Great Big Prop Links

When Broadway Actors Sit Down for an Onstage Meal, Who Makes the Food? – The prop master, of course! Although, in this article, we find out that the Broadway musical Waitress also has a pie consultant working on the show. Read all about the complicated maneuvers it takes to get a fully-cooked meal on stage every night on cue.

Meet SNL’s 78-Year-Old “Heart Of The Show” – If you know anything about American theatrical set design, you know the name Eugene Lee. Chances are, if you’ve worked in regional or New York theater long enough, you’ve worked on a show he’s designed. Eugene has also designed the sets for every episode of Saturday Night Live since the beginning. Read all about his crazy schedule to make that happen.

Use a Drill to Shape a Chair Seat – Christopher Schwartz demonstrates a technique for using a drill to rough out the complex curved shape of a wooden seat before shaping it by hand. I’m sure this technique has a name, as I’ve seen it used in a variety of ways with other materials.

The Passion of Phil Tippett: Building Stop-Motion Masterpieces by Hand – Great Big Story looks at the latest project by Phil Tippett. Phil has worked in various capacities as a visual effects artist on films like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and RoboCop. But his labor of love is a stop-motion film he has been creating entirely by hand for the past 30 years.

How Expensive Properties are Made, 1914

The following comes from a 1914 issue of Popular Electricity and Modern Mechanics:

How Expensive Properties are Made

As an illustration of the rapid strides made during the last few years in the production of motion pictures, a sight-seeing trip through the Universal Company’s studios in California uncovers the fact that twenty-five classes of skilled artisans are at present employed in making the properties for a feature film production. It is stated on good authority that half of the expense in producing pictures of the pageant type is incurred before the actual staging of the drama begins. Upon the screen the spectator sees armies in conflict, reproductions of ancient cities wrecked solely for a camera spectacle, streets of forgotten cities swarming with people costumed in conformity with historical record and all properly fitted out with the accouterments of war and habiliments of peace.

But behind all these shows of pageantry is a large corps of technical experts, craftsmen, mechanics and workmen who transfer these pictures of ancient life from historical records and cuts to so many replicas of the things themselves. General knowledge is all but useless in such productions. When the multiple reel production of “Damon and Pythias” was planned, every detail of scenery and of properties was not only planned and designed upon paper, but everything was modelled in miniature. A replica of the stadium was made of pasteboard. The interiors and exteriors of houses were modeled. Every property was brought down to a definite basis when it was put to the two tests of historical accuracy and adaptability to the camera. During this stage of the work the drafting and the designing rooms had the appearance of a toy shop and would have brought delight to the heart of any child.

Making Properties for a Feature
Making Properties for a Feature

Specifications completed, blue-print designs and colored models were distributed to the various workshops. Helmets, greaves, shields, javelins, breast-plates, short-swords and the smaller household articles were manufactured in the papier-mache department. This work requires considerable time and only expert labor can handle it. The papier-mache department was busy for three months in manufacturing some of the properties for “Damon and Pythias” alone.

Twelve extra seamstresses were employed in the costume department for two months and aside from costumes for the principles, complete outfits were made for five hundred soldiers.

On the company’s ranch, situated in the San Fernando valley, Greek streets, detached dwellings and a stadium grew up and assumed shape and color within a month after the first ground was turned.

The joining and carpenter shops were busy with the wooden properties and frame-work for the large pieces of scenery. Twenty-five chariots were turned out within a period of two weeks. The carpenters work completed, the properties are turned over to the scene painters and decorators, and where iron work was required, to blacksmiths and ironworkers.

In many scenes of this production it was necessary that large pieces of statuary be in evidence. This statuary was made in the company’s shops and only skilled alabaster workers could even attempt the work.

Shops for the manufacture of all description of properties used in motion pictures are something new in the industry. Not longer than two years ago, when a big production was to be made, as few properties as possible were manufactured on account of the extra expense of this work. In those days all properties that could be obtained were rented and the others were improvised.

Thus the advance in this branch of the industry can be appreciated when the fact is brought forth that every property with one exception for the “Damon and Pythias” production was manufactured in the company’s shops. The ancient sets of harness to be used with the chariots was manufactured outside the company’s shops.

“How Expensive Properties Are Made.” Popular Electricity and Modern Mechanics. Ed. Austin C. Lescarboura. Vol. 29. New York: Modern, 1914. 153-55. Google Books. 11 Dec. 2008. Web. 24 May 2017. <https://books.google.com/books?id=1_HNAAAAMAAJ>.

Props for the Weekend

Gamora’s Godslayer – Guardians Of The Galaxy – I lost track of the “Man at Arms” show for awhile. It turns out they’ve rebooted it as “Man at Arms: Reforged.” The original show saw Tony Swatton use forging, blacksmithing, and metalworking techniques to build real metal versions of movie and video game weaponry. The new show is the same, just with a different shop. I have a lot of episodes to catch up on, but I definitely wanted to share this one where they make Gamora’s sword from Guardians of the Galaxy, since it is such a cool blade. You can pick up a lot of techniques by watching them work.

Twin Cities actor blows the whistle on ‘unsafe’ theater production – The production of “Medea” at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis is described as having a three-to-four thousand gallon pool with a 30 -foot long exposed electric circuit along the drip edge. I can’t quite picture that in my head, but it was scary enough to get the actors to call Equity and shut the production down.

The Creature and Special Effects of Alien: Covenant! – Adam Savage’s new life involves visiting every movie set and playing with their props. It’s not a bad gig. Plus, as a former model-maker/prop builder, he knows what kinds of questions to ask to make these videos more informed than your typical “behind-the-scenes” featurette that’s slapped together at the last minute.

Tips of the Week: Wire Splicing, Table Saw Router, and Flea Market Brainstorming – Make Magazine publishes a short list of tips and tricks every week, and I found this week’s collection particularly useful.

A Strange Passage in my Life (part 2), 1835

The following occurred in 1835 and comes from a collection of stories about life on the stage (I previously published the first part). It’s a bit long, but the description of props from generations past is absolutely fascinating:

A Strange Passage in my Life (part 2)

by E. L. Blanchard

On a certain unlucky Friday in the month of November, 1835, there was a consultation in Bradwell’s room about calling into requisition for the forthcoming pantomime of “Guy Fawkes” some old mechanical contrivances which were known to be in existence, but being quite unknown to a later generation, were considered likely to increase the attraction of the Christmas novelty, without involving any extra expenditure. The task of selecting what was likely to be most suitable was assigned to me, and I received special instructions to look out for a certain “animated peacock,” originally made for a pantomime produced early in the century, under the title of “Harlequin and the Swans, or the Bath of Beauty.” Continue reading A Strange Passage in my Life (part 2), 1835

Mid Weekend Links

The Power of Gold – Propnomicon shares this great video from Brazen and Bold about painting an aged metal finish using spray paint, acrylics, and an airbrush.

Flashlight Museum – The next time someone questions the historical accuracy of the flashlight you put in the show, send them to this museum. They have over 3700 images of flashlights from the dawn of flashlight history to the present.

One of the Toughest (Silent) Jobs at the Met Opera – The New York Times looks into life as a spotlight operator at the Met. Sure, it’s not props, but it’s nice to see a major newspaper acknowledge one of our backstage companions. Plus, many of us have probably run spot at some point in our career.

Alien Covenant’s Armor, Weapons, and Blood Effects! – Adam Savage takes a look at all the cool props and practical effects in the upcoming Alien film.

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies