The silhouette of an elderly woman, her hair in a bun, opens a window and looks out. Atmospheric sounds hum and clatter in the distance: water dripping down gutters, the radiator pipes knocking, a bird chirping, the radio in the background, the sudden boom of thunder. We seem to be in an old movie, or something like that. But then, below the scene, we glimpse an old-fashioned overhead projector—the kind that used to sit on a rolling cart in school classrooms everywhere. There are puppeteers grouped around a table, a multiarmed beast manipulating paper and light.
This is the enchanting performance mode of Manual Cinema, a Chicago-based company that combines shadow puppetry, animation, video, stage acting, music, sound design, and more to create performances that hover uncertainly between theater and film. In Momentos Mori, Manual Cinema’s most ambitious production yet, the company unfolds (sometimes, with paper, quite literally) a story about technology, alienation, loneliness, and unlikely friendships in the face of death in the modern world.
Company members Sarah Fornace, Drew Dir, Julia Miller, and Kyle Vegter spoke with Anna Chiaretta Lavatelli, Associate Director of Digital Media, to discuss the company’s production of Momentos Mori, which appears at MCA Stage January 15 through 18.
Anna Chiaretta Lavatelli: How would you describe Manual Cinema?
Sarah Fornace: Manual Cinema is a shadow puppetry and live animation company. We use overhead projectors, humans in silhouette, and a band with a quadrophonic sound system to create an experience that feels like being at an animated movie. However, you’re seeing everything being constructed frame by frame and note by note in front of you.
Drew Dir: We use the old-school overhead projectors you had in your elementary school, and we use hundreds of shadow puppets to create feature-length stories that are told entirely through sound and music and imagery. We can do pretty much anything a moving camera can do, but we do it all on an overhead projector.
ACL: What is it like to be part of Manual Cinema?
DD: It’s a highly collaborative process. All of us come from very disparate backgrounds. Some of us come from theater, some of us come from movement and dance, from visual art, so we all sort of bring our own strengths to the process, but the stories that we tell, including the story of Mementos Mori, are all created collaboratively. We all enter a room together, and we sit down writer’s room style and hash out the story, and we continue to do that.
What’s most rewarding for me is that we’re working in sort of an impossible medium. Creating, making stories with shadow puppets on overhead projectors is an incredibly demanding kind of medium to work in, and you’re constantly failing actually, but that experience of constantly failing and discovering more things about the medium and pushing through and making new discoveries is what makes the work really rewarding. Four years on, we’re still learning so much about cinematic shadow puppetry that it’s exhilarating to work in a medium that, that gives back and that teaches you so much constantly.
Julia Miller: We work in a way that combines classic staging of theater, but also animation in a way that animators work. We work from an outline of a script, but then we transfer that into a storyboard, and that storyboard then becomes our visual script, and then with the storyboard, we use that to build all the puppets. We shoot demos of the storyboard, so we’ll film each frame of the storyboard in rehearsal, and then I’ll edit together the demos of the story, so then we have a digital version of the show that exists. That our ideal staging. Then we go back to the rehearsal room and try to figure out how to do that in real time and space on the projectors.
ACL: How does the sound in the show interact with the puppets on stage?
SF: Kyle composes for quadrophonic sound so that it is all around the audience and he likes to describe it as hyper-real, so if a door swings open it’ll swing open across the audience rather than just the amount it would swing open.
Kyle Vegter: Being the sound designer for Manual Cinema is the most exciting thing and the most terrifying thing, ever. My job is to take a 2D puppet and make it real and living and breathing and envelope the audience in this world that we’re creating. So all of our sound design is mixed in surround. There are two speakers in front of the audience and two speakers behind. The way that sound design works in our shows is that it’s a little bit augmented in comparison to film sound design. In film sound design, they don’t do a lot of panning. Sounds don’t move around a lot, but in ours I over-exaggerate gestures that happen in the world. So when a door opens, it opens across the entire auditorium to sort of give you a sense of being inside of the world.
One of the characters is dead throughout the show, so we’re still trying to figure out how that works. What kind of sound world can we create? What does it sound like when you’re dead? We’re trying out a bunch of different filters. Maybe you only hear from 500 hertz and above, so everything becomes high pitched and you’re only getting half the information. That’s the way I think about character and development and how sound worlds work with puppets.
ACL: How does Mementos Mori compare with Manual Cinema’s other productions?
JM: We’re experimenting with a couple of new things. It’s our first multiple protagonist show as opposed to a single character. We follow through a narrative arc.
SF: One of the most exciting parts about our MCA residency is the enormous stage space that we have access to here. This is actually the first time we have set up the set up for this show, because it’s simply too big for our studio. Usually, a Manual Cinema show will have one screen and then a table of projectors with three to four projectors on it. Then we will have one camera that is live-feeding to a large screen above it, so you’ll be able to see the actors and puppeteers creating the image on a single screen and then it’s fed to a single screen.
But here at the MCA on this new show, we have two screens on the ground, so there’s two sites of creation where the shots are being constructed and live-edited by the puppeteers together. Then there’s also a video editor on stage who takes the feeds from the two cameras trained on the two screens and then feeds it to a single screen above. Essentially we can now double the amount of information we want to put into the show. We can simply move faster; shadow puppets want to move really slow, and what we try to do is try to push them to move at the pace of film, and they don’t want to do that. By doubling the number of projectors, the number of puppeteers we have, we can edit much, much faster during the show.
JM: There are so many layers to our work, and I’m constantly learning about them, especially with this show because it’s the first time we’re working with performers that aren’t founding members of the company. There’s been a huge step in trying to articulate what our process and technique are to fresh brains who don’t have context for it yet. That has been really a great learning experience on our end.
ACL: How are characters developed on stage?
SF: One way we give a lot of character information is through the types of shots we use. Melba has a lot of point-of-view shots because we’re seeing the world, which is large and looming at her. She is seven years old and experiencing a lot of new things for the first time. We have these very stark point-of-view shots that we intercut with medium and far shots of her.