The Manual Cinema Project
Cedarbrook Middle School, Cheltenham Township, PA | Designing Teacher: Isaac Stanford

In the Manual Cinema Project students made Cinematic Shadow Plays that use old-fashioned overhead projectors to tell stories about local historical landmarks that students researched for another project earlier in the year.

The inspiration for this project is rooted in the collaborative methods developed by the Chicago-based performance collective called Manual Cinema.




Key Academic skills & Content:

  • Collaborative creation and refinement
  • Original research into local history
  • Plot and character archetypes
  • Scriptwriting
  • Storyboarding
  • Paper cutting
  • Video Editing

Final product: Short films of cinematic shadow plays

Suggested duration: 5-6 weeks


This project was created with the generous support of the Avalon Foundation.

Final Products: What the Students Made
Final Products: What the Students Made

Students made Cinematic Shadow Plays that use old-fashioned overhead projectors to tell stories about local historical landmarks that students researched for another project earlier in the year, inspired by the Chicago-based performance collective called Manual Cinema.

Manual Cinema performances are tightly-rehearsed productions in which the team creates an entire movie, live in front of an audience. The performances bring together choreographed movements of the team on multiple projectors, while syncing live music, sound effects, and dialogue.


Guide to the Resources Included Below:

  • Students rehearsing a shadow play: This photograph shows what it looks like when students rehearse a shadow play
  • Exemplar Student Film: This film shows one of the shadow plays that students produced in this project


Core Practice 1: Structures for Student Collaboration
Core Practice 1: Structures for Student Collaboration

I allowed students to select their own groups based on who they felt they could work with effectively. Once students groups were finalized, collaboration began on the selection of plot archetypes, plot diagramming, and script writing using shared google docs.

We started with an individual brainstorm session followed by group brainstorming to synthesize ideas, and reach a consensus. The “Plot Diagram Brainstorm” document below is a good example of what this this process looks like.

The “Research Synthesis” page of the project packet helps create a framework of what elements each student should contribute in terms of content. I tried to continually steer students back to thinking about who our audience was (1st graders) in deciding what facts or types of stories they should collaborate to create.

When students were ready to film, the teams mimicked Manual Cinema’s organizational structure with tasks divided up between group members. There are so many possible roles with this project such as finding and creating projection elements, sound effects, and editing.

The Manual Cinema Project is broken up into three phases and groups need to complete tasks in stages in order to move to the next phase. Groups had to work together through the three phases of the project; writing a narrative, creating projection elements, and filming and editing the movie. Because each stage is building towards the next, groups needed to collaborate to make sure each student completed tasks in order.

Students were held accountable for their own work in the project packet but encouraged to help each other to achieve the project milestones.

Getting groups to collaborate well was not always easy and we did run into problems. I had done a lot of work with students at the beginning of the year establishing norms for collaboration with the context of PBL. The attached “pre-project collaboration activity” is one example of some of the “norming” we do periodically in order to support collaborative work.

Guide to the resources included below:

  • Manual Cinema Sample Overview Calendar: This calendar gives a broad overview of the arc of the Manual Cinema project.
  • Manual Cinema Sample Calendar: This calendar summarizes what happened on each day of the Manual Cinema project.
  • Pre-project Collaboration Activity: This activity was used before the project began in order to help students grasp the value of working collaboratively rather than individually.
  • The Manual Cinema Project Packet: This provides an overview of the project, as well as graphic organizers that students use to understand how to craft a narrative and begin to craft their own narratives. Students received the project sheet at the start of the project.
  • “Mike’s New Car” (Example Film Used for Initial Critique): Students watched this short animated film as a class in order to “take it apart” and understand how it works as a narrative.
  • Plot Diagram Slides (“Mike’s New Car”): These are the slides that the teacher used in order to give a presentation about the elements of narrative, using “Mike’s New Car” as the “text” being studied.
  • Plot Diagram Graphic Organizer (“Mike’s New Car”): Students used this to structure their notes on the short film.
  • Plot Diagram Brainstorm Graphic Organizer: Students used this to craft their own narrative, using the same elements that they had just analyzed in “Mike’s New Car”.
  • Manual Cinema Script Document: This graphic organizer scaffolds the script-writing process.
  • Supplies Checklist for Manual Cinema Film: This document divides students’ scripts into sections, so they can make a “checklist” of the supplies they will need in order to perform each section.
  • [Template] Manual Cinema YouTube Assignment: Students used this graphic organizer in order to analyze videos of other shadow plays, for inspiration and guidance as they created their own shadow plays.
  • Storyboard Slides: Slides for a presentation the teacher gave in order to teach students how to make a storyboard.
Core Practice 2: Student Voice and Choice
Core Practice 2: Student Voice and Choice

The content of the movies created by students was based on a previous research project. In that project, students selected a location to research that they identified as important to them and then create a website about it. The Manual Cinema Project required students to synthesize this research with that of their other group members and transform it into a narrative for their movie.

Students were allowed to select their own groups of 3-5 and there was student choice built into every aspect of the project. The kids selected the plot archetypes they liked and wrote the script to fit into a plot diagram we studied.

Midway through the project I had students reflect on their progress and offered an alternative assignment for any students who did not want to continue. Eight students opted out, from the total of 120, but the response was overwhelmingly positive and this created more student buy-in since the students had made their own choice to continue with the work.

Guide to the resources included below:

  • Plot Archetypes Slides: Presentation explaining the seven basic plot archetypes
  • Manual Cinema Mid-Project Reflection: This graphic organizer helps students reflect on their work partway through the project.
  • Manual Cinema Peer Feedback: Groups use this document to collect brief feedback from multiple people on a draft of their shadow play.
Core Practice 3: Community Partners
Core Practice 3: Community Partners

In our first year doing the project I made contact with Manual Cinema, a performance collective based in Chicago, and we got lucky that their tour schedule brought them through Philadelphia. I planned the project launch around this and was able to bring in the group’s artistic director, Sarah Fornace, to give the students a workshop on the projection techniques they developed.

In the second year I wasn’t able to bring in Manual Cinema but reached out to several local puppet theater groups and found a local artist specializing in shadow puppets who came in to do our launch workshop.

Our other community partner was one of our district’s elementary schools. Students had been paired up with first graders for a science project so I leveraged this connection to give our 7th graders an authentic audience they were preparing for.

The goal was for our short movies to teach the 1st graders important geographical facts while entertaining them with the movies. Preparing for our 1st grade audience was a big motivational component for the 7th graders and allowed them to design their movies with the audience in mind.

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 Pandemic meant that schools closed before students were able to perform the pieces for their 1st grade audience!

Guide to the resources included below:

  • Who is Manual Cinema?: A video introduction to Manual Cinema
  • Exemplar Shadow Play: “Disarming a Robbery… With a Glass of Wine”: The Manual Cinema shadow play that students used as an exemplar at the start of the project in order to understand what they would be creating.
  • “Disarming a Robbery… With a Glass of Wine” Storyboard (part 1): The first part of the actual storyboard made by Manual Cinema for their shadow play, “Disarming a Robbery… With a Glass of Wine”. This shadow play was the “exemplar” that students studied at the start of the project in order to understand what they were creating in this project.
  • “Disarming a Robbery… With a Glass of Wine” Storyboard (part 2):The second part of the storyboard
  • Maker’s Guide to Manual Cinema: An illustrated step-by-step guide to making a shadow play, created by Manual Cinema