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Manual Cinema Casts Shadows in Onscreen Stories

BY: Mel Kassel | May 1, 2013
Manual Cinema Casts Shadows in Onscreen StoriesThe five company members of Manual Cinema don't need a stage to put on their brand of theater. What they do need is a portable screen, around three overhead projectors, and hundreds of paper puppets to serve as characters in stories scored by live music. The company’s puppeteers move these cutouts across transparencies on the projectors, creating scenes that range from simple to mind-bending. In one, a figurine traverses a desert full of rock formations. In another, a woman loses herself amid distorted images in a carnival mirror-maze. According to Manual Cinema artist Drew Dir, the experience "recreates the wonder of seeing cinema, but in a live format." The stories are indeed structured like films—black squares of paper hang over the projector lamps, allowing the puppeteers to rapidly cut from one projector's scenery to the next by flipping the square up or down. A large stack of puppets and backgrounds sits beside each projector, layered in the order that they appear during the performance. The company uses live actors, too. By standing behind the screen, they’re able to perform more elaborate movements than their puppet counterparts. They still have to look like puppets, though, and to make the transition from human to paper silhouette believable, they rely on costuming tricks. Dir explains that they use shadow-masks: sculpted replicas of the puppets’ profiles that the actors wear by holding a back piece between their teeth. "We also wig the actors to get a consistent shape," he explains. Actors will often interact with elements on screen that are actually pieces on the projector. For example, a woman might be seen opening and rushing through a door, when in fact there is no door for her to grasp. Instead, a puppeteer manipulates the cutout of a door to correspond with the actor's miming. Dir and his team relish these kinds of effects, and are continually inventing new ones. "The medium is so limited, there are so many things you can't do…It's a constant game of problem solving. That's the main pleasure of doing the company…it's such a joy to figure out how to tell the next story." He demonstrates how they pull off a convincing thunderstorm, with rain droplets shimmering against a lighthouse backdrop. "This rain effect is a black piece of paper with little rain shards cut out of it, and someone is doing this," he waves his hands quickly over the projector to cast flickering shadows. "[They're] kind of DJ-ing the rain." The shows are, by necessity, tech-heavy endeavors. The company has to memorize the exact timing of their cues, whether they're manning a projector or gesturing in front of one. Their movements also sync up with sound effects and music from the band. With all of these factors, it's no wonder that they choose to leave out dialogue in favor of an immersive, multimedia journey. And, regardless of the subject matter, every production begins with a solid story. Dir says that they mostly depend on original ideas for their projects. Once they've latched onto a plot they like, they begin storyboarding and handcrafting the puppets. They film and edit a demo reel of the show to send to their composers, who score a soundtrack to match the images. Then, it’s time to practice. The typical life cycle of a show stretches for eight months. Dir says that they will remake a show if they’ve brainstormed new ways to present it. Their first show required one projector, and was 20 minutes long. Two years later they premiered a 45-minute version. They ended up scrapping the majority of the puppets from that production, and drafted a different, 75-minute incarnation on three projectors. The result—a show called Lula del Ray, about a girl who becomes infatuated with a country-music duo and runs away from home—went up last December. In the future, Dir and and the rest of the company plan to keep experimenting in terms of scale and complexity. He recounts how they recently ran 10 projectors for a three-minute show, which commemorated the opening of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago. Given infinite resources, he says that he’d recruit more puppeteers for similarly intricate displays. Referring fondly to the trio of projectors lined up in the studio, he says, “They are our instruments, we know them really well. For every project, we up the ante and find out what else we can do with them.”