Theater Takes Flight
Issue: Volume 33 Issue 6: (June 2010)

Theater Takes Flight

Even given the most clever stage design, watching Peter Pan and Wendy fly to Neverland above a rectangular stage inside a walled theater stretches any audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief. So when multiple award-winning stage designer William Dudley heard talk of a proposed production of “Peter Pan” inside a tent, he said, in effect, “I believe I can do something new.”

Dudley, who designed his first stage production in 1970, has been projecting computer graphics imagery on stage since 2002, when he used Maxon’s Cinema 4D to help create nine hours of 180-degree backgrounds for Tom Stoppard’s three-play epic, “The Coast of Utopia.” But never before had he—or anyone else—been able to project images in 360 degrees for a live theater production. To try would be an awfully big adventure.

And indeed, for audiences attending the premiere performance in San Francisco, it was a spectacular adventure as they watched Peter Pan and the Darlings fly over London on their way to Neverland. Holding onto coat hangers, the actors rise above the stage and fly toward the screens as the camera takes the audience high along the River Thames, spins around the dome of St. Paul’s, re-orients onto the same path as before, and this time, moves at an increasing speed low above the river until the children, in effect, soar under Tower Bridge and up into the clouds.

San Francisco theater critic Robert Sokol noted, “It’s palpably exciting, if a bit vertiginous, to have the roof of the Darling attic lift away and watch five people zoom hand-in-hand across the rooftops of London….”

The Adventure Begins
Dudley’s adventures with “Peter Pan” began in 2007 when the producers asked his wife, Lucy Bailey, to direct the production. She, in turn, asked to have her husband create the design. Dudley describes the first meeting: “They were planning to use a high-tech tent made in France by the tentmakers for Cirque du Soleil,” he says. “The whole tent would be suspended on white girders. No poles inside. And, they had planned a conventional auditorium inside, with two-thirds audience and one-third stage. I told them they had the makings of a 360-degree movie theater and that we could do the whole flight over London and the exploration of the island, and then come back, using CGI video. They were kind of flabbergasted.”

The light-tight tent would be dark enough inside for image projection, even with the stage lights. Situating the audience in a circle around the center stage added more than 400 seats, which helped pay for Dudley’s R&D. Dudley realized that by circling the stage with projectors installed at the edge, just out of the audience’s eye line, the actors could fly above the stage and look as if they were flying into images projected onto the sides of the tent. The flying gear could drop down from the top of the tent.

 “I knew we could do this,” Dudley says. “By this time, I had gotten quite competent at using CGI video, and I had a good team with Mash (Matthew O’Neill) creating content, and a father-son team that ran the projectors.” The producers quickly became excited, people in the potential venues were eager, and the backers were willing.

“They all went for the idea of Peter Pan flying in live theater inside a movie,” Dudley says. So, he began modeling London in Cinema 4D. But, a month into the project, the credit crunch hit, and a major backer pulled out without warning.

Dudley decided to wait for new backers, but Bailey couldn’t resist an offer to direct a body of work for the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I took a gamble,” Dudley says. “I kept my diary open. I decided I couldn’t miss this opportunity by being unavailable.”
When production resumed with a new director in January 2009, the team had only until April 26 to create the show for the London opening. “We were working all hours,” Dudley says. When his work—which included costume design and fitting, the physical set, and the 360-degree CGI video—became too exhausting, he and O’Neill brought in three people to help. Altogether, they created, among other sequences, 400 square miles of virtual London displayed on 15,000 square feet of screen.

Immersive Theater

Dudley had met O’Neill at MacExpo 2002 in London. “It was the most mysterious week,” Dudley says. “I had bought Version 1 of Photoshop in 1990, and after 10 years, knew I was trying to push it further than it could go; I was using plug-ins to simulate 3D art.” So, when he happened across the Maxon stand at the expo, he asked O’Neill, who worked for Maxon at the time, if he could use the software to design stage scenery. “I was amazed,” Dudley says. “In seconds he built a stage set and put in lights. He had controlled light hitting the set. I bought it at the stand.” The next day Stoppard asked Dudley if he could do 75 scenes for “Utopia” that would take an audience from 1820s Russia to Paris and London. “It was a movie that happened to be on a stage,” Dudley says.

Dudley spent the next five days in one-on-one classes with O’Neill, and kept him on call after. “I would recommend this to anyone who needs to learn in a hurry,” Dudley says. “Lay out the money and do it. I made rapid progress.” When O’Neill left Maxon to become a freelance artist, Dudley was quick to hire him for his projects.

Originally, Dudley had planned to use the 3D software only to help him design stage sets. “I wasn’t particularly excited about projection,” he says. “I had done plays with still projection using big glass slides, but they were sort of dead. They never had the same immediacy as the actor.”

But as he played with the program, Dudley began to create simple animated sequences. And one day, he watched his son playing Bugdom on his iMac. Bugdom, a third-person action game developed by Pangea Software, puts bugs in insect-sized grass. “I thought, ‘What if I could take an audience of 1200 people through space, like my son following this cater­pillar?’” Dudley says.

The second breakthrough was deciding to project the images on a non-flat surface. “That’s the secret,” Dudley says. “Never have the audience look at a flat screen. We’re too used to paintings and film.”
Thus, Dudley used the 180-degree curved screens for “Utopia” in 2002, winning a London Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for set design and a Laurence Olivier Award for best set designer of 2002. In 2003, for Terry Johnson’s “Hitchcock Blonde,” he switched to adjacent-angled planes, like the corner of a room or an open book, and won the Olivier award.

“If you link the graphics in the projections architecturally, you get an astonishing feeling of 3D,” Dudley says. “[For “Hitchcock Blonde”], I’d have a Greek villa on one side and a vista over the Aegean on the other. When you move the camera toward it, the depth cues are better than with a flat screen. The audience reads it spatially.”

In 2004, for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Women in White,” Dudley returned to a curved screen, this one 220 degrees, to move the audience from one location to another. It was O’Neill’s first project with Dudley.
“I was brought on as an extra pair of hands to help with the architectural fly-throughs,” O’Neill says. “The biggest problems we have are always the thousands of kilowatts of stage lighting. So, every image we make is over-contrasty and over-detailed. Otherwise, the details just vanish. It was a big learning curve.” Creating a full 360-degree image would be another stretch.

Wrap-around World
To wrap the audience for “Peter Pan” in one continuous, curved image, O’Neill and Dudley rendered 10,000- by 900-pixel images. To produce those images, the fly-over, Neverland with Captain Hook’s ship in the harbor, underwater scenes, the jungle, and other sequences, London-based Dudley and O’Neill had help from Michael Vance in New York, Janine Pauke in Amsterdam, and Tim Clapham in Australia. O’Neill had met Pauke while working for Maxon, and had interacted with her and Clapham in Internet forums. The crew communicated over the Internet using Skype, and sent files to O’Neill’s ftp site.
“Michael did Neverland,” O’Neill says. “When you see the whole island, that’s his work. Tim did the cannon fire and ship sails, and effects like fire, smoke, and cloth. Janine worked on the jungle.”

To cake the island in thousands of trees, O’Neill decided to use Cinema 4D’s hair system. “Rather than drawing a hair, we have it draw a tree instead,” he explains. To fly the children through clouds, he rendered particles using Maxon’s PyroCluster, a volumetric shading system. For the jungle, he repeated a section of 10 trees side by side.

All told, the crew created approximately 20 minutes of unique 3D footage. “We used lots of 10-second loops,” O’Neill says. “The jungle is a 10-second loop that plays for a quarter of an hour.”

The city of London, which had to be fully 3D, was the crew’s most complex task. “You can’t cheat anything,” O’Neill says. “No cuts, no cross-fades. And, because we’re flying over, we had to model the insides of courtyards. We couldn’t get away with cardboard cutouts as you’d like to do.”

To render London’s 200,000 buildings, O’Neill sent the scenes to a service bureau with 200 renderfarm machines. It took two weeks. He then moved the shot into Adobe After Effects, where he split the animated panoramas into 12 pieces, one for each Barco projector. Originally, Dudley had planned to use 10 projectors, but he realized that by turning the 1400x1050 projectors on their sides, he could cover more area in the tent. So, he recut the panorama into 12 pieces. Green Hippo’s Hippotizer media server managed the image display.

“The media server synchronizes the 12 projectors,” Dudley says, “but it can also do amazing things with lens distortions. We can project the images at odd angles, and they project undistorted. We can come in at acute angles, and the audience is convinced it’s rear-projection.”

During production, Dudley and O’Neill tested the images with two or three projectors, but weren’t able to see the seamless, doughnut-shaped projection until two weeks before the show opened in London. Knowing that, they made a 3D model of the tent and projected images into this virtual tent instead. “It was scary, though,” O’Neill says. “It had to work the first time. There was no opportunity to change.”
That didn’t mean the director didn’t ask for changes, though. “They were asking for new scenes right up until a few weeks before opening,” O’Neill says. “The theater guys are used to getting something in a few days or hours using balsa wood and paint. They don’t understand that it could take weeks to fly a mile farther south. So, we tried to plan knowing the changes could go late.”

In fact, shortly before the show opened, the director asked for a new sequence that would fly the children home from Neverland. “I’d made scenes for a nighttime flight, and they wanted a flight in full, broad daylight,” O’Neill says. The spots of light he had created to represent houses below suddenly needed to become fully rendered buildings. “So, I took the London model I had and urgently added a lot of stuff. When I knew the back of a building didn’t exist and they would fly around it, I turned the building around.” 
Fortunately, Maxon had released a new, faster version of Cinema 4D. “It massively sped up anti-aliasing, and when you have 200,000 buildings, you have a lot of anti-aliasing,” O’Neill says. “I rendered London in my office on two four-core Mac Pros running Windows Vista in two and a half weeks.”

Projecting the Future
“Peter Pan” opened in Kensington Park in London last year, and headed to the US in 2010. “This was probably the best feeling I’ve had from doing any job ever,” O’Neill says, and describes sitting in the audience watching the play for the first time. “During the first 15 or 20 minutes, the children are in the nursery in London and the audience doesn’t see anything move or change in the images. Just twinkling stars. Then whoosh, off they went flying over London for four or five minutes, and we got a standing ovation for the projection.”

Dudley estimates that he uses projection now for about a third of his projects, and he believes it helps capture audiences raised on video games, visual effects blockbusters, and animated films. “Actors say they want bare boards, and I have a passion for minimal interference from the design,” Dudley says. “But, audiences like spectacle. Critics always precede ‘spectacle’ with ‘mere,’ as if there were no content in visual art. It rankles me and makes me want to do more visual stuff. To people who like to live inside visual interfaces, the immersive world of color and light is deeply satisfying. There is content there.”

Thus, you can expect this much-sought-after designer to push the state of this art. His next adventure involving video projection will be stage design for Thomas Hardy’s “Under the Greenwood Tree,” which his wife will direct.

“Projection is the tool I most want to develop,” Dudley says. “I’ve always wanted to create a feeling of magical depth, the dream space. The actor is in our space, able to talk to the audience, and then the dream space is upstage. Video allows me to do that. There is a cost involved, so I have to sell it to the producers each time.”

But, really, who could resist flying over the rooftops of London with Peter Pan?

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at .