The Paper Cinema’s Odyssey, Battersea Arts Centre ****

Daisy Bowie-Sell, The Telegraph,  11th February 2012

Homer’s Odyssey includes gods, men and monsters and is set on several different islands – so it’s a difficult one to stage. But Paper Cinema have found an ingenious and beautiful way round this.

The company consists of a group of puppeteers, designers and musicians, who are all onstage throughout the production, which is technically not theatre – it’s live animation. There’s a video camera – set at the front of the stage – which is worked by two people who float and move intricate, meticulous drawings in front of it to relay the story. A big white screen at the back projects these scenes.

The images are black and white hand drawings, simple illustrations that depict everything from Odysseus’s house, where the suitors wait to pounce on his wife Penelope, to his adventure in the cave with the Cyclops – whom he manages to blind. There’s a chance that those who aren’t familiar with the original story may be slightly perplexed by the plot, but this is unlikely to diminish anyone’s enjoyment of the piece.

It is amazing what these tiny drawings, accompanied by an original live score, can achieve. Despite the illustrations being static in the main, the puppeteers move them closer or further away from the camera’s lens to create a sense of perspective. These tiny, calculated movements evoke atmosphere and suggestion. The drawings themselves are also full of movement, from the way the suitors (depicted as howling wolves) drool at the feet of Penelope, to the furrowed brow of Telemachus Odysseus’s son.

Several moments in the story take on a surreal, dreamlike feel, including an episode in the ancient Greek underworld Hades. Special camera effects are used for this, from blurring to pinhole lenses which brilliantly suggest the inner-workings of Odysseus’s mind.

The Paper Cinema’s Odyssey, Battersea Arts Centre ****

Donald Hutera, The Times, 9 February 2012

Although this is my first encounter with the Paper Cinema, it would seem that any production by this small British company is bound to be something special. The artistic director, Nicholas Rawling, and his collaborative team subscribe to a unique aesthetic. They call what they do a “meeting of live music and moving drawings”. What this means is that at each performance a silent but fully scored animated film is created — and with immense skill, I might add — before our very eyes. In this particular instance the company is applying its talents to one of the cornerstones of Western literature. The result is an economical epic with a charmingly DIY intimacy.

The magic starts as soon as the cast — Rawling, fellow puppeteer Irena Stratieva and the musicians/foley artists Christopher Reed, Ed Dowie and Quinta — enter the performing space. Although our shared focus is on a large screen at the back of the room, you can’t help but want to observe how these five artists work their wonders.

The company’s technique is wonderfully transparent. The saga of Odysseus, the long-time-no-see hero, his faithful wife Penelope and their searching son Telemachus is told using a multitude of meticulous illustrations on sticks and projected via a live two-camera video feed. The level of detail in Rawling’s drawings (at least some of which were made on the back of boxes of cornflakes) is beautiful. What’s equally impressive is how cinematically they’re presented to us, and in such simple yet ingeniously effective means.

The narrative unfolds via a panoply of close-ups and montages. There are thrilling action scenes, from a boar hunt to a vivid storm at sea, and hallucinatory dream sequences that unspool like the film equivalent of an interior monologue. Breakneck movement is conveyed by swiftly swishing scenery behind a cut-out of the character currently “running” past the camera lens. And if an atmospheric fade is needed, all that Rawling needs to do is slowly place his hand over the light emanating from a bendy-necked lamp. All of this is accompanied by a soundtrack designed to enhance every urgent, yearning or playful mood.

The Paper Cinema’s Odyssey, Summerhall, Edingurgh ****

Sally Stott, The Scotsman

A scratch performance of Paper Cinema’s The Odyssey offers a chance to have a rest from all the interaction and just sit back and watch a very well put together cut-out paper puppet version of Homer’s epic adventure. It’s an interesting fusion of live performance (impressively delivered by a team of three manning numerous cut-out puppets and props) and a projector that enables us to watch as if it’s a film at the cinema.

Nicolas Rawling’s energetically scrawled puppets are full of life and some excellent uses of perspective – that make the characters and scenes feel as if they’re being “filmed” in both close-ups and long-shots – make a one-dimensional art form, viewed on a flat screen, feel full of depth and perspective.

Accompanying the performance is a live band, which is squashed, along with us, the puppeteers and projector, in to what is a very small room for such a piece. With a musical saw, viola, assorted keys and birdbox guitar, they form an atmospheric accompaniment for one man’s journey – conveyed with no dialogue – as he attempts to get home to his family. The Cyclops, raging storms and thoughts of home that pass through our hero’s head are beautifully illustrated through ever-moving images, bringing the story’s excitement to life in a way that makes you remember just how good it is.

Summerhall, Edinburgh, Lyn Gardner, The Guardian ****

There are works in progress, and scratch performances, too. I caught an early showing of the Paper Cinema’s The Odyssey, a wild journey into live animation using old cornflake packets.

Andy Fields of the Forest Fringe

Somewhere hidden within the vast, Gothic labyrinth of rooms that made up Punchdrunk and BAC’s The Masque of the Red Death was a secret. Sandwiched between a sinister puppet-makers and yet another crepuscular corridor was a small door with a little Victorian poster on it advertising a side-show of diversions and amusements. Step inside and you stepped into a different world.

This little space was the home to numerous miniature shows, buried like treasure inside The Masque of the Red Death. Artists were given a weekend to fix something up based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe and week to perform a piece of about 15 minutes length for audience members who would stumble upon it as they wandered curiously through Punchdrunk’s mammoth installation.

As I was working at BAC at the time I was lucky enough to see almost all these little shows (by companies including Kneehigh, Uninvited Guests and Blind Summit) but none was quite as charming and quietly beautiful as that made by the Paper Cinema. Huddled in the dimly lit room we watched a screen in front of us while to one side the company themselves sat, arrayed around a tiny black box and a video camera. As they delicately moved dozens and dozens of paper cutouts back and forth in front of the camera on the screen in front of us a world was conjured; a world of pirates and plague, of mysterious figures and rowdy bars, of magical journeys and impossible twists of fate. To the gentle and perfectly pitched sound of a single live guitar these sinisterly beautiful illustrations danced across the screen. The whole experience was just completely lovely.

The Paper Cinema were born of the Bournemouth music scene, initially providing charming illustrations to flit across the background for a number of musicians at bars and gigs and festivals. As illustrator Nic Rawling has grown more confident in the skill with which he crafts his tiny worlds the relationship with music has slowly started to change. Now it is more frequently the music that is supporting the storytelling, subtly underscoring the action and contributing hugely to the woozy, late-night feel of this unique company. And without doubt the music is still absolutely integral, the musician in the case of the Night Flyer (their show at Forest) being the brilliant Kora.

There’s something hugely alluring about the whole unusual process through which the Paper Cinema make their shows. For a start the brilliant juxtaposition of Nic’s laboriously hand-crafted drawings and a live-video feed from a digital camera projected onto a screen. And truly for the magic comes in the decision to tell these stories live, rather than in stop motion or other traditional forms of cartoon-making. There a beauty, in an age of Pixar and their CGI brilliance, in seeing the wobbly movements and unchanging expressions of these characters drawn on pieces of paper. But more than that in the relationship between the figures in front of you, playing guitar or waving tiny scraps of card in front of the video camera, and the action on the screen something quite wonderful occurs. We are suspended between two worlds, seeing two halves of the same action; lost in the cinematic world of the story and yet still in the room with these musicians and puppeteers. For once we are being trusted with knowledge of how its all done. The magician is quietly performing her tricks without the smoke and mirrors, and in watching her careful workings there is more meaning and beauty than when all that is concealed.

After seeing King Pest, the name of the show they created for The Masque of the Red Death, I was desperate to get them to come to Forest Fringe. It was only later that I actually discovered that they had already played downstairs at the Forest previously, filling the space to the rafters for a cafe gig. Considering this prior relationship we thought they would be the perfect resident company for Forest Fringe, a regular evening slot that closed the day and sent everyone swooning into the night. Their soft, gentle style felt like the perfect antidote to the flashy bustle of the festival; a strange, alluring quietness that, like their show in The Masque of the Red Death, would provide a bubble of calm away from the loud, spectacular goings-on around them.

Lyn Gardener, The Guardian, Tuesday 12 August 2008

Theatre often trumpets its liveness as one of its major virtues, but most shows feel so nailed down and slick that there seldom seems any risk involved at all. That’s certainly not the case with this fragile and beautiful work in progress. It is being presented, free, every night at Forest Fringe by Paper Cinema with a live musical accompaniment; like a great deal of the most interesting theatre work at the moment, it is messy and frayed and unafraid to walk that fine line between being a bit rubbish and totally brilliant.

Paper Cinema create intricate, hand-drawn, black-and-white cut-out figures and scenes, which are then projected on to a screen. It’s so lo-fi it’s practically Victorian, and it has the make-do dash of a nursery entertainment for grownups. Which is all part of the charm.

There are two shows being told here: a version of Edgar Allan Poe’s plague story, King Pest, and an original tale about a brother’s attempt to rescue his abducted sister from a speeding train. There’s a heart-stopping, perspective-surprising moment when the brother appears to pedal on his bicycle across the sky in pursuit of the Express. The pleasure here is not just that the animations are both sinister and enchanting, or that the wonderful music gives the whole thing the feel of a quirky silent movie, but also that you can see how the show is being made right before your eyes. The mechanics are fully revealed, and being able to observe the process in no way diminishes what you see but rather enhances it.