Puppet Origin Stories: Rolling Shadow Screen Mechanisms

by fingerplayers

In 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, we spoke to the Makers and Designers of the puppets we have in The Finger Players (TFP), to create the repository that is the Puppet Origin Stories – a humble effort to highlight the background, and the making and design history of these puppets. We hope that this can be a continued endeavour at TFP, and we hope that you can go on this journey with us.

Featured in: The Spirits Play, 2015 and Framed, by Adolf, 2018

This shadow puppetry mechanism has been present in its most basic form since 2014, as it was used in the production of My Friend, A Japanese Soldier. The first design consisted of sheets of transparency attached together and pulled slowly across the overhead projector (OHP). The movement of the slides were not very smooth, especially when they caught on the sides of the OHP. It was also difficult getting it to align with the frame. At that time, Daniel Sim helped to build a frame for the slides to be slid in and out. This solved the problem of having it stay in place, however the movement of the slides were still not seamless the way the Director, Oliver Chong had requested for. 

In 2015, for the production of The Spirits Play, Daniel continued experimenting on the art of shadow puppetry, improvising new gadgets that could aid in shadow manipulation.

For example, he customised a box that the hand-held lights could sit on and that enabled the puppeteers to quickly find the right positions after moving the light. The second design of the rolling screen mechanism was built at this time, to project the scene of bombs falling like rain. Oliver had wanted to play with the speed of the dropping bomb imagery, as well as reversing the direction of the bombs. He also wanted it to drop smoothly over quite a prolonged period.

Dropping bomb imagery with Build #1 for the production of The Spirits Play

In order to cut costs, Daniel used an old clothes rack as the frame to build the screen. Two drums were built at the top and bottom of the rack and handles were attached to spin them. A roll of plastic was attached to the drums. The bomb images, which were cut from vinyl stickers, were then stuck onto the plastic individually. To ensure that both drums would turn at the same speed when one handle is being rotated, Daniel used a large rubber band to connect both drum axes.

In 2018, for the production of Framed, by Adolf, Daniel wanted to improve the rolling screen mechanism again. For this production, the requirement was to build the screen so that it could roll horizontally.

The previous hand-spun mechanism was shaky and the drums were not spinning very consistently. Despite trying to tune the rubber bands, there was still a loss in energy, causing the secondary drum to not spin equally to the primary drum. In this new mechanism, he tried to circumvent that by using bicycle gears and chains. Being directly connected using a gear chain, both gears would spin equally. The gears would then be attached to the drums which would result in the drums spinning equally. On top of this, Daniel also wanted to electronically control the speed and direction of the spinning, and chose to use Arduino to programme the motor.

Prototype with bicycle wheel and chains

To create the horizontal screen, he connected the motor to a horizontal wooden disc which was attached to the drum and mounted onto the bicycle gear. After much effort and time to build the set-up, he realised that bicycle gears could not be laid flat as it would cause the gear chain to drop off. The gear chain uses gravity to hold it in place in the gear teeth. He then tried to circumvent this problem by building guides and tracks using castors to make sure the chain stayed in place. As he continued to experiment, other problems started to emerge. One major problem was the sound of the entire mechanism. The motor turning, together with a possible build-up of error in prototyping, caused the entire mechanism to generate a lot of unwanted sound. He tried to encase the entire mechanism in sound-reducing foam, but the noise was still audible. Even though he was extremely hopeful initially, he eventually admitted that the idea had to be canned after spending a month prototyping.

Instead of using Arduino, motors and gears, Daniel reverted to the mechanism developed for The Spirits Play. However, instead of being held together by rubber bands, aluminium arms were built around the drums to make sure the plastic roll was always tight. By achieving this tightness, the secondary drum will rotate when the primary drum is being rotated. However, the aluminium arms were not very effective, and bars had to be added to further ensure that the plastic roll was taut. Ultimately, the plastic roll was still not as smooth as he had hoped for.

As for the images on the plastic roll, because the content required the entire roll to be five metres long, manually cutting the images from vinyl stickers and mounting them on the plastic became unviable. As such, Daniel drew them out on a computer programme and then printed the entire roll. This helped to save a lot of time. However, by choosing to print the plastic roll, he was limited by both the materials, and the width of the material that the printer could handle. After prolonged usage during rehearsal and the run of the show, he discovered that the high heat from the hand-held lights was starting to cause the plastic to melt and warp.

Distance of light to screen was too close, thus causing plastic to warp

In the latest mechanism, Daniel tried many ideas and failed. In his own words – “Got time to regret, but no time to change.” On a positive note, this makes for another lesson learnt for the next production and many ideas left to test.

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