Be Your Own Puppet: Miwa Matreyek’s stunning video shadow puppetry

In mid-March I went to Baltimore’s Quest Fest to see a performance by Miwa Matreyek, an animator who I hadn’t heard of even a couple of months ago. I stumbled across her work on some internet afternoon stroll and was captivated by the clips that I saw.  Lucky for me, other people from the Pricess Grace Foundation to TED had heard of her.

Her work is heavily inspired by shadow puppetry, and in fact when I first looked at her work my mind immediately went to this exquisite video for the Little Dragon song “Twice” by Johannes Nyholm.

But in her work, she is the puppet. She performed two pieces at Quest Fest, “Dreaming of Lucid Living”, and “Myth and Infrastructure”. In each, she projects an original animation on a screen, but uses a second projector in back of the screen to throw the shadow of her figure into the animation.

The result is whimsical and stunning. She has perfected the timing of each piece such that as she moves her body, it is perfectly in sync with animations happening on the screen. In Myth and Infrastructure, for example, there is an extended section where the main shadow character is moving her arms while the animation from the front projects fanciful images into the hands of the shadow. Being just a little bit off would break the magic.

The interaction was so precise that for quite a while I assumed that she was using some gesture sensing and image creation setup. In a recent project that The Hacktory and Hive76 did with the PA Academy of the Fine Arts, the team used a Kinect to sense people’s motions and sent the output to a program written with Processing running on a laptop.  The program manipulated the movement and created a silhouette out of it. We projected the output onto a screen that we made from photographic background paper.

But Matreyek doesn’t do that. There’s just enough subtle imperfection in the performance to both reference traditional puppetry, and to ensure the viewer that what she’s doing is made of mastery, not software. During the Q&A I asked if she’d ever used motion sensing tech in her animations. She said that the group she collaborates with, Cloud Eye Control, has used it but her preference is to have total control over the animation.

For me, the choice of virtuosity over technology in her work is really attractive. Knowing how much preparation goes into making a precise performance look like whimsy just makes me like it more.  Check out a performance if she comes to a town near you.

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