The following video shows some interesting puppet mechanisms, both mechanical and pneumatic. The people in the shop are constructing bird puppets for a 1999 Coca-Cola television commercial. Perhaps more interesting is that Jamie Hyneman is working in the shop as well, years before Mythbusters appeared on TV.
Another project I worked on for Crazy for You at Elon University was a player piano. The piano sits against the wall of the saloon for a number of scenes. It has a couple of gags; when we first see it, a cowboy is playing a song on it, then gets up and walks away as the piano continues to play. Later, another cowboy fires a gun which hits the piano and causes it to start playing on its own again until it is kicked.
We began by looking for a real piano which we could take apart and modify. After a few weeks of unsuccessful searching, I decided I would just build one. After all, it needed to be a custom size to fit into the set, so transporting and modifying a real piano might be just as labor-intensive. The exterior of a piano is not really that complicated; it’s mostly a giant box with various levels of molding and details. The tricky part was getting it to play on its own.
One of the perks of working at a university is that you have a lot of crew members backstage who can operate tricks by hand. I knew the player piano could be worked manually from behind, so I just needed to figure out how to make that work. I cut out a set of piano keys from 3/4″ MDF and drilled a hole through each one. I ran a piece of metal rod through all the holes; I added a washer between each piece of MDF as a spacer. You can just make out the washers in the photograph above, catching a glint of light. This method allowed the MDF “keys” to pivot around the rod. I set the “keyboard” in the piano and added blocks underneath to limit their movement to that which a piano has. You will notice the holes were drilled offset from the center. The extra length in the back gave the back extra weight; when you let go of a key in the front, gravity would pull the back down, returning the key to its natural position. This simple mechanism would allow someone in front to play the keyboard normally, and someone in the back could make the piano appear to play on its own by pushing the keys up.
In the view from the back, you can hopefully get a better sense of what is going on. The keys can be accessed from behind; pushing them up causes the keys in front to move down, as if the piano is playing itself. When you let go of the keys in behind, they return to their normal position. The piano was pushed up against the wall, and a hole was cut in the flat, allowing a crew member to reach in and “play” the piano without being seen by the audience. The music itself was played live by the orchestra.
The photograph above shows the piano immediately before it is painted. I managed to build the entire thing with scrap material, amazingly enough. The scene shop at Elon has a CNC machine, and it produces some wacky off-cuts. The scene shop usually doesn’t have time to trim the edges to make them square and usable again, but I do, so it gives me some nice large pieces of quality plywood and lauan.
The piano was painted to match a lot of the other woodwork used in the saloon scene. I cut some black keys out of black foam core and hot glued them on top of the white keys; they basically moved along with the white keys as they were played, but were not playable on their own. With the keys painted white and the piano painted with dark wood tones, it gave enough contrast that even the balcony seats could witness that the piano was playing on its own. All in all, it was a pretty fun prop for having been built in little over a day.
This is fascinating. On the one hand, this shows what you can make out of just wood, without nails, glue, wire, or anything else. On the other hand, it features such a great collection of mechanisms all powered from a single crank. It’s amazing the amount of movement you can get from a single rotational movement.
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.