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Assembly required

3D printing and the world of shadow puppetry at QEII Library

By Kristine Power

It can take close to 10 hours to produce a shadow puppet with a 3D printer.

main feature pic
From left, Aaron Goulding and Dr. Jamie Skidmore discuss shadow puppet development.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

The printer layers thousands of thin slices, one on top of the other, until the puppet is built from the bottom up. Printing in 3D is complex — equal measures of technology and creativity, which suits a member of the Department of English’s research interests of puppetry and professional theatre particularly well.

Creative partnership

Dr. Jamie Skidmore and Aaron Goulding, senior IT consultant with The Commons, have embarked on 3D printing partnerships in the past. This form of puppetry production, though, marks a new creative frontier where ancient entertainment meets cutting-edge technology.

The Commons, located in the QEII Library of Memorial’s St. John’s campus, is a partnership between Information Technology Services, Memorial University Libraries and the Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, and provides access to the essentials of maker culture like 3D printers, laser cutters, soldering irons and even sewing machines.

“We decided to experiment with the 3D printing of shadow puppets for a lot of reasons,” explained Dr. Skidmore. “It eliminates all the time it takes to cut out the puppets and they are incredibility durable and flexible and we can make them very thin or robust. Also, we can print one up and then reprint it to make minor adjustments in terms of scale.”

A shadow puppet is a cut-out figure, typically in profile, held between a source of light and a translucent screen.

Watch a 3D printer at work in the video below.

As far as Dr. Skidmore knows, it’s the first time shadow puppets have being made with a 3D printer.

This summer, he will travel to Europe to present his 3D shadow puppetry experiences at the Prague Quadrennial, the largest international festival of theatre and stage design. The conference happens once every four years and boasts an 11-day program full of live performances, site-specific projects, exhibitions, workshops and lectures.

Brass Button Man

Mr. Goulding and Dr. Skidmore have hired a team of engineering students from Memorials Undergraduate Career Experience Program (MUCEP) to assist in the process of bringing Dr. Skidmore’s latest theatrical production to life.

The puppet tale — part fable, part ghost story — is called the Brass Button Man and is a story from the Burnt Islands area adapted for the stage by Dylan Farrell, a Grenfell Campus student and Isle of Morts playwright.

The crux of the tale? Don’t look behind you if you are alone in a boat and suddenly feel a tap on your shoulder. Also, carry a brass button with you at all times. If you don’t have a brass button . . . well, you will just have to catch the puppet show this summer to find out what happens.

“What we are trying to do is create a whole world.” — Dr. Jamie Skidmore

Thanks to a Harris Centre Thriving Regions Applied Research Fund, and some funding from the City of St. John’s and ArtsNL, the puppet show will be touring some regions of the island this summer.

Hands-on skills

Getting the puppets to look and feel right involves a lot of trial and error. The 3D printing process starts out with a design.

Dr. Skidmore went to St. John’s illustrator and comic book artist Mike Feehan, the first Newfoundlander to work with DC Comics. Mr. Feehan was a penciler for Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles, a very popular modern interpretation of the classic DC comic.

Mr. Feehan drew the characters and items that will form the set’s rocks and boats.

“What we are trying to do is create a whole world,” Dr. Skidmore said. “And we are doing that together with Aaron and his expertise, and the engineering students.”

1/ 3D puppet

A shadow puppet made through the 3D printing process.


2/ Assembly required

This is the beginning of a shadow puppet. Assembly is required to make their arms and legs move.

Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

3/ When the light is cast

A story begins to take shape as the puppets and props come together.

Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

4/ Trial and Error

It takes time to find the right scale and weight of the 3D printed puppets and props.

Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

The students take the design files and use a software program that eventually produces the final 3D puppets.

It sounds easy, but this is where the trial and error process happens, particularly with objects like shadow puppets. Some of them didn’t have the right weight and movement capabilities during the first print run, so the students went back and reproduced them.

“Typically, our students, who come from the Engineering faculty, get an opportunity to delve into work that enhances their academic experience at Memorial,” said Mr. Goulding. “They get hands-on skills with 3D printing and build technical trouble-shooting skills, but they also get involved in opportunities that will certainly help in their chosen and prospective careers.”

Mr. Goulding compares 3D printing to the rise of the internet. In the beginning, most people could only access the internet at places like libraries. Now, we cannot imagine our lives functioning without it. He suggests the same will be true of 3D printing, and like the internet, it will change the way we interact with each other and the world around us.

“In the future, digital literacy is going to involve computer assisted design and 3D printing,” he said. “Having these STEM tools available in classrooms and embedded in curriculum will allow researchers to solve old problems and usher in a new age of innovation through creativity.”

For more information on the Brass Button Man shows, contact Dr. Jamie Skidmore; for more information about The Commons, contact Aaron Goulding.

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