Category Archives: Features

In-depth articles written specifically for this blog.

Practical Lighting: Props or Electrics?

I started a survey a few weeks back to gather some information for my upcoming book, The Prop Effects Guidebook. While most of the answers were only relevant to me, I thought I would share the results of one of the questions.

Responses to survey
Responses to survey

Ninety-eight people answered the above question, which is a good chunk of props people. I also had a short text box so people can clarify their answers, and that received forty-eight responses.

A number of respondents stipulated that while they will often mount fixtures on the set, such as sconces, any hanging fixtures will be handed over to the rigger or carpenter.

A small few stated they were responsible for the whole practical; everything from choosing the decorative fixture to getting a bulb in and wiring the thing. Basically, when they hand it off to the electrics department, it just needs to be plugged in. On the other hand, at least a dozen people stated they were responsible solely for sourcing or building the fixture itself; adding a bulb and wiring it is all done by electrics, while mounting or hanging are the purview of scenery.

For another small percentage, this was the typical practice at their theatre, but the props department was ready to help out with the wiring of practicals if the electrics department got swamped.

For the prop departments responsible for bulbs, most people clarified that they based their bulb choice off what the lighting designer wanted or what the electrics department suggested. Others elucidated that they were responsible for bulbs which were a visible element, such as period incandescents.

A similar response happened with plugs; if the lamp has an Edison plug which was a visible part of the world, it is more likely to be props’ responsibility. If the fixture had a cord that ran offstage, the stage pin connector is probably put on by Electrics.

This survey was a fascinating glimpse into how various other theatres work. Even something as simple as sticking a lamp on a table can be handled in a variety of ways. One respondent works at a theatre that does not even have an electrics department! If I were to take a guess, I would bet that many theatres operate the way they do based on the traditions of who has worked there in the past. If the props department never had anyone able to wire a lamp, then over time, the electrics department would just take that job over.

That being said, being able to make a lighting fixture function is a skill which new props people should be learning. If you end up working at a theatre where the electricians do all that, great, but you may end up at a job where it is your responsibility.

Also, in my own opinion, you can find so many interesting and fun things in the world of lighting today, from EL wire to LED tape and more. Many electricians live in the world of Source 4s and giant PAR lamps, and may not be aware of all the cheap, tiny lighting stuff that exists outside of the theatrical world. A props person can bring that knowledge to the table and help open up more possibilities to the production.

New Cover for The Prop Building Guidebook

We are still about a year away from the release, but I just turned in my last chapters for the second edition of The Prop Building Guidebook: For Theatre, Film, and TV. I am very excited about this book. The first edition filled a void in the props world, and continues to be a great success. Now that it has been out for a few years, I can take everything I learned from it and incorporate that into a new edition.

But let’s skip all that for now; I really want to talk about the cover. I always wanted to do a custom setup showing a prop being built, but did not have time during the first edition.

Coming up with a cover idea for prop building is tricky. Most finished props just look like a regular object. If you have a picture of a chair, people will think it’s a book about chairs. A picture of a treasure chest will make it look like a book about treasures. I needed a process shot. I did not want a collage or series of images for the cover, so I realized I would need to build some weird hybrid prop where half of it was finished, and the other half was still raw materials.

I wanted to incorporate the “most proppy” kinds of materials and techniques into the cover. I knew I wanted foam carving, molding and casting, paper mache, and a cool paint job. I would have loved to get some metal and thermoplastics in too, but I only had a weekend to plan, build, and photograph this. I did manage to get some plywood and found-object decorating in though.

Figuring out the prop itself took some thinking. It would have to be something that could conceivably come from a show; something you would not just buy or adapt from existing items. With the different materials I wanted to show off, I realized it would need to be quite fanciful. It would be the proppiest prop that ever propped.

I also needed it to fill the square cover. I could not make anything long, like a staff or wand. I did not want to stick a gun or other weapons on the cover either. I dug back into my opera roots and decided some kind of chalice or vase would be best; a bowl with carved handles, held by three sculpted figures.

First I had to find the sculpted figure that I would mold and cast. I had nothing in stock and I did not have the time to sculpt something. I headed out to the stores and looked high and low. I needed something that would be easy to mold and cast, but that looked cool enough to warrant molding and casting. I finally found a little seahorse figurine. My prop would now have an underwater theme.

Seahorse mold
Seahorse mold

I made a two-part mold using Smooth-On Oomoo 30. I realized using $20 in materials to make three copies of a $3 figure was silly, but hey, he’s going to be a star.

With the seahorse in place, I searched for a bowl that would look good on top. A stainless steel mixing bowl in stock fit the bill perfectly; it was also a good shape to use as a form for the paper mache. I cheated a bit here; I did not have time to actually paper mache a bowl and wait for it to dry. I molded a piece of Wonderflex over the bowl first, then added a single layer of paper mache to the inside and outside of that. So now my prop was actually a prop version of a prop.

Bowl
Bowl

With these in place, all that remained were the handles and the base. I carved a piece of foam into a handle, and cut another one out so it looked like it was about to be carved. I cut a circle of plywood and nailed some upholstery tacks along the edge for decoration.

I painted half of the prop with a faux marble treatment and a drybrushed brass. All that was left now was to pop it onto some butcher paper in my “photo studio” and artfully arrange the various materials, tools, and molds around the prop.

Cover photo for The Prop Building Guidebook
Cover photo for The Prop Building Guidebook

Ta da! I feel like I have an image that better captures what the book is about. And now I have a weird half-finished seahorse trophy I can carry around with me.

The Prop Master Interviews: A Reflection

The following article by Ron De Marco is a summary of the interviews of props professionals conducted by his students which ran last month.

The Prop Master Interviews: A Reflection

By Ron De Marco

Ron De Marco
Ron De Marco

I’ve been teaching four stagecraft level prop courses at Emerson College every year for the past ten years. One of the topics my students and I discuss on the first day of class is the various challenges that people who create props all over the country deal with in their daily jobs. The internet is abundant with newspaper lifestyle articles on solutions that prop people have developed while working on productions, and these articles usually address the sometimes wild and sensational tasks that they are currently tackling. For years, I’ve brought many of these articles in with me to class on day one and we’ve oohed and aahed about the clever approaches and solutions to seemingly impossible challenges: an actress needing to “vomit” on cue in God of Carnage, digging up and smashing bones in a graveyard for The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and all manner of special effects designed to be reset quickly for the next show. Continue reading The Prop Master Interviews: A Reflection

Baby Iron Man

I hope everyone enjoyed the nineteen interviews I’ve posted over the last month. Thanks to Ron DeMarco’s class at Emerson for taking the time to do that, and allowing me to post all of them. If you haven’t read them yet, they are a great cross-section of how prop masters get where they are, and are filled with wonderful advice on how to build your own career.

Even though I was running these interviews for awhile, you may have still seen my name out there in the internet. I made a little video showing an Iron Man mask I constructed for my baby this past Halloween.

It went a little viral. I ended up on TV a few times, interviewed by Right This Minute, my local Fox news channel, and WFMY. I was also interviewed over the phone by Huffington Post, the Today Show, and HLN. And then I watched the story get picked up on Buzzfeed, E! Online, US Weekly, CNet, as well as trending on Facebook and appearing on the Yahoo! Front Page, and appearing on news sites all over the world in all different languages.

Thankfully, all that has died back down again. The mask was a pretty simple build. As the video states, I found the pattern online and scaled it down. I assembled it in paper first to check the fit and make some modifications ( I left the back and sides off so it would just sit on top of his head rather than act as a full mask). The actual piece was built out of EVA foam, aka “fun” or “craft” foam. It is the same material I built some of the puppets out of for Snow Queen, which we are currently remounting at Triad Stage.

Collier is still in the hospital, but getting better. He wishes all of you a Happy Thanksgiving!

Baby Iron Man
Baby Iron Man

Legend of Zelda Master Sword Take Two

About a year and a half ago, I worked with The League of Extraordinary Thespians to make a Master Sword for their Legend of Zelda musical. It was a fun project, but I had very little time or money to do it; I thought it was a bit blocky, and the paint treatment was very rudimentary. Since I gave all the original swords away, I decided I would make a new one with some improvements for myself.

I filmed nearly every step of the process and edited it into a six-minute video.

I made the blade out of wood again; on the original swords, I used plywood, which does not really make a convincing faux metal. This time I went with a solid piece of oak. After priming and sanding it, I used some Krylon Stainless Steel spray paint, which, after rubbing it with some steel wool, makes a very convincing metallic finish.

Legend of Zelda Master Sword
Legend of Zelda Master Sword

I decided I would make the hilt as a separate piece, then mold it and cast it directly onto the blade. I wanted a strong connection between hilt and sword that would not break when you played with it. Another reason was that the hilt was a very time-consuming piece, and I wanted the option of making more swords in the future.

Legend of Zelda Master Sword
Legend of Zelda Master Sword

Casting the hilt directly onto the blade was a very challenging and hairy process for me. Despite how awesome I seem, I do not have much experience with molding and casting. The process was far from perfect, but the end result was pretty satisfactory (though you can see some wibbly defects in the picture below).

Legend of Zelda Master Sword
Legend of Zelda Master Sword

I also tried sculpting the quillons out of clay, which is not something I typically do. I used an air-drying clay that was way too soft; if I were to try this again, I would look for a much harder clay. In fact, I would probably be tempted to carve most of it from a solid chunk of wood.

The yellow jewels were a separate piece which I cast in tinted epoxy. I made a video showing the mold-making process on that a few weeks back.

I finished off the hilt with a purple shimmering metallic spray paint. All in all, I was happy with how this sword turned out, and I learned a lot from the process.