Finding your kind of weird in someone else and calling it friendship…

The story begins with a trio — a monster, a puppet venus fly trap, and a human assistant —getting ready to screen a horror movie as part of their program, only to have to resort to performing a new movie live after a mishap. This new movie is inspired by a tale written by Mo Willems which follows Leonardo and Sam, two unlikely friends who find one another in a moment of empathy. But when these two find another pair of oddballs, the friendship expands based on their commonality: being different.

Along the way, they tackle feelings and unmet needs but what makes this tale unique isn’t so much of what happens but how it is visually portrayed. In true Manual Cinema fashion, two- dimensional puppets carry anthropological traits. A good example of this is the use of an ever-changing background behind a puppet whose facial expression remains agape in frustration, whose vocal expression is pure gibberish as various paper designs and colors shift behind it, giving the feel of the rush of emotions that floods you when you’re having a compounded bad day. There are a few musical numbers peppered through the story that also help to capture this overwhelming rush of feelings. They resemble the kinds of things children sing to themselves when no one is paying attention — a stream of consciousness meant to summarize all that has happened to contribute to an escalating frustration.

It’s easy for us to forget the tactics employed in this presentation as the story settles in and we tend to enjoy it as you would any animated film. All the elements are seamlessly integrated for our viewing pleasure. We feel like anyone can do it.

Manual Cinema Inspires Creative Expression

However, if you stick around after the main presentation, you get a special treat of seeing puppeteers Julia Miller and Sarah Fornace reveal some of their methods in creating dynamics and stirring emotions through manipulating visual angles and movement of paper.

You also peek inside the studio of Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter and hear how they add layer after layer of sound design to help accent and soundtrack the film. Dispelling the myth that only professionals can do this feels inspirational to young artistic kids wanting to create a DIY manual cinema experience all their own, in these writers’ opinions.

Lovers of Manual Cinema’s live shows wouldn’t likely be surprised how effortlessly and smoothly the transition to the digital format would be for these creators. In a collaboration with The Kennedy Center, Manual Cinema brings to life a story about friendship, packaged within a story about feelings and employing many of their usual tricks to do so, some of which you get to see in a behind the screens, er…scenes at the end of the digital stream. This use of meta-storytelling allows us to have a deeper appreciation for the unique craftsmanship that goes into animating Manual Cinema stories: the use of light and shadow; composing a music score and soundscape; puppetry and real-life actors; and creating space and dynamics.

A Bonding Family Experience

Although the target audience here is children, any lover of animation, pop-up books, and comics would appreciate the style of storytelling in Leonardo and Sam. But children and parents experiencing it together are most likely to fall in love with this production. Using puppets to explain feelings (a method Mr. Rogers himself relied on) is an approachable way for children to talk about things that are difficult to verbalize. With the added bonus of being encouraged to create a manual cinema project at home, this presentation makes for a satisfying and inspiring viewing with your kids.


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Director: Sarah Fornace

Storyboards: Drew Dir

Original Score and Sound Design: Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter

Dramaturgy: Megan Alrutz

Emily, Narrator, Character Voices & Vocals: Lily Emerson

Photos courtesy of The Kennedy Center

Giacometti: Lindsey Noel Whiting

Fiore and Assistant Giacometti Puppeteer: Samuel Taylor

2D Puppetry: Lizi Breit, Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, and Julia Miller

Lighting Design: Andrew Morgan

Costume Design: Maddy Lowe

Props Design: Lizi Breit and Julia Miller

Tonika Todorova and her son Jaxon DuFloth
Tonika Todorova and her son Jaxon DuFloth

About the Author: Tonika Todorova and her son Jaxon DuFloth

Tonika Todorova is a freelance writer and director that goes by the self imposed title of Adventure Architect. She experiences a lot of performance with her eight year old son, Jaxon, by her side, and his reflections on Chicago theatre offer a refreshingly new perspective for her, and hopefully, others. Jaxon practices autonomous learning and is proud to be an Albany Park Chicago Children's Choir singer. Tonkia and Jaxon also enjoy reviewing children's books together. You can learn more about them and their experience writing for Picture This Post by watching this Picture This Post YouTube video.

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