Manual Cinema has been creating experimental shadow puppet-based work since 2010, blurring the line between an animation studio and a theater company. A collective of five artists from disparate backgrounds -- theater, visual art, music -- act as the creative directors of each project, writing and realizing animated stories collaboratively. Almost all of Manual Cinema's work is told entirely without dialogue, relying on visuals, puppetry, sound, and music to convey the story.
Manual Cinema is based in Chicago, and CHICAGOLAND was conceived from a question about the invisible ecosystems that coexist with human society in the company's own urban neighborhood. The questions was related to director Ben Kauffman's interest in rewilding, and how a city like Chicago might look in the future as humans redesigned a more sustainable urban environment. To develop this story further, the Manual Cinema artistic directors realized that we needed additional input from experts: researchers and thinkers who have intimate knowledge of urban wildlife and ecology in Chicago.
A series of email correspondences and conversations with researchers like Gavin Van Horn (The Center for Humans and Nature) and Mason Fidino and Seth Magle (Urban Wildlife Institute | Lincoln Park Zoo) expanded our notion of what the city is: not just a place for and by humans, but instead an intersection of human activity, animal life, and ecological systems. These conversations fed directly into our creative development of CHICAGOLAND, and based on this research, the idea for the central character of a coyote began to emerge. Perhaps the most visible example of how the city of Chicago acts as a meeting place between the urban and the wild, CHICAGOLAND coyotes are also extensively studied and tracked, which provided us a wealth of research for everything from character design and behavior to devising a mise en scéne that reveals Chicago's unseen wildness and permeable boundaries.
Once a script and storyboard were in place, Manual Cinema began the process of bringing the coyote to life. CHICAGOLAND's animal and human characters were all created using paper shadow puppets, built with multiple articulated joints to simulate as closely as possible the real movement of an animal like a coyote. Each puppet was first designed on a computer by puppet designers Lizi Breit and Drew Dir; the individual limbs (legs, tails, ears, etc.) were "printed" using an automated paper cutter, then assembled by hand. Manual Cinema puppeteers animated the shadow puppets by hand, using strips of transparent film that disappear on camera instead of strings or rods. These puppet performances were shot on the surface of a light box, then digitally composited with an environment in post-production. Once shooting wrapped on the puppetry, composer Kyle Vegter and award-winning percussionist Matthew Duvall (eighth blackbird) set to work collaboratively creating a score that captured the world of the coyote character through music and sound.
CHICAGOLAND director Ben Kauffman talks with Seth Magle and Mason Fidino of the Urban Wildlife Institute at the Lincoln Park Zoo about how scientists are working to understand Chicago's coyotes and other urban wildlife.
Gavin Van Horn of The Center for Humans and Nature discusses coyote encounters in Chicago and the role of storytelling in fostering understanding of other urban creatures.
Matthew Duvall, percussionist of eighth blackbird, uses looping pedals to perform the propulsive original score of CHICAGOLAND.