Saturday morning, 11:30 a.m.: It's prime time at UNC's Morehead Planetarium and Science Center as a crowd of more than 200 parents and children turn the modest gift shop into a mostly amiable slo-mo mosh pit.
Then everyone crowds into the Fulldome Digital Theater for a brief but highly worthy diversion on a brisk day in late fall.
The film the youngsters are about to see is called The Longest Night, and it represents a merger between some of the oldest and newest forms of theatrical technology. They may not necessarily appreciate the interplay between digital and physical representations, but if the kids are local, they're probably familiar with the work's creators: Donovan Zimmerman, Jan Burger and their Paperhand Puppet Intervention crew.
Thrills first: When all that artistry and technology works in The Longest Night, our digitally animated point of view gracefully glides, circles and soars at various points above the earthbound characters; it flies toward a mountain and then veers up along its sides and above it, before perusing a night sky filled with snowflakes and, later, stars. The effect is not dissimilar to a theme park ride (and, indeed, both Disney and Universal have incorporated such technologies into attractions like Soarin' and The Simpsons' Ride in recent years).
But the unsung and overachieving production department at Morehead Planetarium hasn't draped such gee-whiz innovations over empty entertainment calories. Not with a story and characters generated by the Saxapahaw-based Paperhand crew, that long-beloved purveyor of summertime pageants infusing ancient folk myths, fun and fables with contemporary social relevance.
In the resulting co-production, shadow puppets and papier-mâché characters—some requiring up to 15 people to operate—were filmed on a greenscreen warehouse set, according to producer Jay Heinz. Artists Jim Kachelries and Peter Althoff not only made computer-generated imagery to create the world they lived in, they also digitized some of the characters themselves to believably animate the film's more fantastic scenes. Then more than 20 linked computers worked to combine animation and visual fields shot simultaneously by five cameras into a seamless 16-megapixel whole.
Much of that time was spent deliberately distorting the result, so that the film would look coherent after being split between two projectors and viewed against a screen that curves into a hemisphere above the audience.
The resulting tale is beguiling, and it's not hard to see a hint of autobiography in it. A small family of nomadic puppeteers help a small village "long ago ... in the very spot where you are sitting," as Gigi Shane's narrator informs the audience at the start. After a poor harvest, winter has depleted much of the villagers' resources and even more of their generosity. Running low on fuel and food, the old, wise grandparents send their daughter to find firewood in a nearby forest. In Zimmerman and Burger's fantastic world, the errand ultimately becomes a much larger quest: to find, protect and renew the dying fires of hope, all through the longest night.
Longtime fans of the group will find a number of familiar touchstones here. Many of the villagers and itinerant puppets have been featured in Paperhand productions over the years, including one personal favorite, a bald, mustachioed oaf last seen vending push broom slapstick several years ago. Shadow puppetry—flat, wire-mounted metallic silhouettes invoking indigenous folk imagery and symbols—gets a workout in a generous and imaginative opening sequence. And the multifaceted, roots-tinged soundtrack by the Paperhand Band is haunting during the title track and driving in later, more dramatic scenes.
While we've long been fans of Paperhand's summer shows, it's hard not to sense that The Longest Night contains the group's strongest work. Strict, if not ruthless, editing has trimmed the usually lengthy transitions we encounter in their performances at UNC's Forest Theatre—an understandable side effect when a small army of people is required to animate a stadium-sized puppet. The tighter editing also quells the band's tendency to jam through those intervals. More to the point, placing this tale in a 26-minute frame has forced Zimmerman and Burger to be succinct in narration, dialogue and scene development. More of these influences would be welcomed in their longer, live works.
With this much bleeding-edge technology, there almost have to be some hiccups. As we move through certain forest environments, the trees along the edges of our visual field occasionally turn paper-thin, and the most brightly lit rooms seem momentarily overexposed. It's disconcerting when a jug in one room is clearly flat while a nearby barrel is three-dimensional. The digital smear we encounter while accelerating over a mountain's terrain is contrasted with the textures later given the surfaces of its stones. And I still cannot identify the formless mass on which a cat perches in a key mid-show sequence.
But the grace and gentleness given animated characters—including one I cannot mention—make this a work to warm the hearts and dazzle the senses this winter season.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Starry nights in winter."