Giant flip books are hiding in the woods of New Hampshire

By Liz Stinson

Tucked away in the forests of New Hampshire, somewhere just outside of Strafford, is a family of giant metal boxes. Each one is filled with 50 drawings and rigged with a system of gears that lets you crank through the images with the turn of a handle. As the illustrations flip past, they combine to form a simple animation. They’re like those flip books you used to play with as a kid, only much, much bigger.

“As far as we know, these are the world’s largest mechanical flipbooks ever made,” says Chee-Kit Lai, director of Mobile Studio. The London architecture firm collaborated with Beam Camp – a New Hampshire summer camp dedicated to teaching kids about creativity through building and making – to design the kinetic sculptures, which they call Universal Play Machines. They rely on the same mechanics as split-flap displays, the beloved (and increasingly rare) signs at airports and train stations that clack when their flaps spin to display arrival and departure times.

In light of the installation’s natural setting, the campers illustrated the flaps inside the Universal Play Machines to produce animations of bird behavior. They also treated the side panels of each installation with a one-way mirror film, and lined the inside with strips of LEDs. During the day, the side panels reflect the surrounding trees – but at night, the LEDs render the side panels transparent, revealing the mechanism inside. Though the project is based on a simple idea (artists have been using variations on this technique to create animations for centuries), at this scale and in this setting it’s one of the more charming installations we’ve seen in a while.