As John Torode and Gregg Wallace might say: poetry doesn’t get more epic than this. Homer’s Odyssey, a vast travelogue of Odysseus’ hazardous return from Troy, reads like a Who’s Who of mythical beasts. Amongst its celebrity critters are the Sirens, the Lotus-Eaters, Circe and Cyclops. When similar ancient epics – think Clash of the Titans or 300 – land onscreen, they’re usually chock-full of CGI and bare-chested muscleman.
Not so with Paper Cinema, who manage it – gracefully, exquisitely, honestly – on a micro-budget, armed with only black ink, paper cut-outs and a couple of camcorders. Delightfully homemade, the resultant silent movie is created live and accompanied by musicians. It’s an impressive feat that demonstrates impeccable technical aplomb, though it suffers from diminishing returns.
The technique is, essentially, one of childhood toy theatres, only infinitely more ambitious and honed with precision. Nicholas Rawling and Irena Stratieva manipulate 2D cut outs – all gorgeously illustrated in Rawling’s scratchy, but stylish hand – in front of a stationary camera. They replicate staple cinematic techniques, such that the camera seems to pan through windows and trail alongside moving characters. The delight comes from seeing their rudimentary process and charting its effects (at least, for those of us on the right side of the auditorium). There are profile shots and close ups, panoramas and perspective shifts. The effect is often witty and always impressive, especially given the minute scale, which means that two millimetres either way ruin a shot’s framing or perspective.
The story is told simply, without narration, and remains engaging enough throughout. Besides, there’s plenty to watch: film, puppeteers, musicians, instruments, audience, set. There are, admittedly, natural limitations to the form and once or twice Paper Cinema shirk Homer’s details. The Cyclops, for example, is detached with a stalactite to the eye and a quick scarper. There’s no attempt at sheep or Odysseus’s invented alter-ego Nobody. In fact, the whole is similarly simplified – a bit like a BBC Schools adaptation that trots through basic bullet points without getting under its skin. Is this, you start to wonder, a pointless demonstration of skill?
For all that you admire it, however, Paper Cinema’s The Odyssey must be sat through in real time and gradually wanes. Because we may well know the story – especially in this simple form – delivery becomes more important than narrative when it comes to retaining our attention. Unlike their previous show, The Night Flyer, we don’t itch to find out what will happen so much as how. Paper Cinema’s fault is to rely too heavily on the same tricks and techniques, such that, eventually, it drags with repetition. The cinematography needs variety to keep us captivated as well as impressed.