Paper Theatre

Thomas Beale Cipher

Do you remember when film was democratised? Heady days. It was 1999, The Blair Witch Project had conquered the cineplexes and a hundred thousand auteurs blossomed overnight.

Or something like that; for all the talk of the barriers to entering the film industry shattering it’s still a huge lurch beyond most people’s reach. Compare it to, say, pens and paper - the two artistic tools that are native to almost anyone over the age of two - and you start to see how ridiculous a claim it is.

Recently though paper-craft blogs have gone wild for two films that seem to challenge even the assumption that pens and paper are easier than cinema.

Train of Thought is a gem from The Arts Institute at Bournemouth, shot in 2008. It resurfaced a few months back, when filmmakers Leo Bridle and Ben Thomas uploaded it to Vimeo. It’s had almost 100,000 views since and it’s an absolute treat.

The film follows one man’s journey by train to meet his lover. It’s that simple.

But the film is a product of painstaking stop-motion animation, made up almost entirely of cardboard cut-outs. Every frame of the characters moving involves a photo of the actor printed to card and shot on a paper set. Writing that does it a disservice, sells it short somehow, so you’ll just have to take a few minutes out of your life to watch it; the footage is mesmerising.

Yes, it’s paper craft, with the cut’n’stick aesthetics of an eccentric drawing table, but it’s sophisticated and touching in its transitions between cut-out set-piece and hand-drawn fantasia. At four minutes it only manages to sketch an emotional narrative, but as a model for creative and engaging visuals it’s magnificent.

Where Train of Thought is defined by its light touch and airy sensibilities, Thomas Beale Cipher appears murky, mired in obfuscation, smoke and mirrors. It too is brilliant.

The 10-minute film, directed by Andrew Allen, explores a snapshot in the life of code-breaker Professor White. His story too unfolds on a train, the mechanical motion of the engine playing off against the perpetual motion of the code-breaking machine he carries with him, a machine that almost gives away his presence to Mister Black, the FBI agent on his trail.

The noir-lite story, great as it is, would be nothing without the visuals, animation that sits somewhere between rotoscoping and fluid graphic design. It seems as if perfectly cut sheets of paper are moving before a camera. Elements blend and fracture, bisecting characters but allowing key objects to float above the surface of the film. It’s incredibly dynamic, and thoroughly moody.

By wrapping such energy up in paper it feels like these films leave something in their wake; something with a footprint, something with a weight. Somehow that seems especially true when I can shoot a scene on my smart-phone and upload it to YouTube in less than the time it took to write this column.

Matthew Sheret

One thought on “Paper Theatre”

  1. Nice article. I saw “Train of Thought” at an animation festival last year and thought it was brilliant. If I recall correctly it won an award.

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