Profile: Paper Cinema

Paper Cinema’s evocative performances work magic with film projections of puppets stuck on cereal boxes, all set to shadowy lighting and live music. Yolanda Zappaterra speaks to illustrator Nicholas Rawling about his surreal creation

Remember when you were little and cereal boxes were worlds of enchantment? Even if they weren’t Coco Pops and didn’t have free plastic superheroes in them, their packaging promised a world of adventure to those of us who grew up with Blue Peter and knew that a cereal box was really a Tracy Island or an alien robot waiting to happen. Given the degree of invention in the live animation performances by Paper Cinema, and the fact most of the characters, sets and landscapes are created out of cereal boxes, it’s a fair bet Nicholas Rawling watched Blue Peter, alongside lots of stop-frame animation and rereadings of CS Lewis, Arabian Nights and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s a retelling of the latter’s Victorian tale of derring-do and bloodthirsty dinosaurs in Venezuela, The Lost World, that Rawling and his troupe will be performing this week at the University of Hertfordshire’s three-day Uni Comics Festival. It’s likely to captivate audience members of all ages, from tiny tots who’ll be mesmerised by the edge-of-the-seat storytelling to grown-ups drawn to the son et lumière analogue aesthetic of its film and puppet techniques.

It’s hard to describe what Paper Cinema is. Paper cut-out puppets drawn by Rawling and stuck on to cereal packets are filmed live as they’re manipulated by puppeteers and projected on to a screen, in time to live music, so it’s perhaps best described as live animation to music, or performance that sits between puppeteering and animation. However, as Rawling says, ’It sits in a space of is own, owing more to childhood animations of my youth like Ivor the Engine and Mr Benn, and the language of comic books and film, than to the art of puppetry.’ Thanks to his scratchy black-and-white ink and pen/brush drawings (which might incorporate the odd thumbprint and are distinctly gothic), the jerky, staccato movement of the puppets and sets, and the stark, shadowy lighting, the dreamlike visual effect is startling, calling to mind the silent film work of FW Murnau or early Fritz Lang. The music, by the likes of Brian Eno, theatre and film composer Kieron Maguire, and the ’rave-inspired folk guitar’ work of Littleboat, adds an altogether different dimension, offering audiences an experience or interaction they’re unlikely to find in other forms of pure animation, cinema or performance. ’There’s an aspect of each that is not in the other. Animation and cinema are dead at the point of finish; life is given to them by the audience, as it is with a painting, but the thing itself doesn’t change. With Paper Cinema, the screen and live PA, the points of contact, grant the performance a bigger stage,’ says Rawling.

After years in commercial work, ’with its briefs, timelines and budgets’, and a spell in the art world, where ’everything has to be “in context” and cannot just “be”’, Rawling says he’s found it healthy to work with people from other fields, ’who know the creative process, but not the problems of, say, finding the right coloured black ink. But it would be good to look at illustration or animation again as part of the Paper Cinema, as it lies within it,’ he says. For now, however, he is content to extend the ’games of chance’ that the first shows were built on, and is hard at work using narrative tools like storyboards and character sheets to extend the scope and scale of the stories. In development is an adaptation of Homer’s classic The Odyssey – with such hikes in scale it will be interesting to see how Paper Cinema develops, and if it can retain its surreal cereal-pack magic.

Paper Cinema presents The Lost World on 23 April as part of the Uni Comics Festival, and The Odyssey: The Trailer as part of the Scratch Festival at Battersea Arts Centre, London SW11 on 7-8 May

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