I like this charming antique story of talking tools who argue over who is the most important when it comes to constructing a wooden box. Guess what? It only works when the tools work together and play their unique role.
Finally, production designer K.K. Barrett talks about creating the unique futuristic world of Her. The movie itself, a sci-fi romance film from Spike Jonze, looks fascinating. Though production design is somewhat removed from the world of props, it is always interesting to read how the various production departments on a film work together, and the interview deals a lot with how the physical objects and tactile qualities of the world relate to the story of the film, which is something props masters do deal with.
Usually, I am building props for a show or production I am working on. I rarely have time to work on my own projects. However, someone was interested to see if I could replicate a chest from the television show Game of Thrones. Now, I have nothing to do with the show itself, but it sounded like an interesting challenge to see if I could match something I could only see on screen. There wasn’t anything particularly tricky about this chest; it just had a lot of pieces and parts made of an assortment of materials, and some very time-consuming detail. For those who watch the show, this is the chest given to Daenerys in season one, which held her petrified dragon eggs.
I shot video of most of the build along the way and somehow edited several months of work into seven and a half minutes of video, giving an overview of the process.
If you are interested in more detail and photographs, read on!
Daenerys’ chest of dragon eggs
The first part was the box itself. I worked out a quick mock-up of the whole piece in SketchUp to figure out the sizes and proportions of all the parts. I decided to use ash on this because it is hard and strong like oak, but I really hate working with oak. The grain pattern of ash was also a better match to the real chest than oak. We have a great local hardwood store that I visited, and I was able to find boards wide enough that I could build every side (except the top) from a single width of wood. The bottom was a piece of oak plywood.
The chest has a number of areas covered in metal. I bought a sheet of 22 gauge steel and cut it up by hand with my airplane snips. I used my sheet metal bending brake on the corner pieces, while the rolled-over edges of the top pieces were bent by hand with sheet metal tools and pliers. Although I could have saved time by making these out of plastic and painting them to look like metal, the “roll over” parts would have ended up too fragile; on the very corners, you can see how thin the metal is, and any plastic that thin would flex whenever you touch it. The hasp on this chest also rests against a metal section, so it gives that solid metal-to-metal sound every time you open and close the lid.
Sheet metal layers
The most time-intensive part was the applied decoration. I used styrene plastic for this because using actual brass would have been prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, and a cheaper metal would have required just as much paint to match the appearance that the added labor was not worth it. I began by going through all the scenes in the TV show where the chest appeared and pulling out as many clear screen shots as I could, and then manipulating them in Photoshop to get a straight-on view. I scaled them up to full-size, printed them out and cut the pieces into patterns to trace on the styrene. Some parts of the design needed to be extrapolated slightly because I never got a clear view, but because it was symmetrical, repetitive and followed a certain logic, I was pretty confidant with how well my version matched the original.
Patterns and reference
Nearly every element was made of at least two layers of styrene, so after cutting the several hundred pieces out, I began gluing them together using model airplane glue. I did not attach them to the box just yet, but I did lay them out to test fit everything.
With all the pieces ready, I began painting. They received a base coat of hammered silver spray paint, followed by a heavy dusting of hammered bronze spray paint. They would receive more paint later on, but at this point I began attaching them. Working on one side at a time, I first laid every piece out and used careful measurements to make sure everything was symmetrical and evenly-spaced. I then traced every single piece in place and labeled them by number before taking them off. I did some tests and found contact cement gave the strongest bond, though that meant I had to apply it to both the plastic piece and the box, and I could not apply it to the parts of the box where the wood was visible, so I had to carefully paint it within the traced outlines I had made. Luckily, the contact cement bonds almost instantly, so I could begin working on another side after one was completed.
Spray painted pieces
The inside of the chest was leather, though I went with a slightly-more processed version which was already finished and could fit through my sewing machine. I stitched all the pieces together first, and then attached them in as a single unit. I used a bit of spray adhesive to keep them from shifting around, but they are mostly held in place with the visible upholstery tacks. I pre-drilled holes for the tacks so I could make sure the spacing was even, and also because the ash was too hard to just hammer the tacks straight in.
I found hinges online that were so close to the ones on the real chest that I wouldn’t be surprised if the prop makers bought theirs from the same supplier. I could not source the hasp though, so I had to fabricate it from scratch. I started with a basic hardware store hasp and cut notches in the edges. The tip was cut from another decorative gate hinge. I cut a bar of steel to length and bent a curl in the edge, than plug welded the whole thing together from behind and ground the welds flush to the surface.
Pieces for the hasp
With all the pieces in place, all that was left was some painting and sealing. The top layers of all the decoration were sponged with a lighter brass color to set them off, and the whole chest was washed down with some dark browns and blacks to age and weather it. Finally, everything was coated in a clear satin Polycryclic.
So this is from a few years ago, but I haven’t come across it until now. Doc Manning, one of the former props masters at Actors Theatre of Louisville, talks about some of their trickier props from a new show called Slasher! It’s a show filled with homemade bombs, actresses on meathooks and bathtubs full of blood, so you know it must have been a challenge for the props department.
Happy Friday, everyone! For those of us in the middle of holiday shows, whether Nutcracker, Christmas Carol, Tuna Christmas, or what have you, I hope it’s going well. I have some fun things from around the internet you can read:
Propnomicon has been doing some research into early shipping crates and packaging, and has shared some of the discoveries made. It may be surprising to see that manufacturers were shipping products in corrugated cardboard boxes rather than wooden crates back in the 1920s.
A short article of note tells how 3D printing is finding a home in Hollywood. Of course, regular readers of this blog already know this, but it is still interesting to see specifically how and where prop makers are using 3D printing technology.
La Bricoleuse has an interesting post up about the parasols her students made in her decorative arts class. Now I know many props masters do not consider parasols to be a “prop”; I’m sharing it because Playmakers’ props assistant (and good friend) Joncie Sarratt has a stunning diagram of the parasol she had to create for their production of Tempest.
Back when I lived in New York City, I spent a couple seasons working at Spaeth Designs, building props for the holiday window displays at stores like Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. They’ve produced a few videos this year showing some of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into these mini-productions. These windows are quite intense, with designers and department heads beginning work in February, and dozens of skilled craftspeople starting as early as July to get these ready by Thanksgiving.
First up is Saks Fifth Avenue, which went with a “Yeti” theme:
Next up is Lord and Taylor, who do variations on a Victorian Christmas every year: