Dudley comes full circle

As BAFTA award-winning set designer and digital staging pioneer Bill Dudley oversees the start of his latest digital adventure, Peter Pan, InAVate’s Chris Fitzsimmons was afforded the opportunity to talk (photo)shop, digital projection and explore Dudley’s love affair with digital video technology.

"Some time in the mid-sixties, on the corner of Windmill Street and Shaftesbury Avenue [in central London], was built an unusual eleven-sided building. Inside they were showing movies shot on eleven cameras around the inside. It was designed to show off the USSR as a tourist destination!" Not quite the answer I was expecting when I asked: "So how did you go from theatre set design to projecting 360 degree video panoramas in a large tent in Kensington Park?"

"I was enchanted," enthuses Dudley. "I saw two particular takes that really struck me. One was a traverse of Red Square. It felt a bit like a computer game does now. From the point of view of someone fascinated by videos, I thought it was terrific because it was like you really were crossing the space in real time.

"The second shot was out on the steppes of Russia. The voice over said ‘now look behind you’ and there were 200 Cossacks bearing down on you. Then they slowed the car down and the horsemen surrounded the cameras, pointing their spears at you. It looked fantastic. There was something about it, and I said to myself: I’d like to do this in theatre at some point. That would have been 1965 or ‘66. The little structure was only there for a year, and then it was gone."

That experience was to stay with Bill during his formative years of set-design inspiring a change of medium from paint to light and graphics. "I was really focused on the lighting. I only worked with the best designers, but I became more and more frustrated with the limitations in theatre. I loved the game, and the people, but the technology was already lagging behind in terms of what I wanted to achieve."

In search of solutions, Dudley began to attend tradeshows in the electronic arts field. In 1981 he saw the first ever Quantel Paintbox (one of the first dedicated digital video effects processors) and decided it had to be the future.

"We were in awe of that machine. It was doing all the things you and I take for granted now – copying, pasting, sliding, colour blending, changing image transparency. In 1989 I saw it again and at that point I knew I wanted to do what it could.

"The guys said, ‘why don’t you just buy an Apple Mac?’. My reaction was, ‘what’s one of those?’ Anyway, I bought this computer for a fraction of the price of a Paintbox (which in 1981 cost half-a-million pounds) and a copy of Adobe Photoshop 1.3. I’ve not looked back since. I pushed Photoshop as far as I could for a decade."

That was 1990. Nineteen years, several more Macs, and numerous versions of Photoshop later and William Dudley is still using his favourite software package, but in a totally different way. Originally he’d used it as a conceptual tool, sketching out ideas, playing with transparencies and colour interaction.

"With half an hour in Photoshop, you learn more about colour and light than you can from colour charts in a year," he states matter-of-factly. Eventually it became the first part of a fully digital work flow, and finally he reached the point where his Soviet inspired dream from 1965 could be realised.

Inspired by computer games his son was playing, and tipped off about a 3D package (Cinema 4D) by partners in crime Alex and Alan Cox, William then learned to build full 3D video environments. After successful forays into the digital art with 'The Coast Of Utopia' in 2002 and the massive 'The Woman in White' in 2005, Dudley has finally reached his 360 degree goal with a new production of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, the setting for JM Barrie’s original story.

Over the years William has been frustrated in turns by limitations in technology and his own knowledge. A Pepper’s Ghost planned for an exhibition at the site of the 1587 Rose Theatre in 1999 never quite got off the ground, although ten years later it is finally close to fruition thanks to advances in projector technology, and the goodwill of the British theatre community.

"The brilliance of projectors is so much greater now, and in a smaller enclosure. They are also a lot more robust, and can cope with dusty environments that they never would have before. The Rose project was an archaeological dig don’t forget!"

So now Dudley has run out of degrees in the circle, where next? "I’d like to push into the hemispherical setting, and also 3D content. Ultimately it’s just about continuing to enrich the environment which the actors and characters inhabit. 3D is totally irresistible to an audience. "If we can reach a point where there’s a hybrid between theatre and cinema, that’s where I want to be, I’d love it."

And when he says that, you know beyond a doubt that it’s true.

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