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  • Writer's picture Gary Bills


Updated: Jun 20, 2019

When the couple actually do meet, Papagena is not naked but is scantily clad in feathers, as the female counterpart of Papageno, with graceful legs that accentuate the grace of her ballet steps. At one point, at least, the silhouette of one of her nipples - an erect nipple - is clearly visible, in side profile, which speaks well of Reiniger’s skill with scissors or scalpel; and so an slight erotic charge is, once more clearly present, reminding the viewer of the reality of sex and the inevitability of procreation, even - or especially- in Eden.

An animated still from The Magic Flute.

The serpent, of course, is a character from The Magic Flute, as well as featuring in The Book of Genesis. In the Mozart opera, which has a libretto by Emanual Schinkenader, three ladies kill the snake, only for Papageno to claim the credit; but in Reiniger’s Papageno, the snake is vanquished by three flying parrots with a noose: the birds who love Papageno and Papagena. As for Papagena, in what is almost a comic scene, she escapes from the snake on the back of an ostrich. Thus, there is again a strong sense that Papageno and Papageno are living in a state of nature grace, and that nature itself has protected them.

In Reiniger’s Papagena, when the couple are re-united with the famous Papageno-Papagena Duet by Mozart, which cleverly mimics the mating calls of foul, for comic effect, Reiniger has birds - including a stork, an ostrich, a crane and parrots - peck open big eggs, from which spring children. In fact, Papageno and Papageno have a small army of children, who are all dressed in feathers, with each one looking like a mini-version of his or her unusual parents. The representation of procreation, of course, is not biologically accurate; but is instead a bizarre but charming shadow-version of the process: in keeping with a shadow world of magic, innocence, and threatened innocence, where the end result is a celebration of real - if idealised - human love.

I also studied puppetry, in the wider sense, when taking my postgraduate diploma in advanced theatre practice at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Lotte Reiniger is fascinating, not least because pioneers are always interesting, with the sense that new ground is being covered and new techniques are being developed. She took the techniques of traditional shadow puppetry and turned them on their head, through her avant-garde spirit, and by using the technology of her day. A case could be made that, at the time of her Papageno (1935), she was among the world’s most advanced animators. For the making of her films, the idea of a vertical screen for shadow puppetry was laid aside in favour of a horizontal screen – effectively, a table with a glass plate, with a light source from beneath. The horizontal screen idea, which I intend to use in a modified form, means that shadow-puppetry figures can be arranged so that they are very flat beneath the transparent papers or over-laid glass plates, and this is important when a camera is used for stop-motion frames. The lens can focus on an image which is precisely on the same plane at all points: with no or little possibility of an arm, a leg or a head curling back, - a problem which could cause an image not be in focus at critical points.

Stop motion and a horizontal screen also mean that the traditional rods of shadow puppetry, used to move the puppets about in live performances, can be dispensed with. Reiniger moved her figures painstakingly for each frame; taking an image for each frame.

To make her black-card figures flat, Reiniger used a roller on them and also lead strips. I can create the necessary rigidity through the use of a modern laminator, whereby a card image, coated in plastic, gets a firmed-up shape. The rigidity provided by lamination also means that my connections for limbs have to be less robust than those employed by Reiniger.

Strong hinges or not, Reiniger made her figures dance in a balletic way, perhaps to create the illusion of a seamless transition from frame to frame. I am not yet decided how my own characters will move through the use of stop-motion action, but the movements will not be balletic. The movements will be more naturalistic: in sympathy with a character’s changing motivations, such as fear, uncertainty and joy. It is possible that the movements of my characters, created through digital photography and the stop-motion technique, will be more melodramatic than naturalistic: after all, the movements of most puppets are often over-emphasised, for dramatic effect.

I am perhaps more fortunate that Reiniger in that I can test the effectiveness of my designs digitally, before I fix upon any particular designs. Through apps like Photoshop I can back-light characters on screen and create digital images of the back-lit figures, which can then be assessed at leisure for their effectiveness.

Taking a lead from Reiniger, however, I shall continue to experiment more with the illusion of 3D perspectives, which she achieved through drawing some “props”, such as Papageno’s nets, at oblique angles. Such achievements remind me that there is no such thing as 2D and a colourless world of black and white, so long as the human imagination is stimulated and engaged.

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