Making the Ebola Puppet Show

Behind the scenes with Jöns Mellgren, telling the heroic tale of Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan — in paper, paint, and animated GIFs.

Read the full story and see the puppets in action here.


Erich: For the past month, beginning in early December, Jöns and I have been working at just how to bring Josh Hammer’s great story of the deceased Dr. Khan to vivid life. Working from an early draft of Josh’s text, as he sat in quarantine in Berlin after his reporting trip to Sierra Leone, these are the steps of creating the visual story for Matter.

We began with storyboard sketches of key scenes we wanted to include, discussing recurring characters to design and sets to build, as though we were planning shots for a feature film.

Jöns: Initially, the main concern was to find the right tone.

Erich: We looked at reference photos from the region in order to figure out the right color scheme, and the correct mood for the sets.

Jöns: My approach tends to be to get rid of a lot of detail and simplify as much as possible. The risk is that you end up making something that looks too clean and sterile, which wouldn’t have suited the subject matter.

Jöns: In order to make puppets for all the scenes we wanted to depict, I nonetheless had to keep the design fairly simple. This led me to make paper puppets that would work well enough in profile, so that I didn’t have to draw any facial features.

Jöns: I also realized that I’d have to work in two different scales — one for exterior shots, with tiny puppets, and another for interiors.

Jöns: I cataloged which buildings, puppets, and props were needed for each shot, and which could be used in several setups.

Jöns: After having built most of the sets (with some help from animators Niki Lindroth and Anna Mantzaris), I started shooting scene by scene. The final composition of any given scene was decided when we viewed the set through the camera lens. I always make final adjustments and change things around a lot while shooting. Luckily, working with paper makes this quite easy.

Jöns: The sets were lit using LED-panels in combination with LED-strips. I played around with changing the temperature of the lights by adding strips of colored silk paper.

Erich: We had some photographs from writer Josh Hammer of the actual scenes mentioned in the story, like of Khan’s grave, from which to build sets that were true to the actual events of the story.

Jöns: With respect to the tragedy of Dr Khan’s story, I thought it necessary to approach all of the scenes in a fairly somber way. I needed some feedback from Erich to realize that the photos should still be vibrant and colorful. In the end, I also had time to reshoot a couple of scenes — Khan at the bar and cheering in the street — and make the setups a bit more lively. I’m glad I did — those scenes provide contrast to the horrors of the disease.

Erich: Though Jöns was in Stockholm and I was shuttling between New York, San Francisco, and Texas as this was all coming together, the creative back-and-forth was incredibly fluid. I felt we really connected over the warmth of Josh’s writing and the heroism of Dr. Khan’s fight against the disease. Opening Jöns’s emails every day to see his progress and help him bring his sketches, puppets, and sets to life was often the highlight of my inbox ☺—and in the end is such a powerful way to share Dr. Khan’s story.

Read the final story on Matter: