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William Wilberforce is brought ‘back to life’ by 3D technology

23 March 2017

William Wilberforce is brought 'back to life' by 3D technology

  • Born in Hull in 1759, he began his political career in 1780
  • He headed the parliamentary campaign against Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade for twenty years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 (25 March), and continued to support the campaign to abolish slavery
  • To mark the 210th anniversary of the passing of the act, experts from the University of Hull and The Glasgow School of Art have created a digital 3D version of Wilberforce using motion capture technology and advanced 3D rendering
  • Virtual Wilberforce to be launched on 23 March at the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, and be available to see at his birthplace, Wilberforce House Museum, throughout the UK’s City of Culture year
  • This will coincide with a special lighting of the Wilberforce Monument by Hull City Council as part of £25m transformation of the city centre, supported by the William Wilberforce Monument Fund

The University of Hull and the School of Simulation and Visualisation (SimVis) at The Glasgow School of Art are bringing pioneering abolitionist, William Wilberforce, whose movement led to the passing of the Slave Trade Act (25 March 1807), ending Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, back to life with innovative 3D technology.

William Wilberforce, born in Hull in 1759, was a leading MP and the man behind the movement to end slavery in the UK.

To mark the 210th anniversary of the passing of the Slave Trade Act, and to celebrate the Hull’s legacy of freedom in its City of Culture year, experts from the University of Hull and The Glasgow School of Art have used the same 3D wizardry found in blockbuster Hollywood films to create ‘Virtual Wilberforce’.

He features in a series of short animated videos, talking about his powerful life story and fight for freedom in his own words, from his first speech against the African slave trade in the House of Commons in 1789 through to his death in 1833. It is hoped that these will inspire positive change today through learning lessons from the past.

Virtual Wilberforce will be unveiled at a special event on 23 March, which will include talks from its creators about how and why they decided to bring him back to life, and a special projection of the videos onto the side of the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute.  A further video, of the freed-slave and important figure, Olaudah Equiano, will also be shown.   

This event will also include the lighting of the Wilberforce Monument by Hull City Council as part of the £25m transformation of the city centre, supported by the William Wilberforce Monument Fund.

Following this, Virtual Wilberforce will then appear at Paragon Station and in Wilberforce House Museum, during the course of Hull’s City of Culture year to celebrate the life and work of this important figure, and serve as a reminder of the ongoing fight against slavery we all face today.  

John Oldfield, Director of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull said:

Wilberforce’s story is so extraordinarily powerful, we wanted to do it justice. The battle he went through tells us so much about the terrible effects of slavery and why every one of us must play our part to eradicate it.
Virtual Wilberforce, played by one of our own drama students, Adan Osborne, provides insight into Wilberforce’s inspirational fight against slavery, the obstacles he faced during his campaign, and the great fortitude he displayed, often against great odds. By installing interactive life-sized screens across Hull during this City of Culture year, we want people to recognise the lessons from Wilberforce’s story and understand the ongoing fight we all face in combating the global slavery problem today. We hope it will inspire others to take up the fight.
Working with computer science experts here at the University and SimVis at The Glasgow School of Art has opened-up new and innovative ways of interpreting historical characters and bringing their stories to life.
Virtual Wilberforce is just one element of the breadth of action the University of Hull is taking to utilise its expertise in tackle modern day slavery today.

Kevin Hyland, the UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, added:

The work of the abolitionists, led by William Wilberforce, was the first grassroots human rights campaign, in which men and women from different social classes and backgrounds volunteered to end the injustices of others. We need to learn from this influential leadership.
Though the campaign faced challenges and trials, the perseverance of Wilberforce is admirable. He shifted mind-sets, as people started to view slavery, for the first time, as a national crime. We face this same challenge today, with up to 13,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK today, we need to learn from the commitment, determination and ambition of the abolitionists 210 years ago, and help people understand that this is serious, organised crime.
The work of the University of Hull, Glasgow School of Art and others, with their Virtual Wilberforce, will do just that. It will attract attention and inspire positive change. It will help people in Hull and beyond understand what modern slavery really is.
This week marks two years since the UK’s Modern Slavery Act came into force. We must come together and see that the full force of the law is used. Together, let’s strive to see more victims safe and perpetrators punished. In the words of William Wilberforce himself, ‘you may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.

Adan Osborne, 22, the University of Hull drama student who provided the voice and physical movements for Virtual Wilberforce, said:

It has been a privilege to be involved in this project, and a unique and exciting opportunity for me as a drama student to play such an inspirational figure, although no one will see my face! I didn’t know much about Wilberforce when I began, but after re-creating his life story and his famous speech to Parliament, I’m extremely proud to help bring him back for this City of Culture year, and share his story to inspire more people.

Dr Paul Chapman, Head of the School of Simulation and Visualisation at The Glasgow School of Art, said:

We’re delighted to have worked with the University of Hull on this project creating the high-quality motion capture and 3D modelling of Amy Johnson and William Wilberforce. It’s always a challenge when re-creating historical characters but the skillsets of the team combined with our leading-edge technology and software has brought these important characters back to life.
We feel positive that the exhibition will be a success and will highlight the incredible lives of these two pioneers.

Gifty Burrows, Chair of Trustees at the William Wilberforce Monument Fund, said:

Hull is quite justifiably proud of its connection to William Wilberforce. Lighting the monument acknowledges his endeavours and those of abolitionists everywhere who were persistent in addressing human injustice. We have a collective responsibility to make sure that their efforts are remembered as the legacy of historic slavery continues to influence society today. We are minded to learn from the past and use that as an example to do something about the present day that is blighted by the numbers in modern day slavery.

Virtual Wilberforce will be unveiled on 23 March at 6pm, at the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute. Media are invited to attend this event, followed by the lighting of the monument in Queen’s Gardens from 7pm, with the Freedom Chorus and speakers including City Major Projects Manager Garry Taylor.

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