shadow theater

motion pictures using projected light and opaque and translucent objects
ancient form still in use today

In The Republic (ca. 380 BC), Plato famously used a shadow theater in a cave, viewed by prisoners chained to the wall, as an allegory for the false (or virtual, dude) reality perceived by those not freed by the power of philosophical (some might say enlightened) thought.


see also cave paintings

from Encyclopedia of Early Cinema:
The first moving images to be shown on a screen were shadows. Hand shadows were no doubt universal from the earliest times, but formal shadow theater with perforated leather puppets painted in translucent colors, appears to have originated in China or India before the second millennium.

The centuries-old wayang kulit shadow plays of Java are set in mythological times, some relating to local festivals and spirits, others dramatizing episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics of India. Performances extend through the night, with a single puppeteer manipulating the figures and providing the narration and voices, accompanied by a gamelan orchestra of three to five musicians. Stylized puppets and movements are used within a traditional scenario, with contemporary jokes for the clowns. Similar methods have been adopted in Bali and Malaysia. Alternative traditions developed in Turkey, Egypt, North Africa, and Greece, all featuring versions of the Turkish clown Karagoz or Black Eye.

The influence of these shows eventually spread to Europe. Italian shadow showmen performed in Germany and England from the late seventeenth century. France hosted several venues. François Dominique Seraphin opened a show in Versailles in 1784, featuring the traditional shadow play, The Broken Bridge; his family continued with shadow puppets until 1879. Eccentric showman Rodolphe Salis’s Le Chat Noir shadow theater of 1882–1897 delighted Parisian intellectuals and bohemians with elaborate shadow playlets featuring zinc figures designed by Caran D’Ache and other well-known artists. Scenes incorporated clever perspective effects, with magic lantern slide projections providing painted backgrounds.

Elsewhere in Paris the animated stories of Emile Reynaud’s Théâtre Optique enchanted the public, and from 1895 the Lumière Cinématographe and its rivals brought a new form of projected shadows, photographic moving pictures, to the screen. A famous hand-shadow artist and friend of the Lumières’, Felicien Trewey, took the Cinématographe to London in 1896.

With the introduction of moving pictures in the USA, at least one travelling puppet family, the Lanos, switched from marionettes to shadow figures cut from tar paper as an alternative to the expensive film projector. They revived a century-old show featuring a seascape with burning ship, flashing lighthouse beacon, and lifeboat. Few had seen real moving pictures, and for a while, in 1897, their audiences apparently were satisfied with this folk-art alternative.

English magician David Devant’s own ingenious hand-shadow caricatures were filmed c. 1903, but otherwise there is little evidence of shadow theater being used as a theme in early moving pictures. Later silent cinema paid occasional homage to the medium, in such films as the German Warning Shadows (1923), which featured a traveling showman with a portable shadow theater, and especially in the exquisite series of silhouette films by Lotte Reiniger, including the cinema’s first animated feature, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926).

In 20th-century Thailand, the cinema became known as Nang (leather), an allusion to its precursor of leather shadow puppets.

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