Tag Archives: magic

Friday Props in the News

A lot of articles on props people came out this past week. Great news for those of us who like to read!

Southern California Public Radio had a talk with Jim Elyea, founder of History for Hire, the famed prop house out in Los Angeles. The interview is just under six minutes long, and well worth a listen.

Steve Levine has been a prop master for 40 years, working on films like Airplane!Cocoon, and Apollo 13. Check out this great interview with him where he goes into detail about his lengthy career. He also has a book coming out soon, which is probably the first book about working as a Hollywood props master.

Like magic? William J. Schmeelk builds magic props and illusions for some of the top magicians in the country. Check out this article and video about his unique business.

In sadder news, Joe Longo has passed away. He was a long time prop master for Star Trek, working on The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, the first five seasons of The Next Generation, and all seven seasons of Deep Space Nine. Trekcore has a collection of old interviews of Joe, including a video, while Star Trek.com has some remembrances by long-time colleagues of Longo.

Flag tubes

Magically-Appearing Flags

This past summer, our production of The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein at the Santa Fe Opera had a lot of tricks. Like… a lot of them. One trick I worked on was a set of magically-appearing flags. The set had seven flag poles along one wall, and during one big moment of pomp and circumstance, the design team wanted flags to suddenly appear on them. The idea is kind of like those “bang” flags that pop out of guns in the cartoons.

Flag tubes
Flag tubes

The basic mechanism behind the trick is that each flagpole has a second pole which sleeves inside. The two poles have slightly less than half of their surface notched out, as you can see in the photo above. The outer pole is fixed in place on the set, while the inner pole can spin around inside. So you can spin the inner pole to a position where the whole flag pole looks like a solid rod, and the flag is trapped inside. Then when you spin the inner pole around so the notches line up, the flag is free to drop down.

You can watch it all in action in the video below. The video also shows how I rigged the tubes so they could be activated by pulling a string off-stage, since there was no room on set to activate them directly.


photograph by Leila Navidi

Nathan Santucci

photograph by Leila Navidi
photograph by Leila Navidi

The Las Vegas Sun has a little article about Nathan Santucci, the prop-builder for Penn and Teller.

Good ‘magic’ is bloody science – Las Vegas Sun.

Santucci – who has many skills, including woodworking, plastic working, milling, welding, painting and SCUBA diving for underwater props – spends most of his days with blood on his hands and his clothes and the seat of his car. It gets everywhere.

Mostly this is because of the trick where the guys use a timber mill-size circular saw to cut their lovely assistant in half.

The article also has a great story about a fake snake.

I’ve always thought trick props can be approached in the same way as magic props. Building a prop for a stage illusion requires the same sort of creative thinking and knowledge of mechanics, pneumatics, electronics, and other control systems.

Unfortunately, information about magic is a closely guarded secret. Information in books tends to focus on sleight-of-hand tricks, or well-known illusions. Magic websites suffer from being overwhelmed by spam sites, link farms, and plain old con jobs.

Surprisingly (or not), some of the best information on these kinds of tricks can be found on DIY Halloween decoration websites.

Trick Props and Illusions

This summer, we’re doing Twelfth Night at the New York Shakespeare Festival. There’s a number of trick and gag props in the show. Trick props are easy to do; you just need to remember every single mechanical gizmo, electrical doodad, and moving part you have ever run across in every object that exists, and pick the one that will work the best.

Actually, that’s not a bad way to think about trick props. If you can find some object, machine, or toy that already carries out the trick you wish to achieve, your job becomes that much easier. You can figure out a way to recreate it, or even just take all the relevant parts out and use those directly in your prop.

In order to start thinking about what type of mechanism, trick, or illusion would work for your prop, it helps to narrow the field a bit. If you haven’t tried Google Book Search yet, let me just say, it’s awesome. You can search through books, just like you search through websites. Best of all, if the book is in the public domain, you can read and download the entire thing – text and images.

So, when checking out resources for trick props and stage illusions, I’ve come across the following books.

Five Hundred and Seven Mechanical Movements – This is very similar to a book I own in print, and I think a lot of the illustrations are even from the same sources. It’s a great guide to all sorts of methods of transforming motion through gears, pulleys, cams, and levers.

Endless Amusement; a Collection of Nearly 400 Entertaining Experiments – This book is short on illustrations and long on old-timey language. Still, it seems chock full of all sorts of experiments that could find use on the stage. The ones dealing with pneumatics and hydraulics are perhaps more useful than the ones dealing with saltpetre and slaked lime.

Twentieth century magic and the construction of modern magical apparatus – Stage magic and illusions are a great resource for prop tricks, if you can find the information. Luckily, magicians are not too worried about protecting one hundred year old tricks.

Magic: stage illusions and scientific diversions, including trick photography – Another fun book on magic, filled with lots of illustrations to show all manner of stage trickery.