The Cinematic Possibilities of Pop-up Books

By: Matthew Battles
November 23, 2009


At Slate last week, Troy Patterson argued that books don’t need to be promoted with the kind of flashy, light-beer cinema that is the phenomenon of the “book trailer.” At Snarkmarket, however, Matt Thompson offers a spirited defense of book trailers, comparing them to food photography:

I don’t think of the pri­mary seduc­tion of a meal as being visual, but a well-done food photo evokes every­thing non-visual about a meal — taste, scent, tex­ture. Sim­i­larly, I don’t typ­i­cally think of the pri­mary seduc­tion of a book as being its atmos­phere or aes­thetic, but this is what a good book trailer (or ani­mated book cover) evokes — the envi­ron­ment the book will cre­ate around you as you read it.

Matt links to his Snarkmarket colleague Robin Sloan’s experimental trailer for his much-anticipated Annabel Scheme. But he also refers to this trailer for a new, pop-up edition of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic, The Little Prince:

Matt’s right: it does the job; the pop-up Little Prince looks fun. But I’m not very impressed with the trailer as film— hands fumbling here and there, playing with out-of-focus bits of paper engineering. I’m setting the bar absurdly high, I know. But the pop-up, after all, is the book that doesn’t want to be a book; it seems rife with cinematic (well, at least cartoonish) possibility. Imagine pop-up books animated by Jan Svankmajer, or the photography of Abelardo Morell translated into cinematic form.

Thus inspired, I went looking for examples of pop-up books brought to life through the magic of film. Alas, the search was mostly disappointing — although there were a couple of delights along the way. What follows is a somewhat-glibly annotated collection of pop-up videos.

The first example, a pop-up tie-in with the hit musical adapted from Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, is a disaster:

…while this trailer for a pop-up produced by Sports Illustrated is even worse, with its little Tiger Woods paper doll trembling in a coloring book grove:

How can they get it so wrong? The video below, produced in connection with an exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, while being primarily a curatorial document, shows what careful lighting and precisely-framed shots can do for the pop-up book:

…but the pacing is too slow; the story the book tells isn’t dramatized; and those hands! They’re stagehands, people — dress them in black. Or make them disappear altogether; bring us the suspended disbelief and the sense of sheer nickelodeon charm that makes a good pop-up work.

The next trailer, for Maurice Sendak’s tour-de-force pop-up Mommy, suffers bookending by a presenter whose face seems frozen in an ecstasy-induced rictus. But the rest of it works very well by cutting between takes of interview with Sendak and his collaborators interwoven with well-produced shots of the paper engineering:

Better! But it’s still a marketing ploy, of course. The trailer below, for Marion Bataille’s ABC3D, gets much closer; it teases out the book’s flavor with a well-chosen soundtrack. Hands are present — but stop-motion animation renders them toylike in their own right:

The best examples aren’t trailers at all. Instead they reverse polarity by deploying the pop-up book as a model for animation not related to actual books. Like this short in which a Japanese-themed pop-up comes to life:

…and this advertisement, in which a specially-made pop-up is deployed to greenwash a British cleansing product:

The piece that comes closest to realizing the pop-up potential doesn’t use a pop-up book; instead, it discovers the latent will to pop-upness lurking in any book:

…a trifle slick, perhaps. But it comes closer than anything I’ve seen to Svankmajering the pop-up. It makes me want to find an old pop-up book — maybe one that’s in the public domain, maybe one in a foreign language — find myself an enterprising filmmaker, and see what else can be done. Clearly, the pop-up book trailer awaits its auteur.


Browbeating, Spectacles


What do you think?

  1. An intriguing new genre! I think to be done right the pop-up would need to be deconstructed a bit, like how a set is just part of the room (so the cameras can maneuver). Pop-ups come out, you go “in.”

    And also today, Tezcatlipoca Bisiani (@tezcatlipoca) pinged this virtual book (, which features installation shots of the work of Second Life’s Bryn Oh, as a good candidate for popping-up, whether virtually or in RL!

  2. I bet you could build some killer pop-up in SL.

    And yes, you’re right about taking apart the book to get the shot. Also, no need to limit oneself to one book. Let’s get a bunch of old pop-ups, take them apart, and let them play together.

  3. Great overview of pop up book trailers. Too bad there aren’t any by Robert Sabuda, the true modern master of the form.

  4. I know! His books (and those of colleague Matthew Reinhardt) are so popular that YouTube is swamped with DIY videos of people playing with his books on bedspreads in front of open windows with Yanni in the background. There is a fine interview of Sabuda & Reinhardt at BN Studio:

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