The magic of hand-made movies

Chicago Theater company Manual Cinema has a name that’s also a pretty good description of what they make: hand made movies made by puppeteers in real time with retro, hipster charm.

The company performed their piece  “Lula Del Rey” inside a makeshift theater at the Skirball Center.

The 75 minute wordless tale chronicled a mother and a teenage daughter living out west in a trailer on the edge of a field of radio telescopes. Mom is responsible for listening to the stars. The daughter is responsible for daydreams about them – alternately on a space voyage or at a dreamy rock concert with her idols the Baden Brothers.

The film is projected above the stage on a large screen. But all the magic happens below the screen; the mechanics of the show are in clear view. Center stage are three old school projectors of the kind you might remember from elementary school – the ones that that magnified transparencies with quickly sketched words and graphs in erasable marker. Of course they aren’t just props, they are sending projections up at another screen.  

Stage left, a trio of musicians (cello, guitar, and electric bass) accompany the movie. Stage right, there is a female singer adding haunting vocals while also playing sound effects from her computer.

At the center is a quartet of puppeteers who serve as visual dj’s throughout the piece. They mix images from three projectors that at their simplest provide a background (say a night sky), a set (maybe the dining room of a trailer) and a shadow puppet character (the daughter). But that description doesn’t do them justice.  Sometimes the background comes from the projector and one of the puppeteers suddenly hops up and becomes a silent silhoutte performing in front of the screen – which, through video magic, is projected up above.

Photo by Jerry Shulman

It’s got a very lo-tech feel exposing the process. However, the result is visually sophisticated both in terms of technique and aesthetic. It’s like watching a great chef making a grilled cheese sandwich. There’s something familiar and comforting and decidedly DIY mixed with a skill that elevates it to the next level.

Manual Cinema’s visuals are beautifully layered distillations of storytelling. On their simplest level they resemble shadow puppetry: silhouetted puppets are manually manipulated to have a moving arm or blinking eyelash. These are only the building blocks of the final images.  

Photo by Jerry Shulman

Manual Cinema creates a world that has the muted tones of a vintage clothing store or an unearthed faded magazine from decades gone by. In one frame a lonely airstream-like trailer is dwarfed by the surrounding night sky with a rising moon. In another, a cityscape is brought to life with ominous black skyscrapers topped with colorful billboards encouraging consumption.

The still images are stunning, but the real theatrical magic happens as these images come to life combining a grammar we know from the cinema but produced with the mechanics of puppetry. Long tracking shots are accomplished by a puppeteer manually scrolling a giant landscape across the projector. A cross fade is manually created by two puppeteers: one slowly placing a piece of cardboard over the projector lens and the same instant another lifts theirs.  It’s decidedly low tech and handmade and that’s its charm.

The only frustrating thing about Manual Cinema? They have already left town after only two performances.  

They were here as part of the Skirball’s new Performance Lab which is presenting work across five weekends in January and February. While it’s thrilling to have another institution join the already crowded presented ecosystem in Los Angeles (think Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, The Wallis, The Broad Stage, REDCAT, VPAC, etc), the challenge is this presented work is only here for a couple of performances.

Let’s hope that the Skirball uses this trial balloon to present the best of this work for longer engagements and helps build the audience to support it.