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A Beginner's Guide to Shadow Puppets

Shadow puppetry is one of my favorite kinds of puppetry. It's storytelling capability is sort of mind blowing.

pam severns shadow puppetry

I didn't truly know you could be done with shadow puppetry until I started working with another puppeteer, LA-based Joyce Hutter, who was creating complex cinematic pieces using layered paper and casting shadows onto fabric with bright halogen lights.

I was lucky to assist her on the Amazon TV show Hand of God for a short shadow puppetry segment (it's episode 6!)

The magic of shadow puppets is that it can carry a story all on its own or can be used to supplement storytelling in the foreground or background.

It's a great way to tell a more complex part of story too, as it can eliminate any special effects that might be needed.

It's also budget friendly. Some paper and a light source is something most people have around.

Here are some of the many types of shadow puppetry with links to video examples to inspire you.

Hand Shadow Puppets

We all made hand shadows in blanket tents as kids with flashlights but they do so much more than that.

hand shadow puppet witch

Hand shadows can be pretty complex and beautiful like in this example of a piece in Cirque du Soleil.

I've hear that the best book for creating hand shadow puppets was written a hundred years ago by a magician named Louis Nikola.

It's called The Complete Book of Hand Shadows and looks to be in reprint on Amazon, but I've seen old copies from the early 1900's floating around too.

Cinematic or 3D Shadow Puppets

This is one of my favorite types of shadow puppetry and I've performed it many times myself. I've built shadow puppet dioramas in cardboard boxes and they work great for short pieces in puppet slams and variety shows.

Cinematic style shadow puppets can be made with objects and various materials or paper cutouts on different planes, so that when you move the light, it acts like a camera.

The light can be a flashlight, a phone light, or anything with a single light source.

If your light source has more than one light inside of it, you're going to cast multiple shadows or get a blurry shadow.

It's harder to find good examples of this style as filming shadow puppetry can be tricky, but the videos below will give you a good idea of it.

Wayan Kulit or Indonesian Shadow Puppetry

Wayang is the ancient art of Indonesian shadow puppetry and has been around for thousands of years. It involves candlelight and really intricate, beautiful shadow cutouts in paper and sometimes human actors in masks.

There is a company in San Francisco called Shadow Light Productions that puts on traditional Wayang shadow puppet shows.

Overhead Projector Shadow Puppetry

You can also perform shadow puppetry on an overhead projector - yes the kind from elementary school in the 1980’s and 90’s!

This is another really fun style of shadow puppets, as overhead projectors aren't too hard to find. They're often lying unused in the basements of schools.

Some puppeteers do shadow puppetry on just one projector, and then there's Manual Cinema in Chicago. They create shadow cinema on 4 projectors (or more).

Here's their reel. They tour around the US with their amazing shows.

Screen Shadow Puppets

Shadow puppetry done on a vertical screen with a rear light source is another style, like the work of Richard Bradshaw.

There are kits for this type of shadow puppetry made for kids - I got one for my niece years ago on Amazon and it was fun to play with.

You could DIY this style easily using a sheet, flashlight, and paper cutouts on wood skewers or popsicle sticks.

Shadow Puppets with Crankie

A crankie is a hand cranked puppet theater that is made out of cardboard, wood or even a matchbox. I made one once out of a cigarette box and it was really easy and cute.

You can use a scroll of paper with drawings for a crankie, or you can use a flashlight from behind it and make it into a cranked shadow theater.

An artist named Myra Su does amazing things using crankie and shadow puppetry projection. It's really innovative and amazing. Video linked below.

I think that's all the styles of shadow puppets - at least the ones that I'm aware of.

But if you're interested in shadow puppetry I encourage you to get creative and innovate something. There's plenty of room for new styles.

You can explore more types of puppetry right over here.

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