Last week, James Cameron's CGI extravaganza Avatar beat the record set by his previous film, Titanic, to become the highest-grossing film of all time. Shown in ground-breaking 3D, it has been hailed as a triumph of new technology, signposting the future of cinema. In south-east London recently, a very different filmic event took place at the Battersea Arts Centre; a theatre space that champions the blurring of boundaries between art forms. To an audience of around 30, who munched on salad and Greek dips made by the artist, Nic Rawlings and friends performed The Night Flyer: a sort of wordless, 20-minute puppet show filmed and projected in real time on to a big screen to the accompaniment of a live four-piece jazz band. Rawlings - a bearded 36-year-old artist - followed this up with a talk about his next project: a 90-minute version of The Odyssey that will be performed in the same inimitable style. In between, the audience was allowed to flip through his sketch books and research materials while the band played music that it was working on for the piece.
The Paper Cinema is never going to have Cameron fretting over his audience share, but it's a sign that amid all the Pixar blockbusters, Blu-ray screens, HDTV and 3D technology, there's still a place for old-fashioned techniques in cinematic storytelling - and that you don't need a budget of millions in order to do it. In fact, all you need are paper, pens, and a good idea. Calling The Paper Cinema a puppet show isn't quite accurate. What happens is that Rawlings and his assistant, Imogen Charleston, sit either side of a video camera with stacks of cardboard cut-outs (depicting a starry sky, a boy riding a bike, nightmarish figures in top hats, and other fantastical figures) in front of them. As the band starts its jazzy score - a mixture of rehearsed music and improvisation - Rawlings and Charleston begin their careful choreography, moving these figures in front of the camera in such a way that a story is told on the screen hooked up to the camera. A "panning" effect, for example, is achieved by moving layers depicting hills and houses towards or away from the camera. At one point a train (attached to a stick and moved from left to right in front of the lens) cuts through the landscape, puffing smoke, and a story emerges about a boy seeking out and saving a kidnapped girl.
The effect is magical, and the fact that the audience is easily able to see the cardboard figures being waved in front of the camera only adds to this: it's fun to look back and forth from the screen to the puppeteers to see how they're pulling off complex scenes populated by five or six characters, all moving independently. There are hundreds of intricate drawings that are used during each performance of The Night Flyer, and the puppeteers are nimble as they manipulate many at once, sometimes with the next scene's figure clamped between teeth or tucked in the crook of an elbow.
It's hard to pin down the strange appeal of this hybrid of film, puppet show and gig. "It's about going back and believing in the strength of the stories that are there to be told," Rawlings says, hazarding an explanation, "but also paying attention to the craft that's put in and the warmth that you get from sitting by the fireside, telling slow stories and getting the accordion out." The simplicity of the format can also prod audience members towards telling stories themselves. "People come up to me after shows," Rawings recalls, "and say: 'Wow that's amazing! I haven't actually drawn for ages; I think I might go off and draw.'" As he points out: "To make a CGI film you need a huge budget and lots of technological expertise, but anyone can sit down with some pens and tell a story."
Inspiring people in this way isn't just an accidental side effect of Rawlings' work: it's positively encouraged. Last year, he and his cohorts put on workshops at the Battersea Arts Centre at which participants learnt how to make their own mini-movie complete with a soundtrack, and they're planning to expand these in 2010. The Paper Cinema crew are also interested in playing gigs to diverse audiences, including at a school for children with learning difficulties in Rawlings' local Dorset.
In fact, when I ask Rawlings to tell me some of the more idiosyncratic venues he's performed at, he lists dozens: festivals such as Glastonbury and The Big Chill, a bookshop on the banks of the Seine, Britain's oldest cinema in Birmingham, ruined castles in Portugal, a volunteer-run cafe in Edinburgh, a sculpture park, and an electronica festival in Brighton called Loop, where he shared a bill with cutting-edge musicians like Squarepusher and Fever Ray. "We fall into the worlds of theatre, film, art and music," Rawlings points out happily, "which all have their own traditions and venues." And The Paper Cinema's first European trip was part of a poetry tour - a bit of a coup for an act that makes no use of the written or spoken word.
But it was Bournemouth's music scene that first gave birth to The Paper Cinema, around five and a half years ago. Rawlings had trained as a fine artist but became disillusioned with the process of promoting and selling work, and was working as a gardener, graphic designer and screen printer at the time. He was roped in by a local band to provide visuals for one of their gigs, and filmed mobiles made of sycamore keys and conkers, which were projected on to a screen. He then started to do the same thing - incorporating a narrative - with traditional, jointed puppets, "and then an eight-year-old girl said she did that much better at school", Rawlings says, "so I thought, maybe we shouldn't be doing that".
With no proper training in puppeteering, Rawlings worked out his own way of telling a story without using animation or live actors - by moving (un-jointed) cardboard figures on sticks in front of a camera lens, and steering clear of dialogue. He started working with other bands and devised a collaborative process in which the story informs the music, which in turn has an effect on the movements of the figures. Then the Battersea Arts Centre asked The Paper Cinema to participate in its huge, immersive play Masque of the Red Death, alongside almost 100 other performers, and the process evolved from a quirky sideshow into a full theatrical experience.
Rawlings is quick to point out that what he's doing, while certainly not mainstream, isn't operating in a vacuum of similar work. He praises the four-person performance group 1927, whose dark and twisted mixture of music-hall humour, silent film, live music and performance has won them a Fringe First award at Edinburgh, a glowing review in The New Yorker (they called it "macabre perfection") and a world tour that encompassed Singapore, Australia, America and Ireland.
He also draws attention to the plethora of great shadow-puppet shows touring Britain, and the trend for live re-scores of old movies that has taken off over the past decade, in which acts such as the rapper Buck 65, the indie band the Guillemots and the electro outfit Asian Dub Foundation have provided live accompaniment to classic films. Meanwhile, the British theatre director Katie Mitchell (an associate of the National Theatre and recipient of an OBE in 2009) is well-known for her use of live sound effects and videos of actors projected on screen.
There's another tradition that The Paper Cinema is part of, too, which encompasses hand-drawn anime (such as Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle), and recent stop-motion films such as Fantastic Mr Fox, Coraline and Tim Burton's Corpse Bride. The lesson learnt from these films is that it might be easier and quicker to use digital animation, but there's something special that comes with handmade art.
The delicate watercolour landscapes of Spirited Away and the intricate stitching on the suit of Mr Fox (as well as Rawlings' cardboard cut-outs) can't be perfectly replicated by a computer program (or they can't yet). And sometimes an accident of physical design can provide unintentional charm: think of the way the animals' fur moves in Fantastic Mr Fox even as the characters are perfectly still (an effect of time elapsing between frames as the film is made). It recalls old TV shows such as The Clangers, creating a subliminal sense of nostalgia. Rawlings compares non-digital animation to handmade Christmas presents, which, he points out, are always more touching than shop-bought stuff.
The Paper Cinema team is going to expand for The Odyssey - a bigger budget, more puppeteers - but Rawlings is thinking about stripping it back down for a simpler version, too, to play smaller spaces. "We don't want to get to the point where we're too far away from the audience," he says. "At the moment we're just seeing what we can do. Sometimes me and [the co-puppeteer] Imogen sit offstage, and sometimes we sit right in the middle of the audience. We want people to be able to see what happens and feel like they're involved, rather than making a super-slick production, where you go 'that's amazing' but you feel that you're at a distance from it."
Certainly digital animation is fertile ground for experimentation and breathtaking visuals, but it's unlikely that it's going to be the only path that contemporary film takes. There's still a place for imperfections, handmade quirks and being able to see a performer doing their job a few feet away from you. Three-dimensional blockbusters can give the illusion that characters are bursting out of the screen and on to your lap, but mixing live musical and theatrical performance with film is a sure-fire way to make each showing fresh, immediate and one-of-a-kind.