CGI in the round for "Peter Pan"

On a mission to “cinematize live theater,” celebrated veteran British stage designer William Dudley introduced his new production of J.M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan stateside in what appears to be a huge alien space station nestled on San Francisco’s downtown waterfront in the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid. The 100-foot-tall custom-built tent/theater/360-degree projection screen has landed here after a successful run in London on a tour of the planet expected to include Chicago, New York, Australia and Dubai.

Dudley’s virtual sets for Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia in London and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White on Broadway established him as a leader in cutting-edge stage design, but Peter Pan is the first to boast a screen that circles the entire stage and audience.

“It’s all about convergence now,” he said at a press conference here last Thursday after being praised by MAXON President and CEO Paul Babb as a pioneer who is catalyzing the integration of media and performance. Babb went on to describe CINEMA 4D as a bridge between the worlds of theater, cinema and gaming, that lets Dudley precisely model, move, map, divide and stitch 12 separate projections into a seamless circle around the stage, actors and audience. Dudley also uses the software to design the physical elements of the sets themselves.

We got a chance to see a partial run-through in progress featuring scenes with live actors suspended on wires. The $4.5 million production’s CGI setting wowed me, first, on a physical level. A breathtaking aerial sequence, in which the audience joins the children on a flight to Neverland, reveals 400 square miles of moonlit London streets passing below; it put butterflies in my stomach. An underwater scene where the actors (and spectators) appear to be floating in a colossal fishbowl nearly had me gasping for air.

The “surround-sight” set was achieved using 12 Barco 1400 x 1050 projectors mounted in a ring around a central circular stage and aimed at the tent walls, which form a conical 15,000 square-foot surface three times the size of an IMAX screen. Because the 1350-seat structure is suspended by exterior supports, there is nothing but air between the projectors, the screen, the stage and the audience, offering a uniquely immersive experience that combines cinema, circus, gaming, theater and amusement park in a portable pop-up play space that is the first of its kind.

Dudley chose a front-projection approach early in development, citing weather and daylight control, crisp resolution, unobstructed views and seamless stitching as clear advantages. Originally planned with 10 projectors, the design team found that by turning them sideways and adding two more they could give the composite image greater height and impact in the space. Specialized software adjusts projector settings to account for slight variations in the curvature of the tent’s surface, and each projector sports a dedicated networked Hippotizer Media Server.

When I asked what impact the technology might have on cinema alone, the designer said the spontaneity and variations of live performance and audience interaction are essential to his craft, and that he hopes his multimedia approach brings new and broader audiences to live theater. His futuristic vision is paradoxically inspired by historical examples of interactive entertainment like London’s Globe Theatre, where audiences and the weather make each performance unique, and silent movie houses with live musical accompaniment.

Excited about potential new and creative uses of the hybrid format, Dudley told me that 360-degree projection could have applications on a scale from indoor stadiums to gaming arcades to bedrooms and that he has already proposed installations in museums and planetariums that incorporate live elements. Then he teasingly hinted that stereo 360 is just around the corner.

Video camera operators and photographers proved his point during the CGI demo as they struggled to perform the impossible task of capturing the experience of being surrounded by a circular moving image within their rectangular viewfinders. Apparently to truly see into the future of entertainment, you just have to be there.