HARRY PIZZEY reviews Manual Cinema’s Lula del Ray at the Edinburgh Fringe.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe proudly holds the title of being the largest arts festival in the world, showcasing a dizzying number and variety of performances. Among the thousands of shows on offer it is surprisingly rare to come across a production that takes joy not only in creating an engaging narrative, but also in producing a piece of theatre that is primarily visually stunning. Manual Cinema offers a welcome remedy to this absence with their unique production, Lula Del Ray. As the name suggests, the company quite simply create cinema manually.

The stage is set with three overhead projectors facing a back screen, as four puppeteers stand ready alongside a four-piece band and above this arrangement hangs a large blank screen on which the animation is displayed. Through what can neither be described as conventional film nor traditional theatre the company tells the story of a teenage girl growing up in the isolated backcountry of America, living under the shadows of looming radio dishes with her mother. Lula becomes obsessed with a new hit record, sent to her from a favourite space themed magazine and this leads her on a journey to the bustling and unfamiliar city to meet her musical heroes. But at least half the magic is not on screen; the audience is given the privilege of seeing an exposed ‘backstage’, allowing the live animation to be appreciated in all its complexities.

Photo courtesy of Sara Krulwich.

A plethora of ingenious techniques are used to create the cinematic spectacle. Lula and her mother are played by two of the puppeteers who cast the characters’ shadows on the screen with their own bodies and cleverly cut foam profiles attached to their faces. Artfully coloured scenery is printed onto intricate handmade slides that are placed on the projectors and manipulated, slid and faded to add constant life to the spectacle. Life-size props and full-scale card puppets are held against the screen, whilst the puppeteers’ own hands and even faces are used on the projectors themselves to stunning effect. The final image, constructed from these layers, is then projected onto the screen above the stage showing the fruits of the actors’ work. Particularly satisfying are moments such as Lula climbing down a ladder, something so subtle that can only be created by the actor’s mime and the projectionist’s use of scenery being perfectly in sync.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Shulman and Katherine Greenleaf.

Though utterly slick and seamless with every scene change and movement perfectly timed, the animation importantly retains the slight shakes that remind the audience that there are human hands behind the puppets’. We see countless rich and evocative images flash before our eyes, some only lasting a couple of seconds, but each moment has clearly been meticulously conceived, with every frame carefully considered, designed, manufactured and choreographed. Manual Cinema is not shy of making its audience aware of the considerable skill and work invested in its project.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Shulman and Katherine Greenleaf.

Though constantly visually entrancing, Lula del Ray’s storyline at times lost focus and clear direction. The narrative thread was not wholly evident as it flicked between Lula’s story and her mother’s, meaning it could be easy to lose track. This was due in part to the absence of dialogue, as well as the fact that half of the time is spent watching the puppeteers below the screen as well as what is being projected onto it. But this is the real joy of manual cinema, and makes it what it is. Watching four people create what could be a thoroughly edited computer animation before your very eyes through their abstract dance between screen and projector is what really inspires the state of wonder that the audience leaves in.

The Manual Cinema team have created an enchanting experience and one to be treasured. Outside of the context of fringe, the show resonates in the world of cinema in general; at a time of increasing use of computer-generated imagery in cinema, Lula del Ray reminds us that beauty can be created purely through analogue means, and that there’s a beauty in the very nature of this manual creation.

Manual Cinema’s Lula del Ray is playing at the Underbelly Med Quad until 28th August. Find tickets and more information here.

Featured image courtesy of Jerry Shulman and Katherine Greenleaf.