Paper Goes to the Movies

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It’s hard to think of a trend that’s more in fashion right now than cut paper. In celebration of all the cut paper that’s floating around, I wanted to write a little bit more about a couple of trends that I only touched upon in “Running with Scissors,” my article on this subject in the October issue of Print.

One of the most unusual manifestations of the art form is in motion graphics. When you look at cut paper, with its fragility and graphic punch, it has such an immediate narrative quality that it’s easy to see why the art form has translated successfully to the screen.

Historically, Asian countries including China and Indonesia have used shadow puppets to tell stories and to accompany live music—an easy way to tell an entire story with multiple characters, but without the need for a full troupe of actors and props.

And with some skillful manipulation, a puppeteer could easily make a villain grow or a hero shrink, just by moving it closer or farther away from the light.

Unsurprisingly, as film began to gain popularity as a medium, filmmakers started wondering if these moving silhouettes might translate to the screen. One of the pioneers of cut paper film was Lotte Reiniger, who was inspired by Chinese shadow puppets in her childhood, and began making her own films with cut paper. (Incidentally, the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York will screen Reiniger’s “The Adventures of Prince Achmed,” the first full-length animated film, on October 29, in conjunction with the exhibition “Slash: Paper Under the Knife.”) You can see the influence of Reiniger’s work (which was, itself, influenced by the director Paul Wegener, whose film The Golem is a masterpiece of silent cinema) on so many cut paper movies that were to follow.

If you’ve had a chance to see any of Basil Twist’s underwater puppetry, including his “Symphone Fantastique,” you can see the direct line of movement and shadows and light from Reiniger’s work to his. Even Kara Walker, whose paper silhouettes completely brought the art form back into the museum and art-world prominence, made a series of films that drew quite strongly on Reiniger’s work with animating cut paper—but Walker allowed the puppeteer’s hands to be seen in the film, an unsubtle comment on the race relations depicted in her works.

There’s always been a separate strain of cut-paper work as well, including the unusual style of Michel Ocelot’s “Les Trois Inventeurs” (1980). Though Ocelot continued to use silhouettes in his later work, this 13-minute piece has a beautiful and dainty quality—it evokes the filigree of France’s famed Chantilly lace—that he never revisited, perhaps due to its labor-intensive methods.

This one-minute clip of the 13-minute film only hints at the brutal ending of the film, which is suggested by this still:

And on the complete opposite end of the cut-paper spectrum, South Park, though now computer-animated, actually debuted as a cut-paper holiday video—a far cry from the early shadow puppet shows, which were often morality plays interspersed with violent fighting. Haha, just kidding. South Park, though it might be the bastard child of cut paper, proudly carries on the satirical and jokester nature of all cut paper animation through the ages.