Constructing Eye-Popping Pop-Up Books

7:09 minutes

Growing up, you may have had a shelf with a few simple pop-up books. Pull the tab and the cow’s head moves from side to side, that sort of thing. Today’s pop-ups are feats of engineering. Video producer Luke Groskin talks about how pop-up designer Matthew Reinhart constructs paper cut-outs that can extend to nearly two feet in height, and how their underlying structures generate movement and depth.

Segment Guests

Luke Groskin

Luke Groskin is Science Friday’s video producer. He’s on a mission to make you love spiders and other odd creatures.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Growing up you probably had a pop-up book or two in your bookshelf, right? You pull a tab and maybe a cow’s head might waggle from side to side. How cute. Well, pop-up books have come a long way and it is all for the better. Today these cutouts are feats of engineering prowess. There are pop-ups that have movement and give a sense of time. And some of them can reach nearly two feet tall.

Our video producer Luke Groskin visited the studio of Matthew Reinhart who is a pop-up book virtuoso. He put a film together and he’s here to tell us about that visit. Welcome Luke.


IRA FLATOW: Wow. So these books are amazing. The amount of detail that goes into each pop-up. What his studio must look like, it’s crazy.

LUKE GROSKIN: Well actually no, it actually looks like a standard artist’s studio. You know, he’s got a lot of tape. A lot of tape. A lot of paper. Just scissors and, you know, X-ACTO blade knife. He’s got a computer that he does some compositing work on. But for the most part, it’s all hand crafted. And of course, his walls are just lined with Transformers. He’s obsessed with Transformers.

IRA FLATOW: And in the video he actually shows you how he makes these pop-up books. It’s kind of cool.

LUKE GROSKIN: Yeah it’s absolutely amazing seeing how he goes just from an initial idea and straight into this completely elaborate one foot pop-up.

MATTHEW REINHART: I’ll write out an outline. Just a basic idea of what the pop will be, a T-Rex head bites reader. That’s it. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, with all the engineering, I just know that that’s what I want to happen. The next step is actually engineering. By hand. There isn’t a computer program that does this stuff, it’s like low tech engineering. We’re using really simple stuff. Me cutting up paper and folding and taping it. I use an artist’s tape, that makes a nice hinge.

IRA FLATOW: And in fact that T-Rex that he was talking about you have open in front of you.


IRA FLATOW: So is that one of your favorite books?

LUKE GROSKIN: Oh yeah. This is the one that– you can actually hear it, it’s a whole lot of pieces of paper. This is the one that when I first got my kid a pop-up book two years ago I opened it and this T-Rex just lunged out at my son and I. And it really does lunge about a foot off the page. It’s got a full head. It’s just a marvel of engineering. This is just paper. It’s just paper.

IRA FLATOW: And they have so many moving parts on it, right? That’s really, to me, the magic of this. How do you get them all to work together?

LUKE GROSKIN: Well, you know, that’s– exactly. That’s what I found very intriguing about this, especially from an engineering and technology and science perspective. It all starts with a v-fold. So if you put your hands together and then you open them up you create kind of a v. And that kind of movement is generated off of the opening of the page. The opening of the page is the engine of everything. And so you have this paper and it opens just like your hands would open.

IRA FLATOW: Like that.

LUKE GROSKIN: Now think about this. So the wider you open your hands, takes longer to reach that arc, to get them open that far. So the wider the v, the longer that that pop will take. The narrower the v, the quicker it will actually take. And so in that regard you can actually program or engineer different timings of different pops. And also when you think about it, that engine, if I add another v off of one v, I can change axes. So you know, instead of just moving in one movement up and down I can now move left and right, just by adding a v to a v, and then attaching that to the base page.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. I’m Ira Flatow here with Luke Groskin talking about these pop-up books that are just fantastic. So actually what you’re doing, what he’s engineering is how to change the opening process. You know, the sort of horizontal into a vertical thing, where things pop out, right? Different axes of working on it.

LUKE GROSKIN: Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: And does he make these all by hand in the video?

LUKE GROSKIN: Every thing.

IRA FLATOW: In a single cut?

LUKE GROSKIN: It all starts with just taking paper and cutting up and adding tape. Eventually they have to replace the tape with either glue or put in slats and things like that in order to connect these things. But it is all handmade. There’s no computer program that actually can put together this elaborate structure. Or one that hasn’t been invented yet.

IRA FLATOW: So all right, you’ve got the T-Rex open there. What’s another favorite one of yours?

LUKE GROSKIN: Oh I absolutely love the Princess Leia pop that’s in his Star Wars book.

IRA FLATOW: I have that one here.


IRA FLATOW: I gotta find that.

LUKE GROSKIN: If you look at it it’s that iconic moment when Princess Leia takes off her hood. And you could have just made a pop where as you open it up Princess Leia takes off her hood. Instead, the pop– you open the page and you can see this woman, you know, this iconic image of the woman with her white cloak. And she’s not fully revealed quite yet. And then after you reach about 150 degrees. That last 30 degrees, that’s when the hood comes down.

IRA FLATOW: Oh wow, that’s like icing on the cake. It’s unexpected. That’s what’s so wonderful, also, about these books, you just don’t know what to expect when you open the page up.

LUKE GROSKIN: Well these books they’re for adults and kids, but they really do capture the wonder of reading a book and being kind of surprised. You never know what’s going to happen when you open one of these pops.

IRA FLATOW: And I also love the Morra Sendak book.

LUKE GROSKIN: Oh yes. Yes. There is a pop up book and it’s a collaboration between Matthew Reinhart and Maurice Sendak. And he has a pop in that word this werewolf rises up and he’s holding a chain. And you get the book open about 90 degrees and the man becomes a werewolf. And then as he pulls up the chain a little hobgoblin comes out of the sewer attached to the chain. But you don’t actually get to see that until the very, very end after you opened it. And, you know, it’s a testament to the careful engineering of how far off the center of this page he’s able to actually get a movement, a really significant movement. And it all comes down to v-folds and angles and a little bit of math, actually.

IRA FLATOW: Does he ever know how long it’s going does it take to make one book? I mean, is it months, years?

LUKE GROSKIN: Oh it takes several months to make the book, and then it takes a year to kind of– or nine months to actually produce it, to actually hand make these books. Because all these pieces have to be die cut and then they’re machine cut and then they’re put together by hand, individually.

IRA FLATOW: Well I look at this Star Wars book and it’s a beautiful book. And I can say for the first time, Luke, the force was with you when you went over to see–

LUKE GROSKIN: Well thank you. These pops are absolutely– they really are works of art and, you know, they really are works of engineering. If you check out the video you’ll see, wait, there’s not just artistry going on here.

IRA FLATOW: What’s the video name up on our website?

LUKE GROSKIN: It’s called “Engineering the Perfect Pop.”

IRA FLATOW: And you’re in there and looking at the– it’s a great video.

LUKE GROSKIN: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. No, thank you for putting that together. You can watch our pop-up video on our website at sciencefriday.com/popup.

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Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.

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