British designer Bill Dudley caused quite a stir in London last year with his groundbreaking sets for Tom Stoppard's trilogy at the National Theatre, The Coast of Utopia. A mammoth, nine-hour 19th century epic that spanned 1833-1865, covered three continents, and featured 31 actors playing 70 characters, Dudley was asked to convey over 15 locations in each play. For a solution, he turned to the world of video projection, specifically 3D computer animation, depicting shores, shipwrecks, pine forests, zoos, studies, and a wide variety of locations, which he projected onto a series of curved screens. The result earned raves, an Olivier nomination, and an Outer Critics Circle Award. Since then, Dudley has not looked back, making video projection a key element for much of his subsequent work, including last season's well-received West End play, Hitchcock Blonde.

Dudley was hard at work designing three shows when David Johnson caught up with him. Two of them, the Hamburg production of Dance of the Vampires, directed by Roman Polanski (not the Broadway flop) and the new David Hare play, The Permanent Way, will have strong video projection components. Could projections, which are now encroaching on lighting design, soon become a major part of set design as well? In the first of a facsinating and wide-ranging two-part interview, Dudley this month talks about his attraction to video projection and its increasing importance to the livelihood of the theatre.

David Johnson: As a well-established set designer, how did you even become involved in video?

Bill Dudley: The core of the theatre is the actor and the audience, and the word, and what designers do with all our bits and pieces is to try and prepare an enchanted space, where the audience is asked to play make believe. Anything that breaks down the laws of physics can lend itself to the time frame of how a play reads — the time it's supposed to cover, and the real time of performance.

I'd always found there was a deadness using still photographs in theatre. I felt it turned into a dry sort of lecture — it felt inanimate. I never thought animation was for me, because I don't have the patience to do all that hand-drawn work. But in the last 10-15 years there's been the rise of computer animation. And I found, through magazines and trade fairs, that it was accessible to people who were computer-literate. I can draw and paint; I studied fine art as opposed to design. I realized there was a kind of meeting of minds, among software engineers and programmers, people who understood and could calculate the effects of light in a scientific way, and measure atmospherics.

But the most cunning thing of all is it gave you what real life gives you, which is the parallax view. Remember the Warren Beatty film?

DJ: Of course.

BD: Parallax is how Man the hunter survived in the jungle with all the wild animals: by having an effective range finder in our two eyes. It's the fact that nearer objects move at different rates than further objects, and our brains are highly attuned to that. What Disney and his animators found was that by using a multi-plane camera, and changing the speed of which these glass planes passed by the lens, you got an undeniable sense of depth, which was exactly would have interested the renaissance painters. That's exactly what the software we use does. It doesn't matter which one you use.

DJ: Which one do you use?

BD: Cinema 4D. Its origin is in Germany, but it has quite a presence in America now, and in England as well. What I liked about it is that it's closely integrated with Photoshop; it works very well backwards and forwards with Photoshop, which is kind of the Rosetta Stone of all computer software for anybody visual.

I found that the moment you animate, the moment that the eye is partially persuaded that you're either moving along down a street or somewhere else, the body is confused, so it sends signals — ‘Hey feet, are you moving?’ — in nanoseconds it happens. The brain is partially convinced, in that the depth cues and the movement cues persuade the brain, but then the other part of the brain says no, it's all on a two-dimensional screen. To aid that, I decided to work on curved and angled screens, and juxtaposed screens so that there was a real depth change to confuse the eye. Not to try and be cruel to the eye but to allow the eye to be seduced, much like good acting seduces the audience to suspend disbelief.

It's the same thing, I think, with this animated set. The undeniable force of coherent movement, that movement that stacks up to being a rational piece of 3D space onstage, the audiences seem to find immensely charming. I can tell by the feedback I get. Not since the early days of big, hydraulic, kinetic scenery have I heard similar responses.

DJ: What was the first show on which you used video?

BD: Well, the first time I used video was in Hamburg in 1990, for Hamlet's Ghost. It was a live actor on camera in the wings, blown up very large. There's a giant figure that encompassed his son, and the son just sort of fell asleep in his hand, a very Freudian thing.

The first show in which I'd used this sort of video animation was The Coast of Utopia. To be frank, I was only beginning to learn the software a month or two beforehand. I had decided I wanted to learn it anyway because I had a thought to work as a fine artist again. I wanted to explore time and memory, including my own childhood, through using the space the software could conjure up for me. I didn't know if there was any kind of professional application I could use it for.

What happened was that Trevor Nunn, the director, phoned me and said, ‘Look I've got these three massive plays by Tom Stoppard; he's written it like a movie, and we have to do the most amazing changes in the fastest possible times. He's unapologetic, he won't make anything easier, in terms of staging, no curtains to drop in, all in view.’ And something clicked in my head, so when we met a couple of days later, I brought my laptop and showed two test animations, one of which showed us circling a forest of trees in Russia, and suddenly the wind blowing the leaves off the trees. And the other was a ferry boat going across the English Channel, with smoke blowing and a Union Jack waving. I showed it and said, ‘This was all manufactured, no film cameras involved, and with modern video projection, because it's very bright now, we can adapt our physical actor's space, and add to it a deeper space.’

DJ: And what was his response?

BD: A total commitment to it. It was a huge gamble on their part, because I said, look, I'm actually learning it now. I didn't work on anything else that year, until we opened in late August. Their support was amazing, because Tom hadn't even written the third play when I started; by the end he was writing scenes and at the same time I was trying to animate. I didn't have such a powerful computer as I've got now, and I didn't have broadband, so we had to use a series of motorcycle dispatch riders waiting outside the house for the newly minted disk, which they'd take to the guys at the theatre waiting to load it into the video projectors. It was very hairy; I was doing 90-hour weeks. I was pretty much a zombie by the first night.

DJ: Tell me about some of the aspects of the Utopia design you felt were especially effective.

BD: The first thing, if you project on a curved surface, what appears to happen, if it's a broad enough curve, you can lay onto that, within a projection, square flat objects like houses or buildings, and they don't look particularly curved. But the eye can't focus on where the screen is. That's why extra super-duper wide screen works — anything that defeats the eye's ability to detect where an image is. It's that suspension of disbelief, and that interplay is where a designer operates, where the undeniable force of movement-panoramic sweeps, zooms, travels, following paths that weave in and out-works best.

I've stood behind audiences watching Utopia and you see their bodies moving to adjust to what the camera is telling them they're doing. It's like watching someone in a virtual reality game. It's a kind of deliberate trick to defeat the eyes. When you do it slowly and gracefully, it makes the space enchanted again.

I'm trying to do something with the world of the space frame that these actors are in. That's really what all design is: modulating the space to focus on the actor, to help create the mood, to locate the play somewhere in our path and experience. The one thing I don't have to do is animate people because the actors do that.

DJ: Which is just as well because people have always been the weakest link in computer imagery.

BD: Yeah. And what's great is the actors get it too. I've had great support from them. I tell them, ‘Look, we're not going to do a bunch of stuff while you're acting, its for scene changes, mostly. When you come on, you're walking onto a wrecked ship in a storm off the coast of England.’ Then the actor will come onstage and watch it, because it's in the script that he's a famous Russian poet and he watched the shipwreck. It was very dramatic, and then he turned and spoke and it dissolved into the background.

DJ: And he was okay with that?

BD: Yeah. Well, that's what he said anyway. It's not like I'm trying in any way to compromise the actor. It's the contextual thing, where the text says where we are, what the mood is.

DJ: What kind of role do you think this particular type of projection will have on the theatre?

BD: It is a phenomenal development for the theatre, because most theatres can't really afford scenery anymore. On a Broadway musical, millions of dollars go into it. But they're the exception. The average summer stock, or as we call them over here, a rep, can't really afford much; they can't really even afford many actors. So it'll always be a financially poor relation to the movies. And the younger audiences are finding it much harder to accept the palette barrenness of stage imagery, the stillness where you're in one locale for two to three hours; they find it off-putting. They like high visual dynamics and action, all those things people think theatre can't do. Of course they can quote Shakespeare and its aural pictures, but we're finding a less vocalized audience. The kids are more visually sophisticated than ever before. But in terms of language and appreciating language — fine language full of profound thoughts and plays on words pass them by.

It's not that I don't believe in theatre anymore; I've spent my life in theatre. But I know that the demographics are changing; I also think they know less in terms of history, and things like that. So pictorial things actually do help. Every kid on the planet knows what gladiators were like, because of the film Gladiator. The big effects movie that actually deals with a subject like that can illuminate, because it doesn't seem to be the case that children are encouraged to imagine. Theatre is meant to do that, but I don't know that beyond children, whether 20-year olds are coming to the theatre enough.

DJ: So you think this might help draw them in?

BD: I think they seek things that give them visual dynamics, and narrative skills, and more of phantasmagorical experience. This by no means applies to every play. Of the three plays I have on at the moment, two use video, and one doesn't at all. I wouldn't like to be known only as a video effects person. I see it as a solution for certain pieces.

DJ: Another tool in your toolbox.

BD: Yep. At the moment to me it's the most fascinating tool, because the more I learn what this software can do, I realize I'm on the nursery slopes. I just took my kids to see Finding Nemo last week, and it's got some brilliant things in it. It's not by any means their best effort; I think it lacks John Lassiter's brilliant direction. But there was some stunning use of color and animation.

I've always thought of theatre as part of that term “broad church.” There are so many ways of doing theatre; I like its diversity, I like the different stages. One wouldn't approach a Broadway musical like you would a room in a pub. This I hope will be part of a general drift toward video.

THREE THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT BILL DUDLEY:

  • He trained as a fine artist at St. Martin's in the mid-60s before turning to the theatre.
  • He has two children, ages 7 and 1.
  • Despite his love of computer animation, he doesn't really like email.

Next month: Upcoming projects, the learning curve, and set designers vs. projection designers.