Published in The New York Times
When the Lumière brothers first showed the film ''Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat'' in Paris more than a century ago, the shot of a locomotive pulling into a station was supposedly so startling that much of the audience jumped back from the screen in fright.
Simon Lee probably has a good idea of how they felt. He was conducting the orchestra in London for ''The Woman in White'' -- the new $8.5 million Andrew Lloyd Webber musical -- when he first saw the show's computer-animated train barreling toward him from a dark tunnel, its wheels rumbling and whistle screaming. He ducked.
''I want the theater to have some of the visual scope and sense of movement that cinema has,'' said William Dudley, the show's set and video designer, and the creator of the novel animation effects. ''Directors often talk about breaking through the fourth wall. I want to break through the second wall, the back wall.''
Mr. Dudley may have achieved his goal with ''The Woman in White,'' currently in previews at the Marquis Theater in Manhattan. It is the first Broadway show in which computer-animated images completely dominate the stage.
Projections appear on six, 16 1/2-foot-tall curved gray screens that move around the edge of the stage in a circle. Think of the computer animation in a Pixar movie like ''Toy Story,'' with a more realistic, less cartoonish look. The setting can change instantly: as two characters tour an estate, the actors stay put as the background dissolves from one room to another. Or, the animation can take the audience through a three-dimensional environment, over fields, houses, churches and graveyards.
Spectacles, of course, are nothing new to Lord Lloyd Webber and the ''Woman in White'' director, Sir Trevor Nunn. The two teamed up on ''Cats,'' ''Starlight Express'' and ''Sunset Boulevard,'' and individually tackled ''The Phantom of the Opera'' (Lord Lloyd Webber) and ''Les Misérables'' (Sir Trevor).
For ''Woman in White,'' adapted from Wilkie Collins's 1860 novel, Lord Lloyd Webber wanted so many locations, Sir Trevor said, that elaborate physical sets would not work. One option was to use a spare, turntable set like that of ''Les Misérables.'' But Lord Lloyd Webber saw Mr. Dudley's animations for Tom Stoppard's 2002 play ''The Coast of Utopia'' at the National Theater, directed by Sir Trevor, and he was hooked. Mr. Dudley recalls that when he first showed Sir Trevor a moving image he planned to use -- a pan across a Russian country estate -- Sir Trevor told him he felt like ''Orville and Wilbur Wright at Kitty Hawk.''
The reception from critics was more mixed when ''The Woman in White'' opened in the West End in London in September 2004, though the sets were nominated for an Olivier Award. Benedict Nightingale in The Times of London declared that ''the décor justifies itself in a pretty, Merchant-Ivory way,'' while Linda Winer of Newsday wrote, ''never before have I wished that vertigo pills were sold in the lobby.''
Mr. Dudley subsequently made revisions, and some critics returned last month. Matt Wolf wrote in Variety that the projection ''seems, thank heavens, to have simmered down.'' But Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph still said, ''What's required, surely, is an authentically Victorian atmosphere, not something that looks like an out-of-focus video game.''
Nonsense, says Mr. Dudley, who insists that his 21st-century technology is compatible with a 19th-century aesthetic.
He said he got the idea for using three-dimensional animation onstage after watching his son play a video game. He became fascinated by the power of moving images to draw in viewers. He also thought video-game-style animation might attract young people to the theater.
Experimental theater groups like Complicite and the Wooster Group have used video for years, as do many dance shows, operas and rock concerts. Broadway musicals have increasingly included snippets of moving images. Wendall Harrington, a projection designer whose use of animation for ''The Who's Tommy'' in 1993 was groundbreaking, said that many productions today insert video to save money on scenery or to show off. Ms. Harrington, who has not yet seen ''Woman in White,'' said designers must first ask themselves, ''Does it in any kind of way deliver the story better than anything else.''
Sonia Friedman, a producer of ''The Woman in White,'' said ''If people think we are doing this to save money, think again.''
No sculptors or painters toiled over banisters or crown molding. But Mr. Dudley hired a team of about 10 people, including video editors and computer specialists. Ms. Friedman thought that while labor costs in London would initially be high, the ability to store the animated images on a computer would save her money on future productions. ''That was my dream -- a design in a handbag,'' she said.
But New York proved as costly as London, as Mr. Dudley had to change his animation to match the script and music changes, and redesign the equipment to fit a new theater. A British tour begins in a year and Ms. Friedman is still working on how to make the show portable.
Mr. Dudley, who studied landscape painting at St. Martins School of Art in London in the mid-1960's, said he drew inspiration for ''Woman in White'' from 19th-century British art, including the nocturnal cityscapes of John Atkinson Grimshaw and the romanticism of Pre-Raphaelites like William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais.
He also turned to the Victorian equivalent of animation: the zoetrope, a hollow cylindrical toy that spins to create a moving picture. Mr. Dudley not only opens the show with an image of a ghostly zoetrope, but he also arranged the curved screens in a partial cylinder to evoke a big zoetrope in which the action takes place.
''None of what I'm doing is anti-actor,'' he said; he wants the background to enhance the characters' actions and emotions, not to serve as a distraction. While the villagers dance, the camera swoops through the street, so the dancers appear to be moving down it. When a character is lost in the foggy London alleys, the backdrops change rapidly to enhance her disorientation.
Mr. Dudley first started experimenting with animation when Sir Trevor hired him for Mr. Stoppard's ''Coast of Utopia.'' That enormously ambitious nine-hour epic was split into three plays and jumped among Russia, Paris, London, Geneva, Germany and Nice in time periods between 1833 and 1865.
''Tom was unquestionably writing filmically,'' Sir Trevor said.
Animation would allow backdrops to change quickly, without huge sets to truck on and off. The play was a learning process for Mr. Dudley, who soon found himself hunched over a software manual while motorcyclists waited outside his house, ready to deliver the discs to the theater. (His dial-up Internet connection was too slow to send large files by e-mail.)
Mr. Dudley, who has worked on more than 50 plays at the National, went on to apply his technique to David Hare's ''Permanent Way'' there, a revision of Roman Polanski's production of ''Dance of the Vampires'' in Germany, and Terry Johnson's ''Hitchcock Blonde'' at the Royal Court Theater and the West End, which won Mr. Dudley an Olivier Award.
His next project is a play by Brian Clark about Rembrandt that will combine moving images with live actors to bring the painter's subjects to life.
Other shows have started using similar techniques. Michael Clark's projections for ''Ring of Fire'' -- the Johnny Cash musical that arrives on Broadway in February -- will have computer-animated landscapes of rural America. The Menier Chocolate Factory, a London company, is using video for Stephen Sondheim's ''Sunday in the Park With George,'' which begins on Friday. The production will make the Georges Seurat painting at the heart of the show -- ''A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte'' -- come alive by integrating the actors with moving images of trees, dogs, water, boats and other objects from the painting, which will be projected onto drapes, doors and other set pieces.
For Mr. Dudley, there is no question that cinema and theater can coexist on a single stage: ''One shouldn't be such a poor relation to the other.''