Point a Torch at this Pop-up Book and Creatures Appear in the Shadows it Casts

Illustrator Helen Friel tells about designing and engineering this delightful book that reveals itself under your torch (or phone’s light).

We’ve featured a pop-up book that uses shadow-play before – in the form of Davy and Kristen McGuire’s beautiful Ice Book – but this is the first time we’ve seen one produced commercially. Published by Laurence King, Helen Friel’s Midnight Creatures features a series of monochromatic pop-up papercut scenes. Turn off the lights and shine a torch through them, and animals and fish appear on your wall. See also: How to make a pop-up book.

When the light’s back on, text tells you and your children a little about each creature – but this is no animal encyclopaedia – it’s all about the wonder of discovering what’s hidden in the negative space in each design.

London-based Helen first started creating what she calls ‘shadow books’ while studying for a BA in Graphic Design at Central Saint Martins, graduating in 2009. Since then she’s produced papercut work for the likes of Vanity Fair, Ted Baker and the Savoy Hotel. This last project was a pop-up cocktail menu created in collaboration with illustrator Joe Wilson, which was sent into space as a promotion.

I sat down with Helen to find out how she conceived and created the book – and her approach to paper engineering.

Neil Bennett: "What’s the main appeal to you of paper engineering?"

Helen Friel: "I like the precision of paper engineering. I’m most comfortable with mathematical processes and I enjoy the technical side of the work. Pop-up books have always fascinated me and I think it’s wonderful that, even with all the technology we have access to now, people still find them magical."

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NB: "What inspired you to create a pop-up book with shadowplay?"

HF: "I designed my first ‘shadow book’ in 2007 to sell at a university cake sale. I’m a terrible baker, so I made a book called The Fellowship of Realists and Associated Literal Thinkers’ Tea Party. It featured a series of cutout cake puns and was inspired by diagrams of Victorian shadow puppets.

"The idea of extending the original shadow books had been in the back of my mind since I graduated. Five or six years ago, I got as far as talking about a collaboration with an illustrator friend but that didn’t happen in the end. When Laurence King asked me to develop the concept I initially thought about using positive shapes but it became clear that, for this book, the technique works best with negative space."

NB: "Take us through the creative process for Midnight Creatures."

HF: "I started by choosing the creatures for each page. In the the Deep Ocean (shown here), I already knew I wanted to use the Giant Squid and the Anglerfish. I spent a lot of time looking for fish with interesting silhouettes – there are so many it was hard to narrow them down.

"The next step was to make the shadows all line up correctly before adding the habitats. This meant researching the shapes of seaweed and rocks. The habitats went through several versions and lots of paper was chopped about before the pages worked properly. I think I made around 150 models while working on the book.

"Laurence King’s brilliant design department devised the page layouts and set the type."

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NB: "What the were technical constraints of the form – and how did you work around these?"

HF: "The book is die cut which means that there’s a limit on how intricate the lines can be. There’s also the audience to consider, I didn’t want it to be easily torn apart by small hands. It was a case of working with the limitations rather than fighting them. I had to simplify some of my original creature shapes during the process but it wasn’t a problem.

"Getting the technique to work was very satisfying. Until I started testing pages it was just a theory."

NB: "What's next?

HF: "I’m working on another book for Laurence King with my Dad, [historial Dr Ian Friel]. It’s an illustrated childrens’ puzzle book, rather than pop-up. It’ll be out next year."