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Shadow Puppets:
Designing, Building, and Performing
by Bill Woodburn
Random Acts Puppet Theater


Unlike other types of puppets, the shadow puppet itself is never seen in performance, only the effect it creates. The performing shadow puppet is not just a single object of wood or cardboard, but a collection of things working together. However clever or beautiful the puppet shape, it's the puppet's combination with light and a screen that makes its magical effect.

In this article, I'll share what I've learned about the three parts of the shadow puppet effect - Light, Puppet Shape, and the Screen. All the ideas in these articles are workable to create a shadow puppet show, but please remember that no one person can try everything. There are still possibilities out there I haven't even imagined yet.


Shadow puppet shapes are made to block some or all of the light and cast a shadow. If you are trying for crisp edges on your shadows, it's important to keep the material thin. Anything can be used, but I use thin black posterboard. It's hard to find quality posterboard since most is produced for quick, disposable school projects. Still the good stuff is out there and worth looking for.

The first step in construction is to transfer your design from the paper where you've drawn it on to the posterboard. I use white carbon paper found at art supply stores. It leaves a white line on the posterboard and is far, far easier to see than pencil. Next, I cut out the design with scissors. Good quality, small scissors give clean edges and the curved scissors make cutting round shapes easy. Remember, it is the edges of the puppet shape the audience notices most, so spend extra time making sure they are clean and even.

The body of my puppets are controlled with 16 - 14 gauge soft wire. You may need to experiment with various types of wire to find one that bends well over and over without breaking. Piano wire is strong, but very hard to bend, brittle when bent several times, and springy. Springy wire tends to make the puppet shapes shiver as you move them.

I attach the wire to my puppets in two ways. I use either a flexible hinge or tape the wire directly to the puppet with masking tape. A flexible hinge attachment can be made by bending the end of the wire 90 degrees and running it through a short piece of plastic or metal tubing. This gives a joint at the attachment point which allows the puppet to stay tight against the screen even if your hand is a bit high or low. I use the flexible hinge attachment in all my hand-held puppets.

At the other end of the control wire is either a dowel stick (I use 1/2" for my big hands) or a wooden base. For hand-held puppets, I drill the dowel stick and glue the end of the wire into it. It's not under a lot of strain so that works well enough. For some puppets, I want to be able to have them stand by themselves while I operate the main characters. The control wire on these is screwed down to a wooden base which stands on a shelf backstage. The base lets a solo performer have several puppets onstage at once, but remember that motionless puppets tend to 'die' in the eyes of the audience.

Simple puppets use just the main control wire, but more complicated puppets may need a second wire to operate a moving part. For most performances, two wires is about all a puppeteer can handle. While the same type of wire will do for both main wire and second wire, the best second wires are old umbrella wires. These have a tiny eyelet in the end and let you attach the wire to the arm, leg, head, etc. with thread.

I also use black thread to make arm or leg joints and there's quite a trick to getting them tight. First, I use the smallest needle I can so the hole left behind isn't too large. After waxing the thread, I pull it through both pieces of cardboard and put knots on both sides. My knots are never tight enough the first time so I usually put one or more knots between my first knot and the cardboard to tighten things up. I finish the knot with a drop of white glue and it's done.

Plain posterboard puppets are great, but you can get interesting effects by adding lace, netting, and colored plastic behind cut-out areas. You can also use found objects for puppet shapes, but these tend to give very fuzzy edges since they are usually much thicker than posterboard.


The screen is where the puppet lives. It is the world that the puppet will move in and tell its story. There a many different types of shadow screens, but all juggle several important factors. Shadow screens must transmit as much light as possible, but at the same time, be opaque enough to hide the puppeteers. It also needs to be tight enough so that the puppets can be pushed against it lightly without it sagging and thin enough to give sharp edges to the shadows. Or course it also has to be durable to withstand the terrors of touring.

Traditionally, the screen has been a piece of white cotton bordered by grommets stretched tight on a frame. This makes a tough, adjustable screen, but often looks grainy because of the weave. Silk would be nicer, if you can afford it. Another high priced, but excellent alternative, is rear projection screen material. It transmits beautiful shadows, though when the light is off, it tends to look gray and dirty. For my screen, I use a heavy duty white vinyl shower curtain (compliments of WalMart). It's cheap and transmits light very evenly. While not as tough as cotton, it's not grainy at all. The only problem I've had with vinyl is that it stretches very easily. To stop this, my screen has a piece of plexi-glass between the screen and the audience. The plexi-glass supports the vinyl as I press the puppets against it, keeps it from stretching, and protects it from sticky fingered kids.

My screen is stapled onto a wooden frame of pine 1x2's with no knots. If you can't make good joints for your frame, find a cabinetmaker to help. The joints tend to take the strain and the abuse, so it's worth extra time and money to make them strong.

A fact of life for shadow puppeteers is that the screen is flat. This makes it challenging for the director. Puppets can move in one direction only (without backing up) and passing another puppet involves a very tricky change of hands backstage. Generally a lot of thought has to go into the blocking of your scene not to have your puppet forced to walk backwards. One way to get around this is to use 'the fade out'. As a puppet is moved away from contact with the screen it grows fuzzy then fades out. Movie directors use this technique all the time and audiences don't usually find it a problem. It also allows magical appearances and disappearances.

It gets pretty boring if the puppets only move back and forth. To overcome this, I work with different sized puppets at different heights on the screen. This makes the show look like it has three dimensions and makes for a much more interesting stage picture. To support the illusion, it's nice to design your set so the background is smaller than the foreground, then scale the puppets to fit.

The Light

It's light that brings the shadow puppet alive on the screen. Traditionally, Asian puppeteers use coconut oil lamps on bamboo frames between the puppeteer's face and the screen. It's romantic, atmospheric, and the fire marshal's worst nightmare. American puppeteers have had to find something different.

There are several factors to look at when choosing your light - intensity, spread, color, and angle. Intensity is the power of the light, usually measured in watts. How much is enough? That's a tough question to answer exactly. For shadow puppets, there must be more light coming from a controlled source behind the screen than in front. The best way to find out what's enough is to experiment in the space you'll perform. Bright light on the screen is easy to see even at a distance, but can be harsh closer up. Dim light is harder to see, but can give a very intimate feel. Since I travel, and never know exactly what kind of room light I'll have to fight, I use a 500 watt halogen light. It's a big, hot, nasty monster, but it usually wins the light contest. Using a dimmer allows me to match the light to the space and also makes fading in and out possible. Always check to make sure your dimmer, extension cord, and light can handle the wattage of your bulb.

Spread is another factor in lighting. Usually shadow puppeteers want an even intensity of light over the whole screen. A spotlight or light that is very focused can leave dark areas at the edges. Widely spread light looks better on the screen, but often has too much 'spill'; i.e. light spilling out from around the stage. Spill can create accidental puppet shows of your backstage movements on walls or ceilings. Stage lights have solved this problem with 'barndoors'; moveable panels that restrict the light. These are great (so are stage lights, but they're expensive). Making some barndoors out of aluminum sheets isn't as hard as it looks, but you can also use aluminum foil. Don't use anything that will burn; remember it gets hot near the light (I always bring a pair of old oven mitts in case I have to handle the light part way through the show).

Lights have different colors and this creates different effects on the shadow screen. Incandescent (the traditional light bulb) gives a yellowish glow, halogen gives a bright, very pure white light, while fluorescent tubes produce a diffused light with a slightly bluish tint. Any of these can make great shadow lights, depending on what effect fits with your show. If you use colored puppets, you might want to use halogen, otherwise your colors will be 'off', but incandescent gives a great, warm, traditional feel that draws the audience in.

Several light fixtures (called an instruments in the theater) have been used in shadow puppetry. Probably the most popular is the simple 'clamp lamp'. They are inexpensive and adjustable, but you'll need a good, solid place to clamp it. Photographer's lights can be picked up at garage sales and they come with their own stands. Of course, theater lights are terrific. They cost more, but allow gels to be used to change the color of the light and often have 'barndoors'. They can also be heavy, so plan where you are going to mount them. Microphone stands work well. Whatever you use, remember to plan your light's placement so you don't hamper your backstage movements.

The angle of the light is also important in shadow puppetry. Light that comes from below, or above, or the side each gives different effects. Light at a bad angle can show all of your control rods and even the puppeteer's heads. Experimentation is necessary to fit the light to your stage and the needs of your show. I use a light above my head and from the side, carefully angling it to hide the shadows of the control rods by casting them onto the set or the frame of the screen. Of course, some control rod shadows always sneak through and show up on the screen. But, that's shadow puppetry.

It's been fun writing for you. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at - puppets@texas.net


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