The Paper Cinema at the BAC

The Paper Cinema’s lovingly crafted shows mixing surreal puppetry with film were a huge success at Edinburgh. Time Out meets its creator Nic Rawling

  • The Paper Cinema at the BAC

    Animated artists: Sarah Cuddon, Nick Rawling, Kieron Maguire © Gemma Riggs

  • ‘I’ve got the moon on a stick here, which I just love,’ says Nic Rawling, the lushly bearded young artisan behind 2008’s most disarmingly charming Edinburgh Festival hit. The Paper Cinema is billed as the world’s first by BAC, the venue that gave it its first 15-minute mini-commission in a theatre space. That was during Punchdrunk’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ last year – and although the extravagant world-beating claim is reminiscent of the kind of Victorian sideshow poster that marked its location within that labyrinthine installation, its endearingly wobbly live-film-puppetry does look and feel unique.

    It’s the combination of paper and cinema (and the total lack of words) that makes this such an unusual theatrical experience. The paper part is the puppets: for Rawling’s Punchdrunk-inspired ‘King Pest’ they include painstakingly hand-drawn pen-and-ink pirates, rats, steeply tottering village streets and the moon. And yes, even the street scenes come on a stick – the black felt-tipped kind of lolly stick that everyone who has had or been a small child is familiar with. ‘We photocopy my pictures from the book,’ explains Rawling, patting a large leather-bound sketch-book whose pages are teeming with ink-blot grotesques, ‘then cut them out and stick them on the back of cornflake packets.’ It’s an appealing, homemade aesthetic which might just verge on twee if it weren’t for the cinema part – a live video feed which is not exactly high-tech but requires a lot of dexterity and a bit of daring to achieve its delicate, dreamy effect.

    I saw ‘King Pest’ in the packed-out not-for-profit Forest Fringe venue in Edinburgh. Although the camera lens looked palpably unmagical beneath its single electric lightbulb and big projector screen, Rawling and his puppeteer helpers deftly fiddled and twiddled with their cardboard cast in front of a camera, the in-house band Kora played on and, hey presto, a story flickered into ghostly, semi-improvised life.

    It’s easy to see why The Paper Cinema was such a popular inset to the vaudeville-inflected Gothic of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ – as it resembles nothing so much as a contemporary version of that fin-de-siècle favourite, the magic lantern. ‘We got the biggest coverage from the commissioned space,’ says Rawling, still sounding slightly surprised. ‘With audiences of 200-250 we were approaching the 100 mark each night, doing as many as ten shows in an evening.’ The commissioning space sounds like it was a handy and enticing way for BAC to throw new work at the wall, and with queues snaking down the pavement at Edinburgh’s Forest Fringe as well, The Paper Cinema seems to have stuck.

    While it’s probably a bit previous to hail a specifically nu-folk wave of theatre-making, The Paper Cinema’s use of highly crafted, lovingly hand-made objects to achieve filmic effects does seem to be popular with audiences and young puppet-makers alike. It’s the tone as much as the method of these shorts that gives them their appeal though – other craftimedia productions are less consciously folky and distinctly less wistful than the papery dreamscapes created in ‘King Pest’ and ‘Night Flyer’. Rawling’s work is influenced by free association and surrealist games: when you look at the clutter of bicycles and goblin faces growing out from random ink-smears in his sketchbook, or the woozy dissolved-and-resolved images of caged birds and flying girls onscreen in his new show ‘Night Flyer’, you see dream images, organised in the gentle logic of a (mostly good) trip. It’s fantastical, and achieved with a lovely lightness of touch, though you do wonder if it’s possible for The Paper Cinema to achieve its goal of producing feature-length shows (‘Night Flyer’ is currently running at 25 minutes) without introducing some text. It’s even possible that The Paper Cinema needs to remain small in order to be beautiful. But, with a full-sized run at BAC and ambitious talk of re-animating Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’ or Simon Armitage’s brilliant translation of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, it may already be too late for that.

    ‘King Pest’/’Night Flyer’ is playing at BAC. The Paper Cinema is also taking part in ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’, at Bargehouse from Sept 26-28 .

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