Tag Archives: carve

Prop Time Links

Warner Brothers has a huge prop and costume warehouse hidden somewhere outside of London. CNN brings you some of the first pictures from inside, showing us props from films such as Harry Potter, the Batman series and Gravity. Don’t forget to check out the video as well.

Propnomicon does a great job showing us some of the best props from the Cthulhu mythos and similar realms.  But this one time, he found this faux-antique vampire-killing kit that was so horribly done that he just went to town criticizing every aspect of it. From the random screwdriver gouging and haphazard use of a blowtorch, to the over-reliance on upholstery tacks, this prop has it all. It is actually a good lesson on what not to do when ageing your props. It’s very distressing.

Olivia O’Connor used to be a prop maker in Sydney, working on films such as The Wolverine and Mad Max: Fury Road. But she’s given that all up and now carves rocking horses out of wood on her parents’ farm in south Gippsland. It’s amazing what you can do with the skills you pick up as a prop maker.

The Spaeth Design website has a whole slew of videos up giving a behind the scenes look at their shop. They have a couple of episodes of “Making Magic at Spaeth Design”, where they look at the various departments and people who work there. Spaeth Design is the New York company that builds animated window displays for companies that include or have included Macys, Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Coated

A Capital Idea

Last week I got a call from Triad Stage, a theatre over in Greensboro, NC, to do some carving for the scene shop. I had done some foam carving in the props shop last autumn, and when another project came up, they thought of me.

Layout on the blank
Layout on the blank

They already had a blank cut to size when I arrived at the shop. This blank was cut by the foam manufacturer, and was made of two pieces glued together (it looked like they used a 2-part polyurethane foam, or even just Gorilla Glue as the adhesive). This helped immensely in getting me started, since the piece was already symmetrical and scaled to the size they wanted. I started by dividing the piece into equal pie shapes and transferring the design from the research onto the foam.

Beginning the carving
Beginning the carving

The foam they gave me was a 3 lb EPS foam, which was a lot denser than anything I had ever used before. Basically, EPS foam comes in a variety of densities, with 1 lb, 2 lb and 3 lb being the most common. The numbers come from the weight of one cubic foot of foam. So 3lb foam has three times as much polystyrene packed into the same area as 1 lb foam. Of course, EPS is the beaded foam, so it is still trickier to get a smooth surface than it is with either blue or pink foam, but those are not readily available in large blocks like this.

Adding details
Adding details

The designs on this style of classical capital are very symmetrical and repetitive, so I really only had to draw out one half of one side, and then just trace and transfer it to the other seven halves. I carved the whole thing mainly with my snap-blade knife, surform, sandpaper, and a big ol’ half-round bastard rasp. I broke out a router a couple of times to clear out some of the deep pockets; the router also helped me cut to a consistent depth around the whole piece.

Coated
Coated

Since the capital was being placed on a column high above the set and was not going to move or be handled during the show, I opted for a simple coating of joint compound to keep the cost and time down. I basically applied just enough to give it a smooth coating and a nicer surface for paint.

Finished capital
Finished capital

The design on this capital was greatly simplified to allow it to be carved in about half a week. Because it was going to be painted black and be placed high above the set in the shadows, it just needed to hit the high points of the shape so the audience would go “oh, there’s a fancy thing up there.” Or at least, that’s what the audience in my head says after the show.

 

 

Finished bench

CNC Cast Iron Park Bench

Yes, I built this exact same cast iron park bench seven years ago. I even used the same research image you see in the link. I couldn’t build it the same way, though. The first time around, I used a lot of found pieces and details which I did not possess this time. I also needed to build three matching benches, which warranted a different approach then building a single one. I was building and buying all the props for Elon University’s production of Cloud 9, and the whole second act takes place in an English park; the director was keen on basing it off of Kensington Park. We decided to cut and carve the ends on the scene shop’s CNC router.

Rehearsal bench
Rehearsal bench

First I built the seats themselves with some stand-in legs and arms. I arranged some slats I had cut into a shape that was comfortable to sit in, than I screwed them together onto supports which kept the whole thing sturdy. The stand-in legs held it all up at the correct height so they could rehearse with the benches while we worked on the real ends. The idea was that when the real ends were ready, we would just unscrew the fake legs and pop on the real ones without having to take apart and reattach all the original slats. This also ensured that the curve and depth of the seat they were using in rehearsal would be exactly the same on the performance benches.

I began by making a line drawing of the bench in Inkscape, an open source vector graphics editor. I drew three layers; the first was a line showing where all the inside “holes” should be cut and the second showing where the outermost profile should be cut. The third layer showed where all the engraving would go. Rather than cutting all the way through the plywood, the router would only cut partway down, and it would use a v-shaped cutting bit (this technique is known as “v-carving”).

Primed bench end
Primed bench end

With the drawings finished, I gave them to the Natalie Hart, the scene designer (also my wife), to import into AutoCAD. I’m sure you can use the Inkscape drawings directly, but I have no experience with CNC file formats, and Natalie has already successfully used her CAD drawings on the CNC machine. The curves I drew in Inkscape turned into a series of many tiny lines in AutoCAD; this meant when they printed, they looked like many tiny lines rather than a single smooth curve. The curves she redrew in AutoCAD printed as smooth curves, however. I’m not sure I will use Inkscape again to draw for a CNC; if I find myself using the CNC a lot in the future, I may just spring for one of the less-expensive CAD drawing programs out there.

Closeup of CNC V-carving
Closeup of CNC V-carving

The final piece of the puzzle was getting the drawings into PartWorks, which is the CNC machine’s software that generates the instructions it uses in cutting. Our production manager/lighting designer Bill Webb happily took that on, since the machine is second-nature to him by now. In about three hours, we had all the pieces we needed for all three benches.

You can see in the photograph above that the CNC left a lot of cleanup work to do. I experimented with a number of abrasive flap and wire wheels to see if there was a quick way to sand the whole thing, but it ended up requiring hitting every nook and cranny with a Dremel tool.

Inside of bench end
Inside of bench end

We had taken measurements off the rehearsal benches and put them into AutoCAD so the CNC parts would line up exactly with the existing structure. For the inside of the end, we only printed the bottom half and attached it to the outside part. This gave a bit of a lip for the existing bench seat to rest on, while also providing a lot of surface area to screw into from the side. It also helped line up the bench seat to the ends at the correct height.

The faux-verdigris paint treatment was developed by one of the students (good job, Vee Bland!). Natalie and I painted them up, and I quickly assembled them so they would be ready mere minutes before photo call.

Finished bench
Finished bench

Naturally, I would have loved to play around with the software and the drawing to develop a more realistic carving, as well as spend some time learning to run the CNC machine on my own. The time frame on this production was just too intense; 15 days between the first day of rehearsal and opening night, and these benches were but a small part of all the props and furniture I had to build and acquire. Still, it gave me a good idea of how I can integrate CNC fabrication into my prop work when it can come in handy.

Vacuum formed turkey

A Disappearing Turkey

To all of my American readers, I hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving this week! Brian Wolfe from Costume Armour sent me some photographs of a trick turkey they recently created, which seems apropos to the holiday.

For this trick, a waiter needed to walk in with a food cart. He lifts the lid off of a covered tray revealing a delicious roast turkey. He replaces the lid, and the next time the lid is removed, the turkey is gone. Instead, an actor’s head is on the tray, and the actor begins to speak.

This is the drawing he shared with me:

Drawing for a turkey trick
Drawing for a turkey trick

They needed a giant, oversized turkey with enough room inside to fit a head; it also needed to be light enough that it could be lifted along with the tray (you will see why in a minute). They had a rubber turkey in stock, but it was too small and heavy. So they decided to vacuum form a new one. They carved the turkey in foam, made a two-piece mold, and vacuum formed it in 0.04″ Kydex plastic.

Vacuum formed turkey halves
Vacuum formed turkey halves

They cut out the pieces, glued them together, and painted them. Next, they cut a large hole in the bottom:

Hole in the bottom of the turkey
Hole in the bottom of the turkey

The tray was also vacuum formed, this time in a heavy 0.093″ Kydex plastic with a metallic finish. The bottom was formed over a wooden mold, while the lid used a plaster mold. They also added some artificial lettuce which was bought.

Vacuum formed turkey
Vacuum formed turkey

A brass drawer pull completed the look to the lid. The small black rectangle next to it in the photograph below is a small toggle switch:

Tray Cover
Tray Cover

When the waiter flips this switch, a small battery-powered electromagnet turns on (shown in the next photograph). The turkey had a small piece of flat steel hidden on top which is grabbed by this magnet. So when the magnet is on and the tray lid is lifted, the turkey travels along with it, hidden from the audience’s view.

Battery and magnet
Battery and magnet

The diagram below illustrates how the whole trick was set up. I’ve seen this same basic principle carried out in a number of different ways, but the combination of the hollow turkey and electromagnet makes this execution especially elegant; you can control whether the turkey or head is visible simply by the flick of a switch. The actor underneath does not have to do anything.

Turkey trick diagram
Turkey trick diagram

Hope you enjoyed this! Have a Happy Thanksgiving!