Puppetry Tech Notes


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Thursday, May 09, 2002


Technote: White Shadows


MAY 2002

So called "white shadows" have a venerable stagecraft history, having been used to create ghostly effects during the 19th century and possibly earlier. Painting an image on a mirror and then reflecting it onto some surface is described in 16th century stage manuals. Shorty after WWII a company presenting abstract light shows toured in France using polished stainless steel sheets flexed in order to project mutating forms. One common source of such plates was/is ferreotype plates used in the darkroom to dry glossy prints. The Underground Railway Theatre and particularly John Levandowski, now artistic director of the Marionettes de Geneve helped create moving white projections for Julie Taymor's "Haggadah" in New York in the '70s. She exploited this technique for Serban's "King Stag" production, one of the mainstays of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge. Underground Railway has used the technique in several of their large scale shadow performances , such as "The Firebird", sometimes performing with symphony orchestras.

The technique basically requires a focused source of bright light. The sun can be used outdoors, for example. Indoors, using back projection, the light, such as a slide projector with the lens removed and replaced by an open metal tube, should be aimed so it doesn't bleed onto the screen. Images can be created as negatives on flexible acrylic mirror. By aiming the reflection at the screen - this takes practice- and flexing the mirror slightly - this takes even more practice - changes in size and shape are possible. Colored images can be created by using either colored light or by by placing theatrical "gel" over the mirror before applying the negative mask. Gel blurs the image slightly. Wear gloves when flexing.

Other options include using mirror mylar film. The images fuzz a bit, but this may be acceptable. Stretch the film over a frame and use a hair dryer to "shrink" away the wrinkles, as if smoothing a temporary storm window. It's also possible to place a painted slide in a projector, aim that at a mirror (preferably front face), and manipulate that image as it falls on the screen. Images can be reflected up onto a cyc from behind a set of sufficient height to create mirages.
An addendum from Mervyn Millar in England;
Just to add to your very informative note on white shadows - I've also used glass paint (applied directly to the mirror) to colour white shadows. All the depth of colour you get from gels, but without the blurring. It's possible to make quite detailed multi-coloured images with this.

Mervyn, wireframe, www.wireframe.org.uk

Email:Will Stackman

posted by will
4:07 PM

Tuesday, May 07, 2002



May 2002

Traditional European marionette controls may date back to the ancient Greeks. The simplest translation of the words describing how puppets can be controlled is "metal wires." The more complicated string controls probably came in during the Renaissance when Marco Polo et al. re-established trade with the Orient and Chinese string puppets were brought back. These gave rise to the fantocinni figures which eclipsed their older cousins, except for the armored knights of the Sicilian tradition and miniature figures now most prevalent as toys, generally referred to as "Czech" marionettes. Such puppets have been manufactured for at least 100 years, including some produced in New York in the '30s by Mme. Alexander, designed by Tony Sarg. Today they are occasionally used professionally, often for table top shows. This method of control deserves closer scrutiny.

The general form is a single long wire which passes through the head of the figure out the neck, ending in a narrow loop which hooks into staple or similar connector at the top of the body. The top of the wire is bent forward at a right angle to form an inverted "L". That end is curled into a eyelet for the continuous hand-string. The leg bar, either wire or wood, pivots on this short section. It's not normally removable. Strings from either end go down to the knees, often through the skirt, robe, or tunic of the puppet, By rocking the bar while moving the puppet, a satisfactory walk can be achieved.

To make the control easier to hold, the wire may first be bent back then forward to make the top bar, forming a short narrow loop to the rear, which may then be curved downward slightly. The pivot point may be defined by bending a small niche into the top bar which keeps the leg bar in position. A hanging loop can be tied to top bar behind the leg bar, which incidently, is usually only slightly wider than the hips of the puppet.

The bodies of commercial "Czech" marionettes are often simple blocks of wood with no flexibility at the waist. This would interfere with the "walk." The upper arm is often merely wire with a loop at either end. The lower arm are cast from plaster or sawdust and glue with a loop at the elbow. Dancers may have thighs made the same way, but a firmer "walk" is achieved using wood with a staple at the hip end which fits into a slot sawn in the body and pivots on a small nail. The knee end has a similar slit, which accepts a staple cast into the calf and foot. Such legs move in a very determined fashion.

Traditional string puppet bodies can be adapted to use such controls. The waist may have to be stiffened , while leg and hip joints may need to be restricted to achieve believable movement. The hardest thing for such puppets to do is bow. Lying down with the head back requires a joint in the main rod at the top of the head similar to those at the hip. The range of simple and direct movements these figures can achieve makes them quite usable for dramatic productions. Less experienced puppeteers can achieve effective performances more quickly, and since one operator can walk a puppet on and present simple gestures, fewer puppeteers may be required to present a scene than when using western "bunraku-inspired" figures.

Email: Will Stackman, Master of Motions

posted by will 12:23 PM

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