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Saturday September 29, 2012

Designing puppets by combining wayang kulit with characters from Star Wars

The Force is strong with this unique creative project that combines traditional wayang kulit with Star Wars.

NOT very long ago, in an apartment not very far away (in Ampang, Selangor, to be exact)....

It was a moment of epiphany. Creative designer Tintoy Chuo, designing from his not so hidden base, had his first inkling of a project involving the evil Galactic Empire. While brainstorming for a creative project that would showcase Malaysian culture, a lightsaber lit up in his mind (not a real one, of course, that would be pretty messy), and he decided to combine his love for the Star Wars movies with traditional wayang kulit (shadow puppetry).

The result is what has to be two of the coolest wayang kulit puppets ever created this side of the Galactic Empire: The evil Maharaja Dah Vedeh, and the heroic Perantau Langit (Sky Traveller).

“When I was a kid, I used to be scared of wayang kulit puppets because of the fierce teeth!” the 39-year-old founder of award-winning character design studio ActionTintoy Studio recalls with a laugh.

Thinking out of the box:
Tintoy Chuo and the two wayang
kulit puppets he and TakeHuat
made: Maharaja Dah Vedeh (left)
and Perantau Langit. Thinking out of the box: Tintoy Chuo and the two wayang kulit puppets he and TakeHuat made: Maharaja Dah Vedeh (left) and Perantau Langit.

“But now, I find wayang kulit very fascinating, and I feel kind of sad that it is almost a forgotten art these days. The younger generation just doesn’t have any interest in it any more.”

In an effort to revive this moribund art form, Tintoy (as he prefers to be known) joined forces with his good friend TakeHuat (aka Teh Take Huat, a senior art director at an international advertising agency). Together, they designed and produced two approximately 1m-tall puppets by combining traditional Kelantanese wayang kulit characters with two of the main protagonists in the George Lucas movies, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.

They named the project Peperangan Bintang (literally: War Of The Stars) and exhibited the puppets at a designer’s weekend at arts space Map@Publika in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year.

The process of creating these puppets was certainly not easy, especially since Tintoy and TakeHuat knew next to nothing about wayang kulit.

“At first I thought I could just Google ‘wayang kulit’ and get my information from there, but it was not enough,” says Tintoy, who was amazed to find out that there are many forms of shadow puppetry all over the world, and that each country’s version had its own unique characteristics.

“Most of the Malaysian wayang kulit puppets usually only have one movable arm, except the Pak Dogol one. The Javanese ones, however, have two, and their puppets are also thinner than ours.”

Tintoy also consulted wayang kulit expert Che Mohd Nasir Yusoff (better known as Pak Nasir) from the National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage (Aswara) on the finer points of wayang kulit.

He also asked for Pak Nasir’s blessing to go ahead with the project because he was worried that what he was doing was too radical and might ruffle some feathers.

“Pak Nasir was very encouraging! He didn’t really understand what Star Wars was about, but he said the objective (of Peperangan Bintang) was a good one, especially if it could re-ignite interest in wayang kulit,” recalls Tintoy.

“He said that as long as the pokok (foundation) is sound, and we didn’t include any sexuality or violence, what we were doing was all right. He also said that wayang kulit is a form of educational entertainment, and its sories should always have a moral.”

Based on feedback from Pak Nasir and more research on his part, Tintoy eventually based his Darth Vader puppet on the traditional Maharaja Rawana villain character, and Luke Skywalker on the heroic Seri Rama character. He also tried to stay as true as possible to the traditional details and essentials of wayang kulit, while incorporating some recognisable Star Wars elements.

Maharaja Dah Vedeh, for example, has the fierce, long fangs that the Maharaja Rawana puppet usually sports, but is actually standing on an Imperial Star Destroyer (albeit one with a roof based on traditional Minangkabau architecture!). Perantau Langit is based on Luke’s first appearance in the fourth movie, A New Hope, complete with his Tatooine costume, landspeeder and binoculars.

According to Tintoy, the puppets were supposed to be in colour initially, but TakeHuat thought it would be better to have them in a more gothic black and white style, to show the good/Jedi and evil/Sith sides of the characters.

Once the design was complete, they then painstakingly laser-cut the puppets out of art board material, a process that took almost four hours.

“The final product we have now is actually the third attempt. The first one caught on fire (during the laser-cutting) and we accidentally tore the second one!” Tintoy says with a laugh.

The whole process from conception to completion took a few months, but now that they’ve worked out how to make the puppets, the process should only take about three to four weeks.

They have since sold off the two puppets to an avid Star Wars collector – but that is not the end of the story for Peperangan Bintang by far. Encouraged by the overwhelmingly favourable and enthusiastic response towards the two puppets, Tintoy is now working on designing more puppets based on other Star Wars characters and even plans to put together an actual Peperangan Bintang wayang kulit show!

“I definitely want to make more puppets, and I already plan to turn (humorous humanoid robot) C-3PO into the joker Pak Dogol character!” he says, while showing us a sketchbook that included rough designs for puppets based on other famous Star Wars characters like ace flyboy Han Solo; spunky damsel in distress, Princess Leia; Solo’s non-verbal sidekick, the furry Chewbacca; the cute, beeping R2-D2 robot; and even an Empire Stormtrooper.

“The initial puppets were made from art board, which is ok for collectors; but the one we plan to make for the actual performance will have to be a much durable material.”

His dream is to produce a proper wayang kulit show based on A New Hope, with about 10 characters, and a traditional gamelan band providing the music.

“Imagine a gamelan version of the Imperial March (the infamous Darth Vader theme)! That would be awesome! The show will also probably be in Bahasa Malaysia,” he says enthusiastically, adding that he has been getting a lot of support from the Official Star Wars Malaysia Fan Club (swmfc.com.my).

However, since the puppets are quite costly to produce, he is currently trying to raise more funds or recruit a sponsor to produce the show. He remains optimistic that the Peperangan Bintang wayang kulit show will one day become a reality.

“I’ve already got someone who is willing to be the Tok Dalang (puppeteer), so now I am trying to find a sponsor, and a gamelan group to do the music. Then, once we’ve got enough funds to make the rest of the puppets, I’m sure we can eventually do it!” he says.

Well, Tintoy, good luck with that, and may the Force be with you.

There will be a special preview of the Peperangan Bintang wayang kulit puppets at the Comics Are Cool!: Drawlaahh: Vol. 1 launch event today between 4.30pm and 8.30pm at Earth 638 (2nd Floor, Kelana Mall, Jalan SS 6/12, Kelana Jaya, Petaling Jaya). Enquiries, call 03-7804 8380.

For information about the project, go to facebook.com/peperanganbintang or the Official Star Wars Malaysia Fan Club at swmfc.com.my; you can also e-mail chuo@actiontintoy.com.

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