Saturday, 14 September 2013

Elephant No. 12: Shadow Puppet

I happened across an online video a couple of days ago that showed how to make a shadow puppet with black cardboard, so I thought I'd try it for today's elephant. To see the video that inspired me, click here.

When my husband Terrence and I were in Indonesia years ago, we happened to be staying in a small North Sumatra village during a wedding. An elaborate shadow puppet show known as wayang kulit is part of most wedding celebrations, accompanied by a gamelan orchestra.

One of the things we didn't realize about this kind of village celebration is that "current events" are part of the entertainment. Terrence and I happened to be the only current event at this particular celebration, so we found ourselves the main topic of the wayang kulit. Unfortunately, our Indonesian wasn't quite up to following the storyline—which we sensed was gently mocking, given the many sidelong glances we got. Thankfully, within a half-hour or so, the subject matter switched to the more conventional all-night extravaganza featuring monsters, gods and heroes.

Ganesh shadow puppet.
Photo: Serena Kendall

Krishna shadow puppet.
Photo: Serena Kendall

Traditional Indonesian shadow puppets are made of leather, and are decorated with paint and gilding. Mine was going to be made from the cover of an inexpensive plastic binder, and not decorated at all. But the binder did have a "leather" texture. Why, I don't know—has anyone out there ever had an actual leather binder?

I started by drawing an elephant design with a pastel pencil on the "non-leather" side of the plastic.

I cut out the outline with scissors, then started cutting thin inner lines, still with scissors. For the circles in the feet and above the elephant bell, I used a single-hole punch.

To my eye, this now bore at least a vague resemblance to an Indonesian shadow puppet. And it only took me about half an hour to draw and cut.

To finish, I attached a thin dowel to the back with really sticky double-sided foam tape—so sticky that, to remove it from almost any surface, you need a craft knife or paint scraper.

Now came the hardest part of all: photographing the shadow. You'd think this would involve simply setting up a white background and a bright light. Ha! It is to laugh.

Shadow puppets require a specific distance from the light source—or maybe a specific distance from the background. Either way, it took me nearly an hour to figure out how to photograph this.

The most effective setup was when the light source was about eight feet away, and the puppet was about six inches from the background. Any farther from the background, and the shadow was fuzzy and out of focus. Any closer to the light source, and the shadow was fuzzy and out of focus. In addition, I had to turn off every light in the place and close all the blinds, so that I wouldn't get multiple elephant shadows.

In the end, however, I quite like this shadow puppet. It was cheap, fast and relatively fun. Not sure what kind of story I could tell with this single puppet, so he'll probably just end up in my puppet collection, doing very little—including not casting any kind of shadow.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Although not really a puppet show, The Sultan's Elephant involved elaborate human and mechanical manipulation, taking cities around the world by storm from 2005 to 2007. Today's elephant lore is adapted from my original Elephant a Day blog.

Created by the Royal de Luxe theatre company of Nantes, France, The Sultan's Elephant involved a huge mechanical elephant and a giant girl marionette. Commissioned by the cities of Nantes and Amiens to commemorate the centenary of the death of author Jules Verne, the show was originally called La visite du sultan des Indes sur son éléphant à voyager dans le temps ("A Visit from the Sultan of the Indies on His Time-Travelling Elephant").

Designed by François Delarozière, artistic director of the French company La Machine, the elephant was made primarily of wood, and weighed 50 tonnes—or the weight of seven African elephants. It required twenty-two people to manipulate it, and had hundreds of moving parts and scores of pistons, including twenty-two for the trunk alone. The elephant's skeleton featured steel ribs, and more than 56 square metres (602 square feet) of reclaimed poplar. The flapping ears were made of leather.

The show was first performed in Nantes in May 2005, followed by a performance in Amiens the following month. For its London appearance in May 2006, the show was renamed The Sultan's Elephant. The show began on a Thursday, with a rocket "crashing" into Waterloo Place. The elephant and sultan arrived the following day, and an oversized girl marionette emerged from the rocket capsule. The elephant and girl met up and, on Friday evening, the elephant wandered around St. James's Park, while the girl went on a tour of London atop an open double-decker bus.

On Saturday, the elephant walked to Trafalgar Square. The girl was lifted onto the elephant's trunk by crane, and was carried back to Horseguards Parade. The show finished on Sunday when the girl climbed back into the rocket and "took off". Although the rocket didn't actually go anywhere, when the top was removed from the rocket by crane, the girl had disappeared, ostensibly travelling in time.

In London, the elephant and girl were stored at the disused Battersea Power Station, and were taken under police escort to various city locations in the wee hours of the morning. Lamposts and traffic lights had to be removed to allow the elephant through.

Following its London appearance, the show appeared in Antwerp, Belgium; Calais and Le Havre in France; Santiago, Chile; and Reykjavík, Iceland.

Sadly, the original elephant no longer exists. According to the London producers of the show, the company got so fed up with being invited all over the world to perform The Sultan's Elephant, that they destroyed it. A 20-foot replica was, however, built in Nantes in 2007 as part of the Machines of the Isle of Nantes exhibition.

The Sultan's elephant walking across a bridge in Nantes.
Photo: Prochasson

To Support Elephant Welfare
Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary (Thailand)
Wildlife SOS (India) 

The Elephant Sanctuary (Tennessee)

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