• Steven Heller

The Largest Book In the World Pops Up

Hamid Rahmanian has dedicated ten years of his creative life to the Iranian classic “Zahhak: The Legend of the Serpent King“. Le Monde says “it has all the ingredients of the blackest eastern tale ― palace intrigues, demons, invaders come from a far country. The illustrations explode into flamboyant three-dimensional constructions. The scenes of King Zahhak possessed by the Evil One, the march on Iran, and the liberation of the Persian throne are simply breathtaking.” Rahmanian has created many “offsprings of my book” (now it is on 6th printing). He has created a shadow play, a pop up book, an immersive audiobook a comic book and a puppet show. Now he is making an animation for the stage performance for the SilkRoad ensemble, YoYo Ma’s band. I spoke with Hamid Rahmanian about the epic and more.

This book has a great significance, tell me what the process was in creating this massive volume as a pop-up book? The original book, “Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings”, is a 600 page tome that retells the Persian epic, Shahnameh, written in the tenth century by Ferdowsi. It starts with the creation of the world and weaves together thousands of years of myths, heroic tales, legends, and some history, ending with the Arab conquest of Persia. It was published in 2013. To be honest, when I started toying with the idea of working on Shahnameh, I originally wanted to create a pop up book. I have always loved them and have a pretty nice collection. I just didn’t know how to approach it. Then I met a publisher who wanted to print it as an art book so dedicated four years of my life to creating the book. The book became the foundation for creating many new projects including the pop up book.

Shortly after the book was published, I met Simon Arizpe, who is a really talented paper engineer and we started talking about turning one of the tales from the book into a pop up book and to consequentially, fulfill my original idea. I decided to go with the story of Zahhak because it was one of the tales that had a defined beginning, middle and end. Most of the characters and stories in the book have a long trajectory. Zahhak’s story could be easily condensed. I also chose this story because it has a lot of really great visuals and action sequences that could translate well into pop up spreads. Simon and I worked for a year on the construction of the book, created many prototypes and pushed the boundaries of what paper could do to produce a pop up book unlike anything else in the market. I also wanted to use my illustrations from the original book as the basis for the pop ups so that people could experience the authentic rich visual tradition of Iran and its neighboring lands. This book represent the perfect marriage between a designer and a paper engineer.

What was the most difficult part of creating the pop up version? The intricacy. I believe the magic is in details, you can see my obsession to details through my films, plays, illustration and designs. I wanted to create a pop up experience that was on par with the story itself and we wanted the folds to tell the story. For instance when the devil kisses Zahhak’s shoulders, he disappears. In that spread, as the reader turns the page, the character of the devil disappears and the food spared opens up front of Zahhak and into forth ground of the user. The folds and the action of the pop ups become part of the storytelling. There are a lot of details in each page that help reinforce the narrative and the feelings of the characters. You can go through the book a few times until you discover all the little tricks. As an example, when the army wades through a roaring river,(spread 6) we wanted to movement to replicate that motion of the waves. When you move the book pages up and down, you can see how the riders are really riding into the waves. Also, I wanted each book to be a little different. Every page has the use of feathers. This gives each book its own uniqueness. There is a lot of attention to detail in every fold. I really pushed Simon to go beyond what one would except to see in a pop up book. There were many prototypes and a lot of redos. While we were working in my studio you could literally walk through a sea of paper.

Why are you so devoted to this content? For Iranians, this text – Shahnameh or The Book of Kings – is part of our national identity. Every kid knows a few stories or at least some of the characters. The poetry helped protect the language against Arab invaders and it’s still easily accessible to modern readers today. These stories are great and for those of us who left Iran, I wanted to create something that we could share with our children, to make them proud of their culture and their roots. At the same time, I’m aware of the way that the Middle East is portrayed in the US. To most Americans, Iran is a menacing political and religious entity. I wanted to offer seeming that tells a different story. Shahnameh is not a political or religious text. It’s a universal story, on par with other great epic tales. There are many recognizable characters and plots. Anyone can relate to the narrative. I wanted to create something that people could read, watch and listen to that offers a different take on Iran. In short, I wanted to emphasis on the strengths and beauty of the culture which are the visual and literary traditions, something to challenge the stereotypes.

Do you have more in mind for this project?

I think so!  What I have created is a foundation or a frame work, so to speak.  These stories are new and fresh for Western audience.  The possibilities are limitless to how we can bring these stories to life.  After I finished the pop up book, I created “Feathers Of Fire”, the most elaborate shadow theater ever create.  With 160 puppets and 8 actors it retells the story of two young lovers, Zaul and Redabeh, who face adversity to be together.  We are jus now finishing the third year of world-wide tours. I followed that up with a 12- hour audiobook  version of Shahanmeh, which I illustrated with sound, creating a dynamic sonic soundscape.  It has an introduction by Francis Ford Coppola and is entirely unique in the market.  Most recently, I have been commissioned by Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble to create an animation of another story from Shahnameh – The tragedy of Siavosh ( martyred prince; chapter 7) – for their upcoming tour Heros.