Tag Archives: masks

March Link Madness

Well, March is almost over, but there is still time to fill in your bracket for March Musical Theatre Madness! You can also enjoy the links I’ve come up with below:

I’ve linked to some repositories of old maps before, which are always good for making paper props. But the Propnomicon website pointed me to Old Maps Online, which gives you an interactive interface to find historical maps within whatever date range you specify. It’s kind of like using Google Maps while traveling through time.

Speaking of vintage ephemera (and musical theatre), Gaytwogether is a blog which occasionally posts vintage photographs of gay couples, which you can browse through all at once at that link.

La Bricoleuse has just posted the final projects from her class on complex masks. Though little is written, the photographs give a lot of information about how the various masks were made, and it is very interesting to see the various methods of construction and the materials used.

Most of us know the Project Triangle: “fast, cheap and good—you can have any two”. For those who don’t, Jesse Gaffney has just posted a good description of it, along with examples.

If you study the technical side of some of the materials used in making props, you may know that “polymerization” is what happens when a resin changes from a liquid to a hard plastic (among other things). If you read MSDS sheets (which you should), you may also have come across the phrase “explosive polymerization”. If, like me, you are wondering what that means, you may be interested in this video; it has a long build-up, but the payoff is worth it.

Friday Props Links Roundup

The Guardian has a nice little article on How to Make a Haunted House. It details how the set dresser, prop master and other members of the art department use locations, architecture and props to create the mood of the upcoming ghost film, The Woman in Black. They purchased and borrowed tons (or “tonnes”, as this is a British film) of Victorian-era objects and paraphernalia to dress the sets.

Have you heard of the new show Prop Freaks? Because it’s a TV show about people who make and collect props. Well, it’s a show in development; you can watch short clips on the website until it finds an audience. But it looks pretty cool, and I can’t wait to see more.

Here is an interview with Russell Bobbitt on how he uses 3D printing technology to create many of his props. Russell Bobbitt is the film prop master who has made some fairly recognizable props, such as the glowing chest piece from Iron Man 2, or the wristband laser gun from Cowboys and Aliens.

Here is an interesting video on using a vacuum former to make masks. There’s a few things that make this especially intriguing: his rig is portable so he is able to take it to an event where other people can vacuum form their own masks, and he uses a bicycle pump to draw out the air rather than a vacuum cleaner. Also, the music playing in the background is a Nintendo beat version of MOP’s “Ante Up” with computers rapping (done by an artist named “Danny Drive Thru”), so that alone makes this worth watching.

While not prop-related, this last link is pretty fun. Watch this time-lapse video of stagehands from IATSE local 33 set up the orchestra pit at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It’s a pretty ambitious sounding project too; over 1,000 musicians will perform.

Top Prop News of 2011

I will be taking the next week off for the Holidays, so it will be 2012 the next time you read this. The world of props isn’t exactly one of constant change, but news stories occasionally affect us. I’ve narrowed down four of the most notable ones of 2011. Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. E-Cigarettes are banned in Boston workplaces. I am not sure how this affects their use on stage. I’ve written about e-cigarettes before on this site as their legal status and safety issues are constantly changing and evolving. Expect e-cigarettes to continue to make the news in 2012.
  2. Guns on the set of Brad Pitt’s World War Z were seized by Hungarian authorities. This story first appeared with sensationalistic flair in the gossip and tabloid sites; they got most of the facts completely wrong, and the real story was far more interesting to props people. I did my own round-up and debunking of what really happened.
  3. Occupy Wall Street began on September 17th, and dominated the news through much of the autumn, and is still happening in various forms throughout the world. If you’ve looked at any of the photographs, you may have seen some protesters wearing a certain kind of mask. “Say,” you ask yourself, “isn’t that a prop from the film V for Vendetta?” It is, and several news articles discussed who is behind the masks and interviewed Alan Moore, creator of the original V for Vendetta comic.
  4. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is soliciting comments from the public on new proposals for table saw safety. If you are familiar with the SawStop technology, they are basically considering whether to make that technology mandatory on new table saws (You can read the actual proposal here). The Popular Woodworking blog has been keeping up to date with this story since it began, as this will have quite the effect on anyone working on the carpentry side of things.

Friday Notes

Things continue chugging along here. King Lear began previews. I’m furiously preparing the first four chapters of The Prop Building Guidebook to submit to my publisher at the end of the month. Yet I still have time to find fun things on the internet.

Here’s an interesting story on how a film prop (technically, a mask) became a real-life prop used in protests around the world. This article on the V for Vendetta masks shows who is behind them and how this all came about.

Christopher Schwartz, former editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine and current founder of Lost Art Press, has published 14 principles of shop setup which he has developed over 20 years of woodworking.

In the same vein, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage of Mythbusters’ fame have 15 DIY Workshop Tips, including an ingenious nesting work table and indispensable tools to have.

In our current production of King Lear, we needed to provide them with a paper bag. Not just any paper bag. Only a specific size would do. I eventually found a place online we could order a close-enough size, provided we cut a few inches off the top. So I thought this history of the paper bag posted on the MoMA site was particularly apropos to the situation.

I don’t mean to nerd out, but did you know there’s a whole club of people who build R2-D2 replicas? I haven’t signed up to view the forums, but you can still browse the galleries, and read a few issues of the online magazine they publish.

Big Friendly Giant mask

Rebecca Akins: Surviving Forty Years of Making Props

On the second full day of this year’s S*P*A*M conference, we watched a presentation by Rebecca Akins. Ms. Akins has designed costumes for Childsplay Theatre (our host in Arizona) for the past twenty-five years, and has been constructing costumes, puppets, costume props and masks for at least that long as well. She divided her presentation in two parts. The first was on materials and methods she’s used in the past which she now knows to be hazardous to your health. The second was on “new good things”, which are less-toxic replacements for these.

A puppet couple by Rebecca Akins
A puppet couple by Rebecca Akins

One of her earlier shows was a production of Devils in 1971. She created latex masks, Celastic armor, and sprayed the costumes with aniline dyes. Anyone who has worn latex knows it does not allow the skin to breathe, and the latex masks were very uncomfortable to the actors with the heat and build-up of sweat underneath. Aniline dyes are extremely toxic, and spraying them is a great way to fill your lungs with poison, especially with little ventilation and no respirator.

Ms. Akins used Celastic a lot in those days, starting with Celastic mitres, crowns and wigs for The Balcony in 1969, through at least 1981 with masks for a production of The Pied Piper. For those who are unfamiliar, Celastic is a fabric impregnated with plastic. When you soak it in a solvent, it becomes soft and flexible, hardening to a stiff but lightweight shell when the solvent evaporates. The toxic part is not the Celastic itself, but the solvent used to soften it; common choices include acetone and methyl ethyl ketone (MEK). All solvents are harmful to humans, and can enter the body through the skin, lungs, stomach or eyes. Not all gloves will protect against them, and not all respirators are designed to filter out their vapors.

She mentioned a material I had never heard of called “blue mud cement”. It is a powdery mixture of asbestos fibers and “spackle-y” binders; when mixed with water, the paste will dry hard and lightweight (it was originally developed for plumbing pipe insulation). For a 1974 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she created forms in chicken wire, wrapped them in plaster bandages, and coated the whole thing with blue mud cement. It sounds like a mix between Bondo and chopped fiberglass, except that it’s, you know, asbestos.

Cutting and carving Styrofoam with a hot knife or wire is another technique she described; the fumes created when Styrofoam melts are fairly toxic.

In 1984, Ms. Akins worked with fiberglass for the first time to create a mascot head for a Phoenix sports team. Fiberglass creates strong and lightweight shells, but she found the individual particles got into her skin and clothes and irritated her immensely, and the resins used give off a lot of fumes while curing; it is also an inhalation hazard when sanding the hardened fiberglass. She used fiberglass again in 2002 with more adequate protection (ventilation, a respirator and thick sleeves), but decided it was too much of a hassle to continue working with it.

The second half of her presentation dealt with “new good things”, that is, newer materials which attempt similar results with less toxicity. Examples include Fosshape, Thermaflex (or Wonderflex), leather, fabric, paper and silicone casting gels.

Paper, used in papier-mâché, is one of the oldest prop-making materials. Indeed, Ms. Akins has been using it since at least 1973 for a production of The Bacchae. She continues using it even today. She showed us a number of masks and puppet heads she has constructed over the years, many of them made with a mix of paper pulp, sawdust, and PVA glue. This gives her a material which she can sculpt and form like clay, but which dries to a lightweight and sturdy piece which is paintable and sandable. The fact that some of these pieces have been on tour since the mid-90s is a testament to their durability.

Fabric is another less-toxic material. She uses soft sculpture a lot for puppets; fabric, thread, fiber fill (stuffing) and paint are the only materials needed to make three-dimensional shapes.

soft sculpture

She showed us a number of examples of “found objects as materials”. An old leather handbag became a dog mask, a group of woven baskets transformed into a camel, and dryer hoses turned into snakes and an elephant’s trunk. Though using found objects has long been a staple of propmaking, Ms. Akins reminded us it remains a fairly non-toxic–and environmentally friendly–method, even today. Below is a photograph of a dog mask made out of wooden bowls.

dog mask made of wooden bowls

In 2004, she began using Fosshape to make a head for a production of Big Friendly Giant. Like Themaflex and Wonderflex, Fosshape is a plastic-impregnated fabric which becomes soft and pliable when heated, and retains its shape when cooled. In many ways, it is similar to Celastic, except you use boiling water or a heat gun to soften it, rather than a bucket full of solvents.

Big Friendly Giant mask

Finally, she described her first forays into using silicone mold materials. She would make a model in clay, mold it in silicone, and then cast it in resin. In one case, she mixed resin and Bondo together to make a puppet head; this gave her a translucent pinkish head which looked a lot like skin.

At the end of her presentation, Ms. Akins reminded us that whatever materials and methods you choose, you should endeavor to make the prop with as much care as possible. She left us with these closing words: “The more gorgeous a thing is, the more respect it is treated with.”