Love it or hate it, the “sets” in Andrew Lloyd's Webber's musical, The Woman In White, are almost entirely digitally projected onto curved, rotating scenic elements. When the show opened in London's West End 18 months ago, designer William Dudley's use of projected scenery sparked a controversial debate about such a saturated digital environment (see “Victorian Secrets,” Entertainment Design, January 2005, at http://livedesignonline.com/theatre/show_business_victorian_secrets). Directed by Trevor Nunn, with lighting by Paul Pyant, The Woman In White opened on Broadway in November 2005 at the Marquis Theatre with significant updates in the visual design, as well as improvements in the video hardware and software systems.
“The show is visually different,” says Dudley. “The images are higher resolution, and there is less danger of them being bleached out by the lighting.” Dudley adds that brighter projectors were essential to doing the show in New York. The eight projectors used in London — six Barco ELM G10 and two Barco SLM G8 projectors — have been replaced in New York by eight Barco SLM R12+ projectors with an output of up to 11,500 ANSI lumens. Provided by XL Video in the UK, these new projectors are brighter, physically smaller, and have higher resolution. “This allows the actors to be lit better, as well,” says Dudley. Four of the projectors are hung at steep angles above the stage, while the other four are front-of-house.
Also improved in New York are the doors in the moving set pieces built by Hudson Scenic (who also supplied the lighting rig). “We wanted the doors to be flush with the projection surfaces,” explains Dudley. The walls, which serve as the projection screens, are 6" thick while the doors are only 2" thick, the size of real doors. “The doors would look funny if they were 6" thick like the walls. They have to be regular size when they open,” says Dudley. “In London, the doors were only flush on one side of the wall, which left a recess on the other side that wasn't attractive.” Since the walls turn, the audience eventually sees both sides. The solution on Broadway was to put tracks in the walls that allow the doors to be flush no matter which side the audience is looking at. “The doors are in a motorized framework that opens on the front and the back,” explains Dudley.
The stage floor in New York is flat, rather than raked as it was in London, a change that Dudley considers for the better, as well. This was done in consideration of touring the show in the US, but Dudley found that “it is helpful in that the set sits better on the stage, and the vertical images look better,” he says. The set itself — circular walls sitting on a round turntable — is oval in New York, while it was round in London. This change was due to the fact that the stage had approximately the same width but was not as deep. “For touring, the set could be no more than 32'6" deep,” notes Dudley, who found that in fact the oval works better than the circle. “The optical illusion makes the oval look bigger, and the audience thinks it's a circle from out front in the orchestra level,” he says. “Only the revolve is truly circular.”
The digital imagery was also updated, “more than we initially expected,” Dudley admits. “We spent six weeks making adjustments to the video and added a new animated sequence for the interval with the two female leads holding each other in fear.” They are shown in front of Blackwater House, the eerie home of the show's villain. The images show the house reflected in a lake with vapor rising. “The images match their emotions,” says Dudley. His digital house is based on Tyntesfield House, a neo-Gothic Victorian mansion in Somerset, England, that was untouched for more than 125 years.
Dudley also added a new scene at the top of the show, featuring a Zoetrope, the small mechanical viewing device that was popular in the 1800s and was the precursor to cinema. “The Zoetrope is a perfect introduction into the world of the musical,” Dudley says. “It is one of the things I show in the attic. These are visual cues that are germane to the story.” He pans into the Zoetrope as a neat segue into the action on stage.
The projection team includes Dick Straker and Sven Ortel of Mesmer, a London-based video content and systems design company, and Richard Kenyon, who worked on the 3D animations and post production, splitting the images into four parts for the various projectors. Ian Galloway was the associate video programmer, with Quintin Willison and Paul Scullion of Digital Antics updating the Mesmerist custom software control package for Mesmer. “Each scene in the show has its own projected digital file,” explains Kenyon, who takes Dudley's original 3D designs and animates them, putting in the digital equivalent of camera movement. “You can re-render it all file by file or add new cues in the playback sequence. We re-rendered about half of the animations for New York, improving some images and adding new ones.”
Mesmer and Digital Antics also upgraded the Mesmerist software package for New York, integrating it with the automation control from Hudson Scenic for the moving scenery. “This is the first time the two sets of computers speak to each other,” says Straker. “They can trigger the video for perfectly timed sequences when the revolve turns or the screens move. It is a much smoother production as a result.”
Dudley has embraced projected scenery, not only in The Woman In White, but also in The Coast of Utopia and Hitchcock Blonde. “But that does not mean I think traditional scenery is dead,” he insists. “With 3D animations, you can create a scene and walk through it. To me, that is enchanting. Video is the 21st century version of being a scene painter, but the paint can move. And I like the magic of illusionary spaces that projections can create.”