting,'' Dudley says in a story on Maxon's Web site. ''As I explored the world of polygons and pixels, I found myself lost in the beauty of it, just as I had with pencils and paints 40 years earlier.''

San Francisco is, as you might expect, the home of some of the first digital theater experiments by Charles Coates in the late 1980s and early '90s. Coates created 3D settings that characters seemed to walk through and around, and the audience wore 3D glasses to get the effect. In the case of Peter Pan, Dudley was able create an immersive effect with high-resolution images and skillful blending of the sets and the backdrops.

Another San Francisco group, Obscura Digital, is exploring the potential of digital displays, virtual sets, 3D presentation, and multi-touch displays. Obscura offers services and is responsible for some stunning digital extravaganzas in public spaces, but it is also developing products that expand the company's reach beyond special events and performances. Their idea is to leave the computer behind and bring the digital world out into real-world spaces where we can interact with it together. The company's arsenal includes motion sensors, gesture sensors, location tracking, facial recognition, and 3D cameras, and the idea is to create immersive environments, augmented reality applications, and collabortive tools that reduce the effect of the computer as mediator and put people into the picture.

This is an important wave of the future. Peter Pan is a perfect example of bringing computer technology out in front, but there is much much more to come in the future.

Kathleen Maher is a contributing editor to CGW, a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, California-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor in chief of JPR’s “TechWatch.” She can be reached at Kathleen@jonpeddie.com .