Last Links of May

Vulture has a nice piece on the unglamorous, punishing hours of working on a Hollywood set. Below-the-line workers in film work longer hours than soldiers in Afghanistan. And it’s dangerous to do so. On the flip side, a film shoot has an end date, and if you’re a prop builder, you’re probably not on set.

If that previous article does not turn you off, Frank Ippolito has some advice on how to get started in the effects business. Though he’s talking about practical and makeup effects, the props business has many similarities, and there are some people who work in both worlds.

Tandy Leather has come out with their own thermoplastic, similar to Wonderflex and Worbla. Check out their introductory video on working with TerraFlex Sheets.

Wired has an epic oral history on Industrial Light and Magic, which just celebrated its 40th year in business. It’s interesting to note that the company which pioneered the use of computer effects in the nineties is the same one currently pushing the envelope of practical effects.

If you like the photos in the previous article, check out the accompanying gallery of the awesome props inside ILM’s vault.

Behind the Scenes Part 3, 1890

The following comes from an 1890 news article in the San Francisco Morning Call. You can also check out the first part and the second part:

The ingenuity of the “propertyman” comes to the front again in eating and drinking scenes, when the manager of the theater has to furnish the viands. As a substitute for tea, wine, whisky or brandy he serves the actors water colored with a piece of toasted bread to suit the shade of the desired liquid and then strained. This, by the way, is not a device of modern times.

It comes from the days of Shakespeare, according to stage tradition. Sometimes ginger ale or tea is used, but these are not favored generally because they will not suit all tastes.

To one actor the ale is too pungent, to another the cider is too sour, while the third may not be able to take tea without milk, which, of course, could not be used without impairing the color of the drink. So toast-water has been accepted as the regular thing, agreeable to ever palate.

There are managers of companies and stars who will have the genuine article itself, and in that case provide it at their own expense.

Clara Morris and Fannie Davenport do this. “Rip Van Winkle” Jefferson swallows whisky straight when he “smiles” to the health of the other characters at the end of the comedy, and remarks, “This one don’t count.”

In the memorable representation of Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer,” years ago, John Gilbert, Lester Wallack and Harry Montague were in the cast. They used in the tap-room scene an English tankard filled with Bass’ ale.

Occasionally stage realism asserts itself, and decrees that only legitimate accessories shall be used in the portrayal. Then it is this especial “piece of business” becomes a feature of the plays, as in the “Hearts of Oak” four years ago, where a party of eight sat down to a New England dinner of meat, pies, coffee and rolls. The component parts of the meal were served in view of the audience, piping hot, and were eaten with relish by the actors and actresses around the table.

Perhaps the most costly stage repast when done correctly is the breakfast in “Camille,” that the heroine gives to Armand, Easton and Mme. Prudence. The period of the drama is modern, and the surroundings on a scale of excellence calling for silverware of recent design and the best of food.

A “propertyman” would supply it in this way: A pot of tea, white cups and saucers, a plate of sliced bread and a papier-mache chicken or ham. How the itinerant actor, who grubs country towns for his patronage, and who cannot supply money or properties, manages to set this scene is as great a source of conjecture as the reasons that induce him to mold the genius to the histrionic requisites of the play.

Every theatre-goer knew John T. Raymond ate pared apples as Colonel Sellers in “The Gilded Age,” whereas the action of the scene called for turnips. So much for eating and drinking on the stage.

Originally published in The Morning Call, San Francisco, December 25, 1890, pg 19.

Links for a Long Weekend

Do you need a feather quill pen for a show? Lexey Jost has an Instructable showing how to make one that actually writes. Now you can keep your production of 1776 under budget.

Buzzfeed(?) has a collection of diagrams to help you decorate your home. They have everything from antique chair back styles, to common furniture sizes, to the names of lampshade fittings. Most of us prop masters have a collection of diagrams like this to help in decorating a set, so here’s a chance to grab a few more.

Many of us already saw this last week, but in case you missed it, that insane Mad Max flame-throwing guitar was no CGI trick. Find out how and why they constructed such a crazy practical effect.

Volpin Props has another great build log up. This time he made the Cael Hammer from the video game, BastionIt’s a mix of EVA foam, vacuum formed plastic and PVC. He’s got a lot of great little tips and tricks for shaping and painting these various materials.

“Do not let artisans discourage you from learning this or that trade because they have not made a success of it. They may tell you that a certain trade is overcrowded. Investigate a little and you will find that only the botch workman and chronic kickers are out of work. The cheerful, enthusiastic workman is idle only when misfortune overtakes the whole country.” Read more from this 1888 article on workmen over at the Lost Art Press Blog.

Friday Links Anonymous

In case you missed it, the Shop@AVR Blog has these seven amazing images of stage technicians throughout history.  They have photos from 1899-1935, and one illustration from the 18th century. One photo shows clearers moving the props; clearers were the precursors to prop running crew.

I’ve previously mentioned the massive auction of Rick Baker’s stuff at the end of this month. Check out this article on how Tom Spina Designs is preparing and preserving his work in anticipation of the sale. Some of these props and animatronics are decades old and were not built to last, but Tom and his crew have a ton of experience restoring and protecting items like this.

I missed this article from last autumn, but WNPR has a great profile on Ming Cho Lee. I think it’s safe to say that if you work in American theatre, you will eventually work with a designer who was trained by Ming. Not only has he shaped set design, but he has had a huge part in shaping design education.

Finally, here is a video from the 90s about the original animatronic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The technology that went into those suits were incredible. Unlike CGI, the suits can actually be performed in live; I wonder if any theatre company has ever used anything as sophisticated as these? That would be a cool show.

Review: Foamsmith, by Bill Doran

Anyone who reads this blog (or really, any blog about props) probably recognizes the name of Bill Doran. You’ve either marveled at his prop work over at Punished Props, watched his how-to videos, or followed his live chats with other prop makers.

One thing you pick up about him is how much he loves teaching and demonstrating everything he learns. Not only is he an enthusiastic teacher, but his knowledge comes tested from building countless costumes for numerous conventions, and regularly talking with other cosplayers. It’s a great recipe for making a book, and a book is exactly what he made.

Foamsmith is all about building a suit of armor out of EVA foam. He began with a series of e-books on different foamsmithing techniques, and has now collected them into a single print volume. Even if you’ve never worked with foam before, you can have a full suit of armor built by the time you’re done with this book.

Foamsmith by Bill Doran
Foamsmith by Bill Doran

The book is gorgeous. Full color pictures and easy-to-read layouts meet you on every page. Websites and e-books are certainly a great resource for learning how to make things, but there’s something about a physical book that makes the information so clear and accessible. Plus, you don’t have to worry about the words and pictures suddenly disappearing like when a website goes down.

Doran covers the basics, from patterning, cutting and shaping your foam, to carving, texturing and adding other details. He delves a lot into the specifics of wearing a full suit of armor, like designing it to be easy to take on and off, adding pockets to hide your cell phone, and making sure you can go to the bathroom while wearing it.

Even if you never intend to walk around a convention in a suit of sci-fi armor, this book still has a lot to offer. EVA foam is a wonderful material to build many things out of, and Doran has lots of specific tips and tricks for getting the most out of it. He has built entire props just from foam; I’ve used it for puppet-making in the past as well. His instructions on sealing and painting the foam are very useful, and his chapter on LEDs and wiring are helpful even if you are not working with foam at all.

If you’ve ever watched Doran’s videos, you know he has a cheeky sense of humor, and his personality is all over the book as well. You get the sense that this is a lot of fun for him, and he wants to share everything he knows with us so we can have fun too. It’s not distracting though; his instructions are clear, and he does a wonderful job of matching photographs to his text to further reinforce what he is describing.

I wish he had a few more photographs of his completed projects. He has a few, and I know you can find them online, but it would be nice for the book to show the culmination of his processes. The tutorials throughout the book show bits and pieces of some of the suits he built, and you just think, “wow, that little wrist gauntlet looks awesome, I wonder what the whole costume looked like?”

There are very few Bill Dorans in the world, and it is exciting to see him put his experience into book form. Prop making and cosplay still suffer from a lack of books and learning materials, so I’m glad to see more people contributing to this vast field.

Foamsmith is sold exclusively on the Punished Props website. It is 184 pages with over 400 color photographs.


Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies