ParaNorman is a film from 2012 made by the same folks as Coraline. Like Coraline, the film is composed almost entirely of stop-motion animation, using color 3D printers to make many of the replacement parts for the character faces. Still, it also used a ton of hand-building, particularly for the props, set dressing, and vividly-detailed landscapes. Check out this all-too-brief featurette on the hands that made the world of ParaNorman. So many model houses. So many tiny props.
As Doctor Who gears up for its 50th anniversary in little over a week, check out this new interview with their prop master, Nick Robatto. In it, you can read how he got started, what he studied in college, and how he hates fiberglass and refuses to build props with it (yay!).
For fans of a different genre, Buzzfeed has the stories behind 10 iconic Grey’s Anatomy props. It’s Buzzfeed, so they don’t go into too much detail for each one, but it is still interesting to hear the (often relatable) challenges the props team encounters with making or finding these strange items.
Here’s a brief (but illustrated) look at how furniture design changed due to World War II. The examples look incredibly contemporary, and none of it would look out of place on a modern set. It is a great post for those interested in historical trends in furniture and period styles.
So, the Smithsonian is 3D scanning their massive collection. They only have a small library of models online at the moment, but more is sure to come. Imagine the possibilities for research, where you can view a 3D model of a piece of furniture or an historic weapon right on your computer. You also have the possibility of downloading the models and exporting them to fabrication tools, such as CNCs or 3D printers. Your designer wants a wooly mammoth skeleton in the show? Just download and “print”.
I heard a story awhile back from a fellow props artisan. A large company was in town, putting on the kind of show that required hundreds of specialty props, all created specifically for their production. They started out working with one of the larger prop shops in the area. The shop was good, but they were still not happy with a number of the props; the performers themselves needed to talk directly to the artisan in order to give all the details and needs they were looking for. When the prop was finished, they wanted to be able to use it in rehearsal for a bit, then work with the artisan again to suggest changes and ask for modifications.
The large prop shop wasn’t set up to do business like this. They were used to taking drawings and draftings from a designer, constructing the prop, and delivering it to the theatre. They could certainly deal with the changes and additions that happen in every production, but the kind of individual one-on-one experimentation with props throughout the rehearsal process that these actors wanted was beyond their capabilities. This is where the fellow props artisan comes in. He was able to provide this kind of daily collaboration. He would talk through the prop with the performer, making notes and asking questions, then head to his shop for the rest of the day. The next morning, he would bring a newly constructed prop to the performer who would try it out and then suggest new changes and additions based on what was learned.
This is the difference between props as a product and as a process, and it is one of the reasons why good props artisans will always be needed. In one case, you are “ordering” a custom prop from a prop shop. In some ways, it is just like you would buy some of your props off of eBay or from a catalog. Having this shop continually make changes and modifications becomes expensive, inconvenient, or even downright impossible. Even if all of the props are built by an outside group, you will still need an artisan on hand who can modify and work with the props to make them do what the show needs them to do. Having an artisan on hand also allows the props department to be a bigger part of the whole collaboration. Like a conductor who lowers the volume of the trumpets or speeds up the tempo at certain parts in the music, an artisan can alter the weight or balance of a prop, change the color, or add a secret handle between rehearsals.
I’m not trying to knock commercial prop shops in this post, but rather make a point about the continuing need for artisans in an age where our industry is seeing more and more computerized fabrication. CNC routers and 3D printers are great technologies, and hold even more promise in the future, but they are no replacement for a good props artisan. They create products. They don’t replace the process.
A CNC router can cut an intricate shape out of a piece of plywood with very precise measurements, and it can do it a thousand times with no difference between all the pieces. A props artisan is more than just his ability to cut out a shape drawn on a piece of plywood. A props artisan takes the needs and wants of a prop, balanced with the input of the director, the designer, the actor and the stage manager, and weighs it against the limitations of the theatre, the shop, her skills, and all the resources available to her. She chooses the materials and techniques which best fit all of these requirements to construct the prop. And she does it knowing that it may need to be changed or modified later, or even cut entirely from the show.
A smart props artisan will keep on top of the changes in technology and tools available to him and learn when to integrate them into his process. We’ve integrated computer printers into our manufacturing of paper props. Even with all the amazing things one can do with graphics software, artisans still use a surprising amount of non-computerized techniques to add life to paper props. A good artisan uses all tools and methods available to him rather than altering the prop so it can be manufactured by a certain machine.
Last night finally brought us to the opening of Tony Kushner’s new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, which we’ve been in previews for since March (and rehearsals since February!). I was the assistant props master on the show. There’s been quite a stir with Mr. Kushner this past week as well; first, he was set to receive an honorary degree from John Jay College, but then the board of trustees of CUNY voted to deny it; Mr. Kushner wrote an eloquent and biting response asking for their apology; finally, Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote an editorial on the matter and opened it up to reader’s comments. Last night’s opening even saw some protesters show up in support of Tony Kushner.
It’s a fascinating (and important) story if you are involved with theatre. But if you read this blog just for the props, don’t worry, I have some links for you to finish off the week:
- Here is an absolutely fantastic inside look at the Office of Exhibits Central for the Smithsonian Institute, which fabricates the displays and exhibits for their various museums. Besides more traditional materials and methods like mold-making and fiberglass, they have also made a huge push into new technologies like 3D scanners and printers, CNC routers, fabric printers and more.
- No Tech Magazine has posted the table of contents from an 1837 book titled The Panorama of Professions and Trades. It proposes to show all 87 types of jobs in existence (I think there were far more than that, even at that time, but I digress). What is interesting is how many of these trades remain essential skills for the well-rounded props artisan.
- Jean Burch has posted a list of project management skills over on her Technical Direction Tidbits blog. I fell a Props Director is similar to a Project Manager in many respects, and this list shares many of the skills which a props director also needs.
- Do you like pencils? Here’s a whole page dedicated to pencils. You can peruse hundreds of photographs of different pencils while learning their history, as well as view some classic pencil advertisements.
This past weekend, I attended Maker Faire in New York City. For those who don’t know, Maker Faire is an event begun by Make Magazine. This year was the first time it came to New York City (or anywhere on the east coast for that matter). Though not strictly prop-related, it has a lot of overlapping areas of interest to the props community, and a lot of props people are interested in a lot of things here. Imagine if a science fair and a craft fair had a baby and it went to Burning Man for an episode of Mythbusters.
The New York Hall of Science and Flushing Meadows Park could not be a more ideal setting for this Faire. There is a retro-futuristic rocket sculpture in the center, and off to the side is a Gemini Titan II rocket and a Mercury-Atlas D Rocket; two of the rockets that first shot Americans into space.
Outside were several very dangerous looking carnival rides set up by a Brooklyn art collective called the Madagascar Institute. They had also set up the World’s Largest Mousetrap, a reference to the classic kid’s board game, not an actual mousetrap.
Later in the day, they hosted a chariot race, featuring all sorts of home made vehicles racing around the Rocket Sculpture in a truly dangerous and hilarious spectacle.
The Faire had a few tents devoted to fabrication technologies. In the first were the familiar commercial brands, such as ShopBot CNC machines, Epilog laser cutters and engravers, and a slew of similar devices. Another tent was set up with MakerBots, RepRaps, Fabbers and the like. These are 3d printers designed to be made-yourself. Some, like the MakerBot, can be purchased as a complete kit which you assemble, while others, like the Fabber, you can build solely through blueprints and instructions available online. Most of them have various intermediate possibilities, where you can purchase the electronic parts as a kit but construct the physical parts yourself, or vice versa. The common thread between them is that they are based on an open-source community, where individuals make modifications or improvements and tell everyone else in the community how they did it. None of the technology that goes into them is secret or hidden.
The Faire offered a number of events, talks and demonstrations. I attended one called “Turning Pro: Becoming a Professional Maker” presented by the husband and wife team of Because We Can. They talked about the lessons they learned and mistakes they made in their journey from full-time jobs to running their own design and fabrication shop for interiors and events. It was very interesting; like many other prop-makers, I frequently do outside projects, and occasionally consider breaking away and making that my full-time job (especially during meetings or tech!) Their talk was based on an article they wrote called “Venturing Out…” if you’re interested in hearing what they had to say but couldn’t make it.
I watched the Fashion Show by Diana Eng. For you Project Runway fans out there, you may remember her from season 2. Since then, she’s remained busy in the fashion design world, incorporating all sorts of technology into her pieces. I wanted to see some of these in person, so I figured I’d check it out. A lot of other people had the same idea, as the line to get in was very long. Still, it was interesting to see clothes with LEDS and other lights, inflatable dresses, and 3D printed fabrics.
One of the things which surprised me was how many children were there. I follow Make Magazine and a lot of the community online, and just kind of assumed the attendees would be the same set of people. It wasn’t a bad surprise; it was actually very heartening to see kids who were even more excited and knowledgeable about these things than I am. If Maker Faire was around when I was a kid, I would probably be a bigger (and better) nerd than I am now. One might not think kids should be in the same space as anarchic arts collectives like the Madagascar Institute, but then again, this is New York City; if parents have their kids pose with topless mermaids for pictures at Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade, than seeing guys wearing nothing but gold lamé short-shorts is downright pedestrian.
At the end of the day, I attended a talk by Mark Frauenfelder, founder of Boing Boing, editor of Make Magazine and author of Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World. He talked about his book, which describes his efforts to take a more DIY approach to his life rather than just buying a solution. It’s a great inspiration to props people (I’ll be doing a full review at some point in the future). At the end, I introduced myself and got my copy of the book signed. It was a nice way to end a long and tiring, but insightful and inspiring day.
So if you’re into props, I highly recommend you check out the next Maker Faire that comes near you. Outside of USITT and SETC, it’s one of the most relevant get-togethers for us, and certainly one of the most fun.