MANUAL CINEMA is a collaboration between puppeteers/graphic artists Julia Miller, Drew Dir and Sarah Fornace, with musician/composers Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman. Our process combines handmade shadow puppetry, cinematic motifs, and live sound manipulation to create immersive theatrical stories. Our tools are paper, acetate, ink, light, air pressure, and overhead projectors. We love dreamscapes, landscapes, sound-scapes, feet, hands, space, small delicate sounds, and animating the inanimate.
As both eighth blackbird’s office manager and Manual Cinema’s composer/ sound designer, this project was a bit of a shape shifter for me; at times I existed in its epicenter, at times I was huddled in its shadowy artistic periphery (pun intended). At all times though, it felt like something was happening, like a string of subtle, fortuitous alignments: waking up just before your alarm goes off, getting to the platform as the train is pulling up, snow on the day after your snow dream, etc. Then there’s the whole bit about getting to work with ALL of the artists you love and respect the most on the same project.
Meanwhile started as most Manual Cinema projects do, with a lot of talking. The more shows we make together, the longer we talk about them beforehand. I’m beginning to seriously worry if we’ll ever make another show, as the talking alone will take up most of our creative careers. We all have literary/ narrative/ storytelling backgrounds in some capacity and we all loooooove telling stories. Strong opinions/ attachments to plot points are bound to emerge and do emerge. Our process involves building, and re-building, and then re-imagining and THEN throwing the whole thing away and starting from nothing (and I don’t think any of us would have it any other way).
So there was the version with the abstract block main character (ala this) that carried the birds through a series of “meanwhiles,” the scene where the birds rushed through the streets as caped super heroes to get back to their instruments, the music edit where I tried to turn Hartke’s nuanced, beautiful piece into an action movie score, even the scene where Tim walked up the walls of his Raven-esque library, wind and rain pelting the windows.
Looking back, we started in a place of MOVEMENT and LOUD gestures and BIG stories, and BLAM moments. At some point though I think we realized that what we do best is slowly and subtly reveal complex and intention filled narratives, and that in the end, Hartke’s music does just that as well. It’s hard to imagine that in a piece titled Meanwhile: incidental music to imaginary puppet plays, the composer never saw (in his mind’s eye or otherwise) a puppet drama or two ensue.
In this pre-building stage we were working with a couple of conceptual starting points. First, that we wanted to show who the birds were as living-breathing-eating-laundry-doing humans. We wanted to go beyond the bird’s, “super-musician” personas, and pursue a more intimate portrait of each. In a video meant to promote an album, you certainly can’t ignore the title and album art of said album.
We loved working with what “Meanwhile” can mean, both in a narrative and a visual/ design sense. In the end we settled on a basic enough narrative: documenting what the birds do in their “meanwhile” space, the space between concerts/ recording sessions/ interviews. Naturally, they all live in one big Willy Wonka house of wonders with a tiny puppet rehearsal space in the attic. From there we let the music tell us what to do- as Hartke’s Procession builds in dynamic and harmonic complexity, so too would the situations of the birds, naturally revealing the supernatural elements of their various living situations.
Once we had a basic plot that we agreed upon, the experimenting began. Drew created at least 17 different sizes of lobster puppets, Julia experimented with the most convincing angle for clothes to spew forth from Tim’s possessed laundry machine, and Sarah contemplated bubble machines/ packing peanuts. We shot a TON of demo videos both at HCL and our new rehearsal space, trying to perfect the mini narratives of each room and how they would fit together into a cohesive story.
With shot lists in hand we packed up and moved into the beautiful, infinity-white-walled, video lab of the brand new and still sparkling Logan Center for the Arts at UChicago (both Manual Cinema and eighth blackbird happen to hold current ensemble-in-residence positions there). The place still has that new building smell, and its art making possibilities are endless, we can’t thank them enough for opening their barely hung doors to us. Each of the birds came in for a 2 hour shooting session during which Sarah and Julia coached each on how to interact with their shadow world/ lobster/ dog/ plant/mug/ IKEA chair, Drew tweaked puppets, I was a time watching production/ shoot manager, Lizi was our puppeteer (yes she was live puppetting Nick’s wall clock), and the illustrious Mel Gonzalez handled the camera. Shoots were long, with lots of setup, teardown, and tweaking along the way, luckily the Logan Center comes complete with sugar laden snack machines in the basement. I can’t honestly say what my favorite moment of the shooting process was, but I’ve got a short list:
-Matthew Duvall in a frilly apron happily and wholeheartedly doing battle with an imaginary lobster with an imaginary spoon.
-Tim’s off the cuff retaliation against his laundry machine, throwing clothes back into it/ onto Julia.
-Lisa bringing the same practice makes perfect approach to learning how to convincingly pet a puppet dog that she brings to playing piano.
-Recognizing Michael’s “I’m going to figure this out” face (usually reserved for website malfunctions and database problems) as he learned to use his entire body to throw/ lift chair parts from his chair box.
-take after take of Yvonne frrrrreaking out about the attack plant, Sarah yelling cues, “its everywhere!” “even in the corners!” “throw the scissors!”
-Nick’s ever calming reaction to the fact that he would be holding a paper “mug”, with smoking embers attached to it (for steam effects) with flammable glue, “oh ok great, no prob.”
We also had a final shoot, sans birds, to create the intro/ outro shots to the video. Drew constructed that tiny house by hand out of foam-core board, paint, and specially ordered christmas lights. He, Lizi, and Julia also constructed TINY (tiny) instruments for the attic.
Mel and the crew executing the ending pan, Sarah is controlling the tiny door from behind the house.[vimeo]https://vimeo.com/52017796[/vimeo]
Lizi delicately placing the flute puppet.
Post production was a blur of edits, and re-edits, and re-re-edits with After Effects and color correction mixed in at some point. Many beers were consumed, even more coffee, and at least a few terrible-barely-food-late-night snacks. Julia and Sarah took the reigns with Drew and I helping/ offering comments and opinions when necessary. Lessons learned: do not edit the same material simultaneously on two different computers, After Effects is hard, hard drive space- infinite hard drive space.
I’ve seen the birds in rehearsal, for years now in fact. I’ve seen them work through musical and personal issues as a cohesive and compassionate unit, I’ve seen them win GRAMMYs, and major residencies, and through all manner of setbacks. On this project though, I got to see them as individuals, as the parts that make the whole, and as artists willing to throw themselves head long into a project that was more than distant from what they know and train for.
I also got to see Manual Cinema, the artists with which I hope to spend my creative life, tossed into the deep end of a new medium; when eighth blackbird asks you to make a video, you’ve got to learn how to make videos, and quick. I watched us use everything (and then some) that we’ve learned together over the past few years. I watched each of us struggle as individual artists, and I watched as we bound together to support, nurture, and push each other when necessary.
The moral of the story is that all of the artists involved in this project, however accomplished and experienced, were put just outside of their comfort zones. We were all forced to contend with the unknown, with learning a new skill, with the ever intoxicating and terrifying confrontation of the blank page (and this time the page was shaped like nothing we’d seen before). What we came up with is something that I hope we can all be proud of for years to come. I personally emerged humbled, artistically satisfied, and obscenely content to be working on a daily basis with the people that I work with.