The five Pandava brothers of the Mahabharata in the Javanese wayang kulit, Indonesia. Image: Wikipedia Creative Commons.
Stories & Ideas

Wed 30 Dec 2020

The influence of Wayang puppet theatre on the moving image

Animation Craft History
Maria Lewis
Maria Lewis

Assistant Film Curator

Shadow puppetry is one of the most ancient forms of animation, but its influence is still felt in beloved pop culture properties and videogames.

From the dawn of storytelling itself, puppets have been one of the medium’s most essential tools. In the days before and during the development of cinema itself, puppetry was an early example of what moving image could become. Wayang shadow puppetry was a traditional method of storytelling originating from Java in Indonesia. Dating back as early as the 10th century, it’s believed to have been adapted from leather puppets popular in India, particularly in the south, known as the thalubomalata. As Hinduism spread, so did the artform and the practise of it. The puppets were made from thin leather, intricately perforated and elaborately painted to cast dazzling shadows when silhouetted against walls or translucent cloths. The Wayang puppeteer used rods to bring the characters to life and – much like early silent films – the narrative was enhanced by music performed by orchestras or singers. In some cases, even chanting.

Although still popular as a form of religious storytelling in Bali today, Wayang helped shape the development of Western puppetry largely thanks to Richard Teschner. The Austrian sculptor, graphic artist and puppeteer is considered the person responsibile for seeing the storytelling potential after a chance encounter with Wayang puppets while travelling in the Netherlands. They had been brought from Java by Dutch explorers, leading Teschner to create his own version when he returned to Vienna. Although his puppet show only played abroad once – in London, 1934 – his interpretation of Wayang puppets had far-reaching effects on the rest of the industry from the early 1900s onwards. His own rod-puppet theatre Figuren Spiegel (Figure Mirror) saw figures that were more expressive and mobile than Western audiences had seen before. It also incorporated concave mirrors into the staging of the puppetry, as well as theatrical lighting and early forms of cinematic illusion, evolving the artform and expanding the possibilities.

It contributed to a resurgence throughout Europe and the US, with Teschner’s influence still felt today through other artists such as Australian shadow puppeteer Richard Bradshaw. Renowned for the creation of characters like Super Kangaroo and segments on landmark children’s program Play School (1966–present), he had a high-profile fan in The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986) filmmaker Jim Henson. Featured in an episode of the television series Jim Henson Presents the World of International Puppeteering (1989), Bradshaw also made small puppet plays for Henson’s The Muppet Show (1976–81), which were often introduced by Kermit the Frog himself. As well as the use of rod puppets – like Teschner – Bradshaw deployed multiple sources of lights in the staging of his puppet shows in order to add extra layers to the storytelling.

He also consulted with Australian company Shadowplay Studios on their debut game Projection: First Light (2019), which was heavily was inspired by shadow puppetry with the traditional art style evolving with a different type of moving image. In the final season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), episode 15 – ‘Get It Done’ deployed a combination of shadow puppetry styles to tell the origins of the first vampire slayer. With the use of a specific light source, layered puppets, and a rotating stage, it harks back to the work of Teschner as well as German animator Lotte Reiniger. From the south Indian origins and the traditional use of Wayang shadow puppetry, to the Austrian artist who realised the medium’s potential and brought it to a Western audience, the form of the storytelling has manifested over the years from hands to strings to stages and eventually the moving image.

–  Maria Lewis 

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