Pay no attention to the men and women behind the curtain.
Strike that: Look at them the whole time if you like.
The wizards underneath the screen at Manual Cinema stage elaborate “live films” using overhead projectors and shadows, the artists’ wizardry in full view. Rapidly switching between 2-D paper puppets on transparent backgrounds to human bodies acting in silhouette, they use the visual language of filmmaking and the aid of a live soundtrack to present not one but two sights to gawk at: the process and the product.
“That’s kind of what we’re interested in, is live-ness,” co-founder and artistic director Sarah Fornace said. “Because we do spend so much time in front of screens, we’re trying to juxtapose live-ness with the clean screen experience. So on the ground it’s totally live and totally messy, and we’re all juggling hundreds of puppets and hundreds of sound cues and live music, and working together. And then above is a cleaner cinematic image.”
Manual Cinema is bringing its juggling act to L.A. for the first time as part of the Skirball Cultural Center’s Performance Lab series. The troupe will perform “Lula Del Rey,” its third feature-length live film, on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.
“Lula” is about a young girl growing up in the southwestern desert during the space-obsessed 1950s. She falls in love with the dreamy music of a country duo and heads to the big city to find them and a bigger life.
The company’s origins are rooted in Lula’s story. While working at Chicago’s now-defunct Redmoon Theater in 2010, where they first experimented with puppets and projectors, creator Julia Miller dreamed the tale up in a shorter form and roped in Fornace, who has a background in theater and fight choreography. She roped in her partner, illustrator-writer Drew Dir. And they roped in musicians Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman, who wrote original music and created sound design. Manual Cinema was born.
At first they performed their humble show with only one projector and a pre-recorded soundtrack in bars and, in Fornace’s words, “really whatever space would have us.” They began conceiving bigger stories and studying movies to learn how to tell them in the most popular vocabulary of our day.
“It’s a screen-based medium, and the projectors themselves provide a frame to experiment inside of — literally a square of light,” Fornace said. “Drew, Julie and I worked in a theater, Ben and Kyle came from a music background — but we all, when we consume stories, generally tend to consume movies. The company was started with this idea that we all speak this shared language of western cinema.”
Their next project was the ambitious, Hitchcockian thriller “Ada/Ava,” and they learned how to imitate the suspense master’s trademark rack focus effect. In the death-themed “Mementos Mori,” they discovered how to create the illusion — using light poles — of a character moving head-on toward the frame. Each time they cracked a cinematic trick, it would inform the next production, and in 2012 they decided to revisit Lula and give her her own feature-length film.
Three overhead projectors (the old-school lamp-type that used to populate classrooms) provide the film’s light and frame. Four “puppeteers” run around moving paper figures and backgrounds — about 600 of them — and miming in silhouette in front of the light, cutting between each projector (with a low-tech flap of paper hanging in front of the lens) to move from scene to scene or to create pans, crossfades, montages and the like.
A live band performs the score as well as the songs of the story’s Baden Brothers, and someone else cues up every one of the hundreds of sound cues.
“I think about the music in our pieces as being kind of like the omniscient narrator who can tell you atmosphere, but also go in and out of different character interiorities,” Fornace said. “When Ben and Kyle are doing sound design, they’re thinking about narrative expression.”
“Lula Del Rey” is part of Manual Cinema’s new emphasis on being a touring company. (Fornace originated the role of Lula, but Charlotte Long has taken it over for the road.) It’s coming off a successful run at New York’s Under the Radar festival.
“Somehow, as you’re watching ‘Lula del Ray’ ... the visible presence of its creators tends to enhance, rather than erase, the sense of an ineffable magic,” New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley wrote in his review. “The effect summons memories of childhood games of make-believe, wherein the lines between fact and fiction blur in ways that made the ground beneath your feet feel scarily, excitingly, less solid.”
The good press is great, although marketing doesn’t always come easy.
“We started using ‘live cinema,’ because sometimes when you say puppet show people are like, ‘Oh, you mean like hand puppets? Like at a library?’” Fornace said, laughing. “My parents are like: ‘What do you do?’”
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Manual Cinema’s ‘Lula Del Rey’
Where: Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.