Stylish UV backdrop art lets Dame Edna appear out of nowhere

WHEN AUSTRALIA'S POPULAR, cross-dressing comedian, Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna, decided to begin touring the United States last year with his “A Night With Dame Edna” show, producer Harley Medcalf knew visually sophisticated American audiences would want something they don't usually get in typical stage shows. Thus, the current tour, which began last fall, is utilizing a relatively new technology based on the use of special, ultraviolet-sensitive paint in order to create custom backdrops.

When lit correctly, the backdrops can transform from being invisible to a vibrant photo-quality background. Utilizing custom-made fluorescent paints created by UV/FX Scenic Productions, Los Angeles, as well as standard paints, a canvas can appear completely blank or normal under regular stage lights, and then glow brilliantly under UV light.

For the new Dame Edna tour, a 30'×30' backdrop that is initially white, as far as audience members are concerned, was created. With a variety of ultraviolet stage lights and projections directed at the background, however, a photo-realistic portrait of Dame Edna appears larger than life, and right on cue, out of seemingly nowhere.

UV/FX partner and creative director Kent Mathieu hand-painted the giant image onto a flame-proofed muslin drop, using the company's custom-made fluorescent paints. UV/FX has created a proprietary palette of professional grade paints made from dozens of fluorescent pigments, according to company officials, who add that they have also designed proprietary techniques for integrating standard, visible paints with UV-activated paint.

Seattle-based lighting designer Bob Bonniol of Mode Studios created lighting for the show with a lighting package from Creative Stage Lighting and the help of head electrician Thomas Hague. “The effect was stunningly successful,” Bonniol says. “The UV painting on the backdrop was completely invisible to the viewing eye under normal light. Even with all of the moving lights on the show pointed at it, the UV painting (of Dame Edna) didn't show. Only under true UV light from the four Altman UV-705 blacklights we selected did the painting become fully exposed. There weren't any garish colors one might associate with UV. Instead, the painting appears to utilize a conventionally colorful palette. It's entirely realistic, from skin tones to the subtle color of the dress.”

Bonniol has thus become a believer in the notion of using customized, ultraviolet-based scenery and effects in shows.

“I'm intrigued by the possibility of scenic drops that can do nighttime/daytime changes for instance,” says Bonniol. “We do everything from musical theater to opera to Vegas shows, and I can really see many applications for UV-painted backdrops. It's quite economical and really packs a lot of visual bang for the buck.”

Bonniol also points out that productions like the Dame Edna show that adopt such an approach can get, in essence, a “two-for-one deal” — a single backdrop, which can offer one type of look under traditional stage lights, and a totally different look under ultraviolet lights.

UV/FX is trying to make this kind of application more popular at large-venue live events. The company, founded in 1997 by Mathieu and Richard Green, is now headquartered in a 15,000-square-foot facility near downtown Los Angeles, and routinely offers fluorescent paint and UV lighting services to television productions and feature films. The company also provides UV fixtures and paint to nightclubs and stage shows, but Green says UV/FX now wants to expand its ability to offer UV effects to major shows like the Dame Edna Tour.

“We wanted to expand the creative side of what is possible in UV effects, and not just sell lights and basic fluorescent paints and materials,” he says. “We knew if we didn't concentrate on amazing scenery options like this and develop new styles, no one would.”

Tom Patrick McAuliffe is a freelance writer and entertainer living in Northern California and Maui Hawaii.Email him at