Be My Prop Valentine

Whale, whale, whale, what do we have here? Stephen Kesler shares step-by-step photos of a life-sized humpback whale he carved out of foam. And you thought your prop was big? Even if you never have to sculpt something this large, it is still a great primer on sculpting foam in general.

Every time I watch Adam Savage organize his workshop, I think, “hey, that’s what I do.” And then I learn some new trick and realize my shop can be organized much better. In this video, he builds these mobile carts for glue and paint supplies. Now I need to build mobile carts for supplies.

Dj3r0m Cosplay Props has this awesome war hammer from the Skyrim video game.  From the process pictures, it looks like the whole thing was carved and assembled from MDF. Impressive. The paint job is pretty stunning, too.

Village Theatre put together this great infographic showing the amounts of consumables that go into a run of Crimes of the Heart.  Anyone who has done the show can attest to the large amount of shopping that needs to happen for that production. Of course, they missed the apples, sugar, bourbon and the paper that gets torn up.

Producing a Play in 1893

Last month, I shared some words and images about props from an 1893 magazine article titled “How a Play is Produced”. The article has a number of other great images showing the construction and rehearsal of a new play.

Stage Entrance
Stage Entrance
Constructing Scenes
Constructing Scenes
A Rehearsal
A Rehearsal
Painting Stage Scenery
Painting Stage Scenery

The description of the scenic artist is enlightening:

Each stock theatre has at least one scenic artist attached to it. It is the duty of the scenic artist to paint the scenery for each new production, or touch up old scenery for a revival. He has a large studio up in the “flies,” and it is there that the work is done. Directly the manager decides on the play he will produce he sends for the scenic artist, explains the scene of each act, and asks what there is “upstairs” that will do. Sometimes the manager will do the best he can with old scenery, and instruct the scene painter to alter and touch it up. At other times he will decide on having brand-new scenery for each act. In the latter case the scene painter receives the order to prepare models of each act, the style being left largely to the taste of the artist; and if the models are approved of they are given to the stage carpenter, who, with his ten or twenty assistants, reproduces them on the scale required. When this work is finished by the carpenters the painter steps in once more and sets to work on the decoration.

Setting a Scene
Setting a Scene
Model of a Scene
Model of a Scene
Scenes Behind the Scenes
Scenes Behind the Scenes

The final image above shows a collage of scenes. On top is “an undress rehearsal”. Below is a wind machine, distributing the props, and a thunder apparatus.

Source: Hornblow, Arthur. “How a Play Is Produced.” Popular Monthly 1893: 614-22. Google Books. Web. 6 Jan. 2016.

Fridays at the Props Shop

CinemaBlend checks out what’s actually in the fake cocaine actors snort in movies. Apparently it’s too tough on the budget to use real cocaine.

Jeremy Armstrong, the props master for Girl Meets World, has a Periscope where you can watch his daily prop adventures. If you don’t know what Periscope is, it’s like an Instagram with video.

Ever wonder how they make and pump Dalek goo on Doctor Who? I didn’t either, but this video from the BBC shows you how.

“She’s a hunter, a gatherer, a fixer, an artist, a craftsman and a wizard.” Find out what a prop master’s job entails. Hint: it involves a combination of skills.

Smell is Irrelevant

“This doesn’t smell bad so I don’t need a respirator.” I hear that from time to time, either from students or in online forums. Prop makers working with chemicals use their sense of smell to determine how dangerous something is. “This smells better than that, so I don’t use that anymore.” “I can’t smell a thing, so this must be safe.”

No no no. This is dangerous, and the wrong way to think about safety with chemicals.

For every chemical, OSHA sets limits as to how much you can be exposed to. They try to figure out the amount you can be exposed to while working with something your entire life, and never have adverse health effects from it. These are called Threshold Limit Values (TLV).

The first is  the time-weighted average (TWA). The TWA is meant to indicate what you are constantly exposed to at work. They measure the average amount you are exposed to over an 8-hour day and a 40 hour week. (Uh oh, we often work much more than that in theatre).

Next is the short-term exposure. or STEL. They define this as 15 minutes of exposure. And you have to have an hour break before the next exposure. And you can only have four exposures per day.

Finally there is the ceiling value. You should never reach this level of exposure, even for an instant. They also have IDLH, which is “immediately dangerous to life and health”. Instant exposure at this amount will kill or irreversibly affect your health.

So let’s look at the following chart, which has the TLVs for some common chemicals found in the props shop. You probably recognize some of these as ingredients in paints and coatings. Amines are found in many epoxies. Methyl ethyl ketone is used in polyester resin. The diisocyanates (TDI and MDI) are two of the more common curing agents used in two-part polyurethanes.

All the values are measured in parts per million (ppm), which means out of a million pieces of air, that is how many pieces are of the substance being measured (for comparison, room air has 209,500 ppm of oxygen).

Odor thresholds and Threshold Limit Values of certain chemicals

So where does smell come in? Well, every chemical has an “odor threshold”. This is the amount, again in ppm, of a chemical at which point you can smell it. This is much less standardized, because it can be hard to test and different people have different sensitivities to smell. The number is often given in a range. You can see in the chart that the odor thresholds are all over the place for the different chemicals.

I’ve pulled a few chemicals out and put them in a chart so you can see what’s happening a bit easier.


Chart for OT and TLV

Look at chlorine. The odor threshold is way below the TLV TWA. This means that even if you smell chlorine, you may not be exposed to a harmful amount. You may be able to smell chlorine all day every day and still not have harmful effects (like if you work at an indoor pool).

Now look at formaldehyde. The short-term exposure limit (the orange dot) is way down in the graph. The odor threshold is way at the top. That means you can be exposed to a harmful amount before smelling it. In fact, you will have to be exposed to three times the threshold limit before you can smell it. So if you are working with something that off-gasses formaldehyde (including many plywoods and engineered lumber, VOC-containing paints, and even some fabrics), you cannot assume you are safe because you do not smell anything.

Look at the two diisocyanates (MDI and TDI). Both of them also have an odor threshold above their short-term exposure limit. If you look back at the chart, you will see that the STEL for MDI is also its ceiling value, which is the amount you should not exceed even for an instant. And its odor threshold is twenty times higher than that. You can be breathing dangerous and even deadly amounts of MDI before you even get close to smelling it.

This is why many people suggest casting urethane parts inside a fume hood or a spray booth; even a respirator is not a reliable protector. One way to tell if your respirator has stopped working is if you can smell the outside air. But with these chemicals, you cannot smell them even when they are present in dangerous amounts. So you have no indication of whether your respirator is working or not.

Your nose is a great sensor for many chemicals, but you should never rely solely on it for your safety. You need to know about the specific chemicals you are working with and how their odor threshold relates to their threshold limit values. No more, “this doesn’t smell bad so I don’t need a respirator.”

Smell you later.

End of the Week Links

American Theatre has this week’s “must read” article on jobs in technical theatre. They look at where new technicians get their training and interview a number of people working in theatre to see how they got their start. The interviewees come from a range of different departments, like lighting, sound and costumes. No props people appear in the article; probably because we were all too busy to give an interview.

The Abbey Theatre has a video up where Eimer Murphy talks about the vintage working dentist’s chair that appears in their current production of You Never Can Tell.

Propnomicon found this great video on aging glass bottles. It’s a lot better than giving your actors actual antique bottles that they have to drink out of.

Take a tour through the prop warehouse of the Food Network. In the basement of NYC’s Chelsea Market, Wendy Waxman stores thousands of vintage items which appear on the various shows and specials of this TV station. I bet a lot of my readers wish they could spend every day finding and buying quirky kitchen items.

Finally, this is short but interesting. The actor who originally played Darth Vader (David Prowse, not James Earl Jones) posted a photo of the original Vader mask that burned at the end of Return of the Jedi and compared it to the prop that Kylo Ren holds in The Force Awakens. Since the original was made of fiberglass, it turned a little “hairy”, while the prop in the new film looks more “melty”.

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies