May 2003 - Virtual Reality by Starlight. New 3D projection for hit musical Starlight Express

Original photos courtesy of Principal Large Format, London

About Starlight Express

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Richard Stilgoe

Starlight Express opened in London on March 27, 1984 and closed on January 12, 2002 after almost 18 year run in the West End! It is second only to Cats as the longest running musical in British theatre history. The show went on to achieve international success with productions on Broadway, in Las Vegas, Japan, Australia, a North American tour and in Bochum, Germany where it is still playing after 14 years.

The story is a modernized version of The Little Engine That Could and teaches about the triumph of the human spirit. Actor on roller-skates play the part of trains and cars. The most recent touring production features an updated score and stunning 3D race sequences which use IRIDAS stereoscopic projection technology.

To find out more about Starlight Express visit



Inside Inition

Inition is the story how four young British entrepreneurs with a passion for 3D graphics went to annual sales of £1m in just two and a half years. Inition provides its customers with a range of virtual reality (a.k.a. VizSim) and graphics products and services. For the founders, Stuart Cupit, James Gant, Chris Sutton, and Andy Millns, the passion for 3D began early.


When people talk about media integration these days, they are probably not thinking about bringing large format 3D film into live theatre. But that is exactly what is happening now as Inition and IRIDAS have joined forces to provide the technology for the first use of 3D digital projection in a Broadway musical.

The new touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express includes dramatic 3D race sequences rear-projected onto a 30-foot wide screen and artfully interwoven with the live stage action. “This is not just a first in theatre,” says Inition co-founder Stuart Cupit, “this is a sign of things to come.”

The Challenge

The production opened on April 1, 2003 at the Grand Casino Theater in Biloxi, Mississippi, but the story began much earlier with a fundamental question – how do you recreate the complex staging of the original Starlight Express in the new touring production of the musical? The original theater had been specially fitted with ramps and runways so that the actors could hurtle around, and through, the audience on roller skates.

3D film projection has been around almost since the invention of movies, but, until recently, digital projection systems have not been able to provide 3D images which were sufficiently high resolution, bright enough, or large enough scale for use in theatres. Now, thanks to advances in projection and digital playback technology, all that is changing. The benefits to theatre are obvious. 3D projection adds the dimension of depth making it possible to enhance a production with realistic, tightly integrated scenes that couldn’t otherwise be staged – such as the famous race sequences in Starlight Express.

IRIDAS Answers the Call

Inition had already been working on the problem of delivering portable, cost-effective 3D projection systems for several years, but nothing yet on this scale. They determined that the Starlight Express sequences would require high-definition dual-stream playback at 30 frames-per second Their first efforts for this project were based on the widely used MPEG2 compressed video format. But synchronizing the two video streams required for stereoscopic playback proved an insurmountable challenge. Another solution was needed and IRIDAS answered the call. “They were very helpful,” says James Gant, Inition’s technical director. “They got their software and a box over to us in days and the whole thing was up and running within a week.”

“Like it so often is in the business, big developments sometimes have to happen in days, not months,” says Lin Kayser, IRIDAS CEO. “We knew we had the technology to do this (the Digital Cinema Playback System), but we hadn’t anticipated it going into real-world use just yet. We are delighted with the results.” DCPS uses uncompressed full resolution playback technology so image quality wasn’t an issue at all. Another advantage it has over the MPEG format is that it does not require hardware decoders thus reducing equipment costs. But the trump card for this project was the fact that with DCPS, the dual channels are queued through the same display pipeline. Not only is there no possibility of drift, there is also absolutely precise sound synchronization.

Thumbs up from Andrew Lloyd Webber

The official test screening took place on March 14th and used a preliminary version of IRIDAS’ new Digital Cinema Playback System. It went off without a hitch. Andrew Lloyd Webber was in attendance and was impressed by the technology. He gave the go-ahead to include the system in the new touring production of Starlight Express.

This initial success was followed by a period of intense product development. “We gave IRIDAS a wish list of features and right away we began receiving patches and updates on an almost daily basis,” says Gant. The last issue that needed to be resolved was the problem of achieving adequate brightness for the 30-foot screen. The simple solution was to split the two channels using two 7700-lumen projectors for each: four projectors in all.

The Inition team also made some great discoveries as they worked with the IRIDAS product. For example, DCPS technology makes it remarkably easy to import new footage into the system without the lengthy and tricky encoding process which MPEG requires. This came in handy! “We were able to incorporate changes right up until the opening night, says Gant. “In fact, changes were made after the opening night.”

Taking it on the Road

Once everything was ready, Gant and Andy Millns (Inition’s creative director) left London for Biloxi, Mississippi along with their “rig” of four digital projectors. For two hectic weeks the Inition team fine-tuned the technology, conducted technical rehearsals with the cast and trained the Starlight Express technicians to operate the system. “It was amazing to see the way that the show integrated the stage action with the scenes projected in 3D,” says Millns. “For example, one transition began with real fog on the stage which then gave way to 3D projected fog. It was almost seamless.” In another scene the movements of the actors in the 3D film are paralleled by the actors on stage providing a smooth transition in and out of the film sequences. “These were the sorts of things that we had to practice (and practice) in the technical rehearsals until they were really perfect. I was very impressed by the cast and crew.”

Then, all of a sudden it was opening night. “I don’t think the audience realized that they were about to witness the real world debut of this technology, but once the show began they responded. Their gasps and “oohs” in response to the 3D race sequences made all the hard work worthwhile” says Millns. “From my experience, this is the way most people react when they see modern 3D projection for the first time. They just can’t believe how good it is. I love bringing this new medium to people. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about my work.” But what about the need for 3D glasses during the stereoscopic sequences? “That was very cleverly done,” adds Gant, “a voice informed the audience that the race was about to begin and instructed them to put on their ‘safety goggles.’ So even the 3D glasses were integrated into the story. The audience loved it!”

In May the show opened in Houston at a gala performance with Andrew Lloyd Webber and George Bush senior in attendance. This production of Starlight Express will run until the summer of 2004 and play in 22 cities throughout the United States.


Image (c) 2003 Inition, London

Image (c) 2003 Inition, London

The integration between live action and stereoscopic projection is an industry first

Photography Credit: Joan Marcus Copyright: Starlight Express™
©1984 RUG Ltd.


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