How To Make Shadow Puppets

One of the easiest forms of puppet is a Shadow Puppet, and making and using shadow puppets can be enjoyed by amateur puppeteers of all ages. Although most children learn about making shadow puppets on the wall with their hands in front of a strong light, the really sophisticated tradition of shadow puppets is perhaps most famous in Indonesia, where epic tales from Indonesian history have been acted out by master shadow puppeteers for centuries, usually accompanied by a traditional Gamalan orchestra, notable for the many tones of bell-like instruments used in the performance. Indonesian Shadow Plays can go on for hours - but your shadow puppets need only perform for short matinees!

First, you need a screen and a strong light. Some kind of flood lamp, perhaps the kind used in automotive shops, should do fine. The screen must be made of a material that you can easily see light through - an old white or light colored sheet (hopefully without holes) should do just fine. Hang up the sheet, opened out in a square, and pulled tight to work out the wrinkles. There should be room behind it to place the lamp at least 6 feet away.

 Leave some room below the bottom of the sheet for you to sit comfortably to manipulate your puppets from below. You should also sit close to the sheet, opposite the side where your audience is seated, but in front of the light shining on the sheet. The closer you are the sheet, the sharper the edges and detail of the puppets' shadow will appear to your audience.

Your Shadow Puppets will perform near the screen, but not close to the light source. Experiment with difference distances for the light source, and also ways to diffuse the light source so that it appears as dispersed light rather than a single strong light spot. Different kinds of lights may diffuse light better than others - experiment!

In order to make the puppets themselves, you should begin with a relatively stiff cardboard. Large sides of old brown corrugated boxes would do, but you could also buy good stiff thickness of cardboard from local art supplies. Don't buy it so thick you can't cut it, however! Remember, color doesn't matter - all you see are the black shadows.

Decide if your puppet is going to have moving parts. Indonesian Shadow Puppets often have many moving parts - the mouth may move, but almost always an arm, both arms, or legs will move as well. Now, each moving part must be moved with an attached stick, so start off simple. You can cut holes for eyes, ears, whatever you want to "decorate" your puppet. Maybe start with a simple puppet animal with a moving mouth, or a fish with a mouth and moving back fin. You can make moving parts by simply using a tack or thumb-tack poking through the "joint" where the moving parts meet. You can place a piece of tape over the thumb-tack so it doesn't fall out. Watch out for the points, however, especially with children. Most important: Remember that your puppet should always be designed to appear as a "side view"!

Indonesian Shadow Puppets are manipulated by attaching long thin sticks to the various moving parts so that your hands are not visible. The puppets are moved from below the screen, which is a skill that might take a little practice! Garden-type bamboo sticks for the local plant or flower nursery should work fine. You can use duct tape to attach the sticks - remember - your audience never sees the actual puppet - only the shadow.

After you have made enough shadow puppets for a story (Jonah and the Whale would take only two!) then you are ready to start your play. Don't forget some nice music... in the Indonesian tradition, of course.


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