A Colossal Interview
Chicago’s Manual Cinema On How Its Shadow Puppets Became a Defining Feature of the New ‘Candyman’
September 7, 2021
Colossal editor-in-chief Christopher Jobson spoke with Drew Dir, the co-artistic director of Chicago’s Manual Cinema, in September 2021. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. All images © Manual Cinema.
Christopher: Before we dive into the Candyman project, could you share with us how Manual Cinema first came into existence? Shadow puppetry seems like a rare field to find critically acclaimed success as you have. Are there many studios dedicated to shadow puppetry?
Drew: We’ve definitely had a unique trajectory. Manual Cinema started in the Chicago experimental theater scene making shadow puppet shows with overhead projectors and live original music. The original idea was to combine shadow puppetry and cinema—making stuff right in front of your eyes that looked like an animated movie. It started as a fun side project—none of us really intended to become professional puppeteers—but then we kept making work together, and soon we were touring our live puppet shows to theaters and festivals around the world. We’ve performed everywhere from China to Chile to Iran. Somewhere along the way, we also began learning how to create puppetry work for film and video. I would say that about half of the work we do is original material that the company creates, and the other half are collaborations we do on projects like Candyman.
There definitely aren’t many professional companies who specialize in shadowplay—Larry Reed’s ShadowLight Productions in San Francisco being a key exception—but there is a surprisingly large and vibrant network of artists around the world who are practicing and advancing the art of shadow puppetry!
Christopher: I was barely halfway through my first viewing of the Candyman trailer when I knew our audience would need to know everything about it. This was back in 2020 when the film was originally scheduled for release pre-Covid, and I’m sure the delay was excruciating. As it turns out, Manual Cinema’s work extends far beyond the trailer into the movie itself. Can you take us back to how you first became involved with Candyman?
Drew: We were cold-called by Monkeypaw Productions way back in 2019. (That’s an email you’ll never forget.) At that point, the screenplay called for a handful of shadow puppet sequences that would be used to re-tell the story of the first Candyman (1992) film. Our work was first introduced to Monkeypaw and Nia by Cara Brower, the production designer for Candyman, and they were already really keen to hire artists who were based in Chicago.
The ideas that (director Nia DaCosta) and the creative team pitched to us were really exciting. We get approached by a lot of theater and film projects who want to use shadow puppetry, and not every idea makes a lot of conceptual sense or just isn’t the right fit for the work we do. But Nia’s vision for how the shadow puppets operate in the story was really fully realized. They wanted a way to tell the story that wasn’t CGI, that felt handmade, that would be creepy but artful, and that would reinforce the motif of myth and storytelling that is such a critical part of Candyman. From the beginning, it felt like the right collaboration because we were on the same page artistically.
They wanted a way to tell the story that wasn’t CGI, that felt handmade, that would be creepy but artful, and that would reinforce the motif of myth and storytelling that is such a critical part of Candyman.—Drew Dir
Christopher: Seeing a major live-action horror film utilize shadow puppets for its first major trailer release seems like an almost unprecedented creative decision. How did that come about?
Drew: We had been working on Candyman off and on for about a year. They kept coming back to us with more material to shoot for the film, and along the way, they began bringing us ideas for vignettes of other “Candymen,” fictional characters based on real victims from American history who suffered racial violence and whose unrecognized trauma might haunt us today. (These also make up the portraits that Anthony is compelled to paint in the film.) The original idea was to use all this material for the end credits. But when the film was delayed because of the pandemic, the producers were looking for a way to release a little bit of material and announce the creative approach they were taking with Candyman. So we cut together what turned out to be more like a short film than a trailer and had it scored by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, the film’s composer.
I think the studio (MGM) was probably a little skeptical of releasing a trailer with zero footage of the lead actors, much less an experimental shadow puppet film that depicted a brief history of racist violence. We got the impression that (producer Jordan Peele) really advocated for it, and we were glad that he did. It turned out to be a great little piece of art on its own.
Christopher: One of the elements that first struck me was the visible presence of the puppeteers. With all puppetry, there’s at least some element that leads behind the scenes, whether it be wires, strings, or other methods to manipulate the puppets. With your work in Candyman, the full silhouettes of the puppeteer’s arms and hands are often shown. How does this approach differ from, say, The Forger where you remained off-screen? Is this just stylistic?
Drew: It was an intentional choice made in collaboration with Nia and the creative team. There are ways of animating the puppets that would allow us to hide the hands and wires of the puppeteers, which we do on other projects like The Forger. But we wanted those visible to imbue those sequences with liveness and theatricality, so the audience would never forget that they were watching a folk tradition of storytelling.
In fact, we ended up doing a lot of experimentation with “traditional” shadow puppetry that we’d never explored before, including sometimes using flame as a light source, which goes all the way back to ancient forms of shadowplay. We worked with our own separate director of photography, Andrew J. Morgan, who’s been working with us for years, to achieve the texture and depth of the lighting in those sequences. We’re proud to say that it’s all done in-camera with practical effects.
Christopher: As you mentioned, it seems that puppetry is doing the heavy lifting to fill in the backstory of Tony Todd’s character (and the other Candymen) including these familiar acts of lynching and other horrific episodes of racist violence. Was puppetry selected consciously as a way to perhaps soften the narrative and separate it from the actual and more gratuitous violence of the movie itself?
Drew: Nia was attuned to the challenge of telling a story that is inherently about Black trauma and suffering without merely reproducing or exploiting imagery of Black suffering. By telling those stories through shadow puppetry, which is about as far from naturalism or realism as you can get, I think that gave her a way to represent that legacy of violence but also filter it through the critical lens of metaphor. The puppets allow the viewer to keep a critical distance (that’s something that puppets historically have been very good at!) and to consider the historical and social forces at play, so the viewer doesn’t lose themself in too much repulsion or fascination with blood and gore.
The puppets allow the viewer to keep a critical distance (that’s something that puppets historically have been very good at!) and to consider the historical and social forces at play, so the viewer doesn’t lose themself in too much repulsion or fascination with blood and gore.—Drew Dir
Christopher: Setting aside the fictional aspect of the project and stepping into these tragic moments in history as happens in the trailer, movie, and credit sequences of the film, the ambiance and gestural nature of the puppets has a deeply sinister feel to it. I found myself wincing at some sequences. For a medium that to some might seem grounded more in childhood or lighthearted entertainment, how do you create moments of true pain and tragedy so convincingly with so little?
Drew: Nia worked very closely with us to thread the needle of what acts of violence to depict, what not to depict, and her direction almost always took us further in a direction of suggesting or implying violence rather than nakedly depicting it. This was a great creative direction because it left space for the audience to fill in the details with their imagination… and those details will always be more vivid than what you can represent!
I will also add that Robert’s score and the film’s sound design do a significant amount of heavy lifting during those puppet sequences. Music and sound design are critical, but often invisible, partners to our work, giving depth and dimension to what are otherwise literal 2D cut-outs. The tone of those sequences doesn’t work unless Robert is setting the right vibe; the silhouettes don’t have gravity and impact without the sonic world that the sound team creates.
Christopher: The source material for Candyman as it passed from writer Clive Barker to Bernard Rose in 1993 and now to director Nia DaCosta, has accumulated complexity and urgency as the modern-day backdrop against each film has changed. How did you balance relying on source material versus taking cues and direction from the producers?
Drew: We definitely spent a lot of time absorbing the look of the original 1992 film, and the iconic visual aesthetics around the character of Candyman. But we also took a cue from the creative team that we shouldn’t aim to recreate the look of the original film but rather to take it as a point of departure. After all, the great success of this new film is that it both extends the world of Candyman even as it critically reflects on it. Instead of intercutting footage from the original film, we get to transform it with shadow puppetry into myth and legend.
Christopher: DaCosta and/or the producers also selected additional Chicago artists like Cameron Spratley, Sherwin Ovid, and Arnold Kemp to bring protagonist Anthony McCoy’s (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) paintings and art installations to life in the movie. Were you made aware of their work as an influence in any way?
Drew: We never had the opportunity to meet those artists in person, but we were well aware of their contribution. The production team shared imagery and footage of the artwork in the film so that we could use it as visual inspiration for our work, especially the scenes of shadow puppet Anthony painting.
Christopher: Did I see a comment on Instagram or somewhere that Manual also had a hand in the film’s typography or maybe the logo?
Drew: Yes, late in the process we were asked to design a hand-cut version of the opening credits in the film. It’s based on the typography used for the original 1992 film’s titles, but with a more chaotic, handmade look. So the opening credits are all handmade—cut by hand, backlit, and photographed—and the marketing team also decided to use it for the film’s branding.
Christopher: Manual Cinema also stages a variety of live performances. I see that you have an upcoming production of Frankenstein in Berkeley. How does your approach to live shows versus film differ? How has Covid impacted your ability to stage performances?
Drew: Our live performances are multi-media and incorporate visual elements beyond mere shadow puppetry. Our production of Frankenstein, for example, mixes shadow puppets, bunraku puppets, live actors in silhouette, and actors in front of cameras to create a pastiche adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel. The audience is able to simultaneously watch the process of making the show at the same time that they can see the product on a large movie screen above. The story is performed largely without dialogue, but there is a fully original score performed by a live chamber ensemble that underscores everything. So the method of making our live shows is very different from creating the puppets for Candyman, but it definitely stems from the same artistic principle, i.e. making cinema by hand.
Our theatrical touring work, which accounts for about 50% of our income, has been shut down for 18 months and counting. Fortunately for us, we have been able to keep working in film and video, but live performance remains a central artistic tenet of our work, and we’ve been really missing the experience of performing for live audiences.
Christopher: Are you working on any other projects you can talk about right now?
Drew: We always have stuff on the back-burner! We just wrapped a series of short films about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that we made for a museum exhibit at the Chicago History Museum. We’re creating a children’s show based on a book by Mo Willems that we hope to take on the road once theaters re-open. And we’re beginning to explore a theatrical adaptation of Hamlet. But above all, we would love the opportunity to work on the same scale again as Candyman. Our dream would be to make a feature-length puppet film.
Candyman is in theaters now, and you can find more of Manual Cinema’s work on their website and Instagram.