Bill Dudley, Part II

Bill Dudley has seen the light, and it is coming from a video projector. Last month, in part one of our interview with the noted UK-based designer (Hitchcock Blonde, Blue/Orange in the West End, Roman Polanski's Dance of the Vampires in Germany, Amadeus and Medea in both the West End and on Broadway), he explained how he first became involved in using computer graphic imagery, his use of the technology on the recent Tom Stoppard trilogy The Coast of Utopia, and video projection's role in the modern theatre. This month, he expands upon that idea in much more detail.

David Johnson: What has the response been from your peers regarding your dive into 3D video projection?

Bill Dudley: They're for it. What's happening is the learning curve on 3D is big. It's a different way of thinking. It's one of those things where you have to be both a technician and an artist, which fits a lot of designers. It's about geometry as much as anything, plus a good eye for how light interfaces with objects in a real world, and of course the choreography of movement.

DJ: Approximately how long would you say the learning curve is then?

BD: Well, I still go for lessons. I go about once a fortnight, and I do a long morning one-to-one session, with the same guy who's been teaching me for two years. What I've found is that the manuals, the books that come with the software, are very poorly written, because they don't actually supply enough of the crucial information. I always have to say, ‘Just tell me what that paragraph is in plain English.’

DJ: They're rarely written by people who are comfortable with the English language…

BD: That's right. But not to put anybody off, it's just a matter of perseverance, because the first time you animate, and you're playing back your first movie in QuickTime, you are enchanted. It's like what animate means: to breathe life. And it does. This apparently solid object on your screen moves at your command. It does exactly what you've instructed it to do by punching in a few numbers and moving your mouse about a bit. It's sort of overwhelming because you've created a bit of life.

What I've always been fascinated with in the pictorial aspect of the theatre is the mystery of stage depths. One of the shocks when you work in America is that theatres are generally shallower; always with massive wing space, but a shallow stage. It's the opposite here; we have more depth, but narrow wings. So this would be particularly useful in America because of creating that most mysterious thing of all: apparent depth. And the fact that there are screens you can walk people through and move the screens themselves.

There are some very interesting developments I saw at PLASA, including High End's Catalyst DL1. They're not quite up there yet with the brightness; it's like 5,000 lumens, and I think they need to go somewhat brighter. But the notion of being able to reconfigure your keystoning on the fly as you track a shape, where the relationship between the position of the projector and the screen changes, so you can adapt the image to appear to fit, is an astonishing thought.

DJ: It sounds like you're getting up to speed not only on the software but also the hardware.

BD: Well, there's a team of three guys who do the hardware end. I'm really just at the software end. Whereas I would have previously done sketches or models. I mean, by contract we still have to do models. It does point out things the screen can't tell you.

DJ: Have you seen much other projection work since you started doing this?

BD: Not a lot. I did see one stunning thing done by Theatre de Complicité called The Elephant Vanishes. It was mostly projecting live camera shots, but it was an intriguing mélange of spaces and wires and tracks and things. It's not quite what I'm doing, but it was wonderful what they did.

DJ: You mentioned at PLASA that you have some definite ideas about who should be handling this kind of design in the theatre. You feel it's more of a set designers realm than a projection designer's.

BD : I personally couldn't do a show where there's a separate projection designer. Because I don't then see what the role of the designer is. It's not that I have a beef with projection designers. I think they should merge. I think projection designers should become stage designers. I don't rule out that they should do the whole thing. We tend more in this country to have set and costume design be done by one person, whereas in America it felt more separate.

DJ: It's very specialized in the US.

BD: It's the norm in the UK to do both, and you can't possibly light it as well, so you usually have a lighting designer. To me the idea of a fourth person, pulling and pushing another way, would be a problem. There was a show here where there was a tussle between the production designer who did the set and costumes and the video man, and it shouldn't be like that. It seems to me like the director should have arbitrated more clearly. I would hate to be in that situation. The ideal would be cross-fertilization.

DJ: So you're working on three projects now and two of them use video?

I'm doing a musical with Roman Polanski, Dance of the Vampires, not the Broadway one. I designed it with him in Vienna, and it's currently transferring from Stuttgart to Hamburg, and when I went over to Paris to see Roman, he asked if we could upgrade the projections, because we used this rather traditional 19th century projection. I happened to mention that I was doing some video animation, so I took him some on a laptop to look at and he okayed it. And I found that amazing because here I was showing a clip to one of the world's great movie directors. I couldn't believe it. I was trembling. He just said, ‘I like that one, don't do that one,’ and gave me some notes.

I'm also doing a new play by David Hare called The Permanent Way, which has a tryout in York. It's about the disastrous railway system here. And the third, which doesn't use video, is Cyrano de Bergerac at the National at the Olivier. We're not doing it in 1640s Paris, but in 1880s, could be Ireland, or an Irish corner in America, or it could be in London.

DJ: Does it seem odd to anyone you've spoken to that you're bringing sophisticated 3D moving graphics into the world of theatre?

BD: I've done a couple of interviews in computer graphics magazines, and it never occurred to them that people in the theatre would ever use it. I told them we are like kids who stare in at shop windows, and pick up what we can. We get stuff developed for other media, because of the lower budgets, and make use of it how we can. The stuff I'm using wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the game industry, and the military; a lot of this stuff was developed for flight simulators.

That's been the case essentially through my career; new careers and techniques are developed, and it's eventually filtered down, via film and graphics, to the theatre.

DJ: Is there any kind of software that you've looked at that's similar to the software you currently use, Maxon's Cinema 4D?

BD: Well, there's Adobe After Effects, which is loosely described as Photoshop on wheels. Basically it gives you most of the tools of Photoshop but you can animate within it. It has that wonderful ability to merge and move layers and do wonderful dream images. And it's there on the high street, or in the shopping mall as you say; none of the stuff I use is for specialists. You can buy it by mail order. It's not a thing where you have to go to Hollywood to track down the one man in the world who knows how to use it.

DJ: You talk about cost; what sort of savings do you think you're seeing when you design a show this way compared to how you have in the past?

BD: That comes back to my theme about being timely. I don't know if you have it over there but in the West End the dream equation is ‘3-2-1’: three actors, two acts, one set. I'm not saying they're all like that, but the perfect play at the moment is like that. There are only three actors and one set, so there's no big crew, and you have an interval so you can sell some drinks in the bar.

Most theatres can't afford a seriously good scene painter. I know there are scene-painting machines, and they can do some of that work very well. But all those costs, when you start working out per square yard, become prohibitive. I don't want to see the theatre come to where it's just a set of black drapes and three people come out in a simplistic lighting plot, and then do the play. I think it'll shed its audience, because demographically, the youngsters coming up are different. It's not like they're going to sit and listen while words do all the work. Some people might be really outraged by that, but it's really changing. Our prime minister said he's hardly ever been to the theatre and has never been to the opera, and he's over 50. That's the demographics starting to speak.

I would imagine in five to ten years most theatres will have a video mixing board, much like a sound and lighting board. Because I can see it where kids who are now in arts school will graduate and can become video mixers in the theatre. They're all savvy in all that. It's like all those guys re-mixing music; it's the same situation where relatively cheap, relatively robust tools allow for mixing imagery and visual language as never before.

The cost is one thing, but it does take time; the craft of it is that you do a bit and then you do a test render. And then you another bit of work and another test render. I've now got like 12 or 13 computers here, which are all hooked up to, not quite a super computer, but something called a render farm, which means each machine just works on one frame each.

DJ : Twelve computers?

BD: Yeah. Macs and PCs. I basically work on a Mac, but the PCs are cheaper; we call them render hogs. Just as a Hell's Angel would call his bike his hog, we call them render hogs. They sit there, they don't complain, you just tell them, render this, and they do it.

DJ: So there are significant initial costs to the designer that must be outlaid in order to do this, at least right now.

BD: Oh yes. I've been building the number of computers up over the last year or so. It's a question of horsepower. You're moving about millions and millions of pixels to do it. The calculations are amazing when you think you're asking it to calculate what a virtual light would do going through the leaves of a tree and you've got X-thousand leaves on the tree and it's picking out not only where the light goes through, but where does it's shadow fall, on next leaf or the leaf after that. And it does; it actually calculates it. I find it staggering; I'll never be blasé about it.

I'm looking at my screen now. I'm looking across the Yorkshire moors at a deserted railway line, and its moonlight, and there are a couple of lights. It's remarkable.