Tag Archives: body

Cow head

Milky the Cow

I recently finished some work on a production of Into the Woods at Elon University. The students hired me to build the animals (some may call them puppets). Milky the Cow is one of the main animals, appearing in many of the scenes. I began by sculpting a cow head in white foam.

Sculpted foam head
Sculpted foam head

I gave the head a coating of papier-mâché. The design of the show used a lot of found object and natural material arranged to suggest a forest, rather than attempting a realistic portrayal of one. So the construction of the head proceeded in a manner to highlight the fact that it was a handmade object, rather than attempting to completely mimic an actual cow’s head.

Applying papier-mache
Applying papier-mache

The body was a separate piece; it was just the torso, tail and udder, without any legs. They were basing their design off of the Regent’s Park production (which transferred to the Public Theater this past summer, though I left just before it came).

I started with a structure made of a cardboard tube “spine” and some bent PVC pipe to define the shape. I than began wrapping vines around to create the outer surface. Everything was wired in place, but I also added some twine to make it appear as though it was lashed together.

Body structure
Body structure

Next for the head were some ears. I patterned and sewed them out of muslin, with a piece of styrene inside to give it some stiffness. Once the ears were on the head, I heated them with a hot air gun so I could curl and shape them. When cool, the styrene retained that shape.

Ears
Ears

The head got a coat of grey primer, followed by a dry brush of off-white over top. I glued a dowel coming out of the back of the head so the handler could hold onto it and manipulate it around.

Cow head
Cow head

The udder was a few pieces of red fabric which I patterned, sewed, and stuffed with polyester batting. I lined the inside of the body with some screen material so the actors could throw objects inside as Milky “ate” them, and they would be easy to retrieve after the show. I added some raffia to beef out the body since the vines did not give enough coverage on their own.

Milky White
Milky White

So there you have it; one Milky the Cow!

Fabric hinges

Deer from Shakespeare in the Park

I spent the early part of the summer back in New York City working on the first show for Shakespeare in the Park. As You Like It, directed by Daniel Sullivan and designed by John Lee Beatty, required a dead deer corpse that could be carried around the stage.

Fabric hinges
Attaching the pieces with fabric hinges.

Jay and Sara had already purchased a urethane taxidermy deer form, which was waiting for me when I arrived. I proceeded to chop it apart at the joints and reattach them with fabric hinges (using left-over canvas from the tents we made for last year’s All’s Well That Ends Well).

Creating the spine
Creating the spine with rope and foam.

The spine needed a bit more flexibility. The deer was going to appear on stage as if it had just been shot, and then one actor was going to hoist it over his shoulders and carry it around fireman’s style. I used several pieces of rope to give a semi-flexible span between the front and back half of the deer, while a big piece of upholstery foam was added to help it maintain some shape and volume.

Eric Hart sewing
I am sew good at this.

I also carved the neck out of upholstery foam. I wrapped the foam in fabric, sewed it shut and glued it to the rest of the body.

Attaching the pieces
Attaching and articulating the pieces.

The photograph above shows the deer all jointed and floppy and ready to be covered in fabric. Yes, that is pantyhose on the legs; I added them to give further support to the legs while maintaining full flexibility.

Gluing on the hide
Gluing on the hide.

It took three separate deer hides to completely cover the whole body. I arranged them as best I could around the deer so the fur coloring, direction and length would match the hide of a real deer. Real fur has so many variations throughout, whereas fake fur would just make the whole thing look like a giant stuffed toy. Jay bought me a bottle of “Tear Mender”, which is a latex-based adhesive designed for fabric and leather. As the back of the hide is essentially leather and the body was covered in fabric, the glue made a really strong but flexible connection.

The hooves were also purchased from the taxidermy supplier. I had to drill out the bone a bit on top so I could slide them onto the threaded rod which ran through the urethane foam cast legs.

Head and face
The head and face.

We also had some glass eyes for the head as well as plastic ears from the taxidermy supplier. I patterned some fur over these ears, but they were deemed “too stiff” after the deer’s first rehearsal. Luckily, I just had to reopen the seams and pull the plastic parts out; the fur maintained the shape pretty well on its own.

The deer also got a nice open head wound. We had a separate set of antlers that the actors danced around with, and the scene opened with the antlers already removed. I mixed various colors of acrylic mixed with epoxy to give it a permanent “wet” look.

Raphael and the Deer
Raphael and the Deer.

I had Raphael, one of the other prop artisans, pose while holding the deer. He moved fairly decently, though the joints between the legs and the body were a bit stiff-looking. Some of the transitions between the different hides I pieced together were a bit rough when viewed up close, but on stage under the lights, he looked amazing.

George Frederick Cooke’s Body as a Prop

This sixth excerpt from a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878, describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. I’ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects, which I will be posting over the next several days.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

‘One man in his time plays many parts.’ Did George Frederick Cooke, the tragedian, when he personated Hamlet—he must have been a very indifferent Hamlet—ever think that his skull would be handled by a later Hamlet and appear upon the scene as the skull of Yorick? Yet this strange event came to pass. Cooke died in 1812, and was buried in the strangers’ vault of St. Paul’s Church, New York. Some ten years later Kean [Eric: The actor, Edmund Kean], fulfilling an engagement in America, resolved that due honour should be paid to the remains of the departed tragedian, whose memory he affected to hold in extraordinary veneration. With the permission of Bishop Hobart, the body was removed from the strangers’ vault to the public burial-ground of the parish, and a handsome monument was erected at Kean’s expense. Many lamenting friends and admirers attended the ceremony: ‘tears fell from Kean’s eyes in abundance,’ writes Dr. Francis, who relates the story in his ‘Old New York.’ But in the transfer of the coffin from the vault to the grave the dead actor’s body was subjected to strange mutilation. Kean possessed himself of one of the toe-bones; ‘it was a little black relic, and might have passed for a tobacco-stopper.’ Some other devotee stole the head; Dr. Francis may not have been the thief, but he became the receiver. He writes: ‘I may here perhaps invade the sanctity of burial transaction; but the occurrence to which I allude is innocent, and may be deemed curious as well as rare. A theatrical benefit had been announced at the Park, and “Hamlet” the play. A subordinate of the theatre hurried to my office at a late hour for a skull; I was compelled to loan the head of my old friend George Frederick Cooke. “Alas, poor Yorick!” It was returned in the morning, but on the ensuing evening, at a meeting of the Cooper Club, the circumstance becoming known to several of the members, and a general desire being expressed to investigate phrenologically the head of the great tragedian, the article was again released from its privacy, when Daniel Webster, Henry Wheaton, and many others who enriched the meeting of that night, applied the principles of craniological science to the interesting specimen before them. The head was pronounced capacious, the function of animality amply developed; the height of the forehead ordinary; the space between the orbits of unusual breadth, giving proofs of strong perceptive powers; the transverse basilar portion of the skull of corresponding width. Such was the phrenology of Cooke. This scientific exploration added to the variety and gratification of that memorable evening. Cooper felt as a coadjutor of Albinus, and Cooke enacted a great part that night.’

The toe-bone appropriated by Kean was not to be used as a property, but treasured as a relic of ‘the greatest creature that ever walked the earth:’ for so the dead tragedian was described by the living. His first words to his wife on his return from America were, ‘I have brought Charles [Eric: His son, actor Charles Kean] a fortune. I have brought something that the Directors of the British Museum would give ten thousand pounds for! But they sha’n’t have it.’ On special occasions he compelled his friends and associates to go down upon their knees and reverently kiss the precious relic. There can be little doubt that the actor’s intellects were at this time seriously deranged. The toe-bone was placed upon the mantel-piece; Mrs. Kean and the servants were strictly enjoined not to touch it upon any pretence whatever. It remained unmolested for several months. Occasionally the actor explained its merits to an intelligent visitor, otherwise it received his sole homage. ‘His wife detested it. The servants hated it. The maids were afraid of it. …At last—it was one dull evening, when Kean had been absent from home for several days, and his wife was tired of waiting and watching for him—the detested toe-bone presented itself to her sight, a few bitter words escaped her,… she eyed the object of her husband’s adoration with the most sincere disgust. …Finally she seized it, protecting her fingers with a piece of paper, and threw it out of window! Kean, discovering his loss, was furious. His wife held her peace. It was in vain that he examined and cross-examined the servants. “Mary,” he said at length, in tones of the deepest melancholy, ‘your son has lost his fortune. He was worth 10,000l. Now he is a beggar!”‘

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 291-293.)

Full-length pheasant near completion

A dead pheasant for King Lear

In our production of King Lear, which is in its last week of performances here at the Public Theater, one of the first props we knew we needed was a collection of dead animals for when the men return from hunting. I knew from doing Timon of Athens last winter that we had nothing in stock, no one in town had anything we could rent or borrow, and you can’t just go out and buy them, so I began trying to make a pheasant.

Developing a full-scale pattern
Developing a full-scale pattern

I began gathering research images and working out a pattern. I worked out the size by looking up average heights and lengths of pheasants, and from photographs where pheasants were next to people and other objects of known sizes. In retrospect, I should have looked at more pictures of dead pheasants; a pheasant has a really long neck. In most photographs of pheasants in action, the neck is contracted so the head appears close to the chest. When the pheasant is dead and hangs limp, the neck is actually a good five to six inches long. You can see I was drawing a bird with a contracted neck which left my dead pheasant looking stiffer than a real one. Ah well, now I know for the next time I have to build a dead pheasant.

Pinning and stitching the seams
Pinning and stitching the seams

Once I had the pattern, I cut pieces out of muslin and began stitching them together. I left one side open so I could fill it with sandbags for weight. Some of the stitching was a little sloppy, which was okay because the whole thing was going to be covered in feathers and small imperfections would be obscured. Continue reading

Behind the scenes at Dexter

Over at the LA Times, Maria Elena Fernandez recently met with prop master Josh Meltzer and assistant in the prop department Dave Maguire. They show a lot of the props, body parts and blood used on Showtime’s Dexter.

We learn what a “gold room” is in television parlance, how they stab somebody, and many other nifty little tidbits. One surprise is that they use retractable knives for the stabbings; these have almost universally fallen out of favor with theatrical prop masters. Perhaps the repetition of performance in theatre makes it more likely for an accident to happen, as opposed to television, where it is used only once under the eye of the experienced prop master.

Also: thirty more days until Halloween!