Shadows, touch and digital puppeteering: a media archaeological approach

Grant, Ian John (2018) Shadows, touch and digital puppeteering: a media archaeological approach. Doctoral thesis (PhD), University of Sussex.

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The practical aim of this research project is to create a multi-touch digital puppetry system that simulates shadow theatre environments and translates gestural acts of touch into live and expressive control of virtual shadow figures. The research is focussed on the qualities of movement achievable through the haptics of single and multi-touch control of the digital puppets in the simulation. An associated aim is to create a collaborative environment where multiple performers can control dynamic animation and scenography, and create novel visualisations and narratives.

The conceptual aim is to link traditional and new forms of puppetry seeking cultural significance in the ‘remediation’ of old forms that avail themselves of new haptic resources and collaborative interfaces.

The thesis evaluates related prior art where traditional worlds of shadow performance meet new media, digital projection and 3D simulation, in order to investigate how changing technical contexts transform the potential of shadows as an expressive medium.


The thesis uses cultural analysis of relevant documentary material to contextualise the practical work by relating the media archaeology of 2D puppetry—shadows, shadowgraphs and silhouettes—to landmark work in real-time computer graphics and performance animation. The survey considers the work of puppeteers, animators, computer graphics specialists and media artists.

Through practice and an experimental approach to critical digital creativity, the study provides practical evidence of multiple iterations of controllable physics-based animation delivering expressive puppet motion through touch and multiuser interaction. Video sequences of puppet movement and written observational analysis document the intangible aspects of animation in performance. Through re-animation of archival shadow puppets, the study presents an emerging artistic media archaeological method. The major element of this method has been the restoration of a collection of Turkish Karagöz Shadow puppets from the Institut International de la Marionnette (Charleville, France) into a playable digital form.


The thesis presents a developing creative and analytical framework for digital shadow puppetry. It proposes a media archaeological method for working creatively with puppet archives that unlock the kinetic and expressive potential of restored figures. The interaction design introduces novel approaches to puppetry control systems—using spring networks—with objects under physics-simulation that demonstrate emergent expressive qualities. The system facilitates a dance of agency¹ between puppeteer and digital instrument. The practical elements have produced several software iterations and a tool-kit for generating elegant, nuanced multi-touch shadow puppetry. The study presents accidental discoveries—serendipitous benefits of open-ended practical exploration. For instance: the extensible nature of the control system means novel input—other than touch—can provide exciting potential for accessible user interaction, e.g. with gaze duration and eye direction. The study also identifies limitations including the rate of software change and obsolescence, the scope of physics-based animation and failures of simulation.


The work has historical value in that it documents and begins a media archaeology of digital puppetry, an animated phenomenon of increasing academic and commercial interest. The work is of artistic value providing an interactive approach to making digital performance from archival material in the domain of shadow theatre. The work contributes to the electronic heritage of existing puppetry collections.

The study establishes a survey of digital puppetry, setting a research agenda for future studies. Work may proceed to digitise, rig and create collaborative and web-mediated touch-based motion control systems for 2D and 3D puppets. The present study thus provides a solid platform to restore past performances and create new work from old, near forgotten-forms.

¹ Following Andrew Pickering, puppetry is ‘a temporally extended back-and-forth dance of human and non-human agency in which activity and passivity on both sides are reciprocally intertwined’ PICKERING, A. 2010. Material Culture and the Dance of Agency. In: BEAUDRY, M. C. & HICKS, D. (eds.) Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies. Oxford University Press..

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Additional Information: A record of Appendix B "Karagöz and the Shadowengine: Digitising the Karagöz Collection of the Institut International de la Marionnette"can be found on the repository at the following:
Keywords: Studies in Digital Puppetry; Digital Design; Haptics; Performance Animation; Entertainment Technology; Electronic Heritage.
Schools and Departments: School of Media, Arts and Humanities > Media and Film
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN1600 Drama > PN1865 Special types > PN1972 Puppet theatre. General works
Depositing User: Library Cataloguing
Date Deposited: 04 Jan 2019 11:07
Last Modified: 16 Mar 2022 15:48

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