Things have been hectic here in the Hart Household, and you may have noticed I’ve missed a few posts. So I am switching things up and posting a bunch of links on a Wednesday rather than a Friday. Here we go:
Chris Ubick has been the props master on dozens of films, such as The Help, Practical Magic, Milk, and The Internship. Dianne Reber Hart has written a great article on her life and career which you should check out.
This article is a few years old, but worth mentioning: The Last Electronics Project I Completed. It’s a little deep and heavy at times (the author was building a fake bomb prop in lower Manhattan in early September of 2001) but it brings up some questions about the questionable legality of what we sometimes find ourselves building.
And finally, here is an interesting Instructable on assembling a vacuum-formed model. If you have tried vacuum-forming before, you will know that making the parts on the machine is just the beginning. You still have to trim, assemble and reinforce the parts to get a usable prop. This Instructable steps through some of those processes to make a fake ammo drum.
Usually, I am building props for a show or production I am working on. I rarely have time to work on my own projects. However, someone was interested to see if I could replicate a chest from the television show Game of Thrones. Now, I have nothing to do with the show itself, but it sounded like an interesting challenge to see if I could match something I could only see on screen. There wasn’t anything particularly tricky about this chest; it just had a lot of pieces and parts made of an assortment of materials, and some very time-consuming detail. For those who watch the show, this is the chest given to Daenerys in season one, which held her petrified dragon eggs.
I shot video of most of the build along the way and somehow edited several months of work into seven and a half minutes of video, giving an overview of the process.
If you are interested in more detail and photographs, read on!
The first part was the box itself. I worked out a quick mock-up of the whole piece in SketchUp to figure out the sizes and proportions of all the parts. I decided to use ash on this because it is hard and strong like oak, but I really hate working with oak. The grain pattern of ash was also a better match to the real chest than oak. We have a great local hardwood store that I visited, and I was able to find boards wide enough that I could build every side (except the top) from a single width of wood. The bottom was a piece of oak plywood.
The chest has a number of areas covered in metal. I bought a sheet of 22 gauge steel and cut it up by hand with my airplane snips. I used my sheet metal bending brake on the corner pieces, while the rolled-over edges of the top pieces were bent by hand with sheet metal tools and pliers. Although I could have saved time by making these out of plastic and painting them to look like metal, the “roll over” parts would have ended up too fragile; on the very corners, you can see how thin the metal is, and any plastic that thin would flex whenever you touch it. The hasp on this chest also rests against a metal section, so it gives that solid metal-to-metal sound every time you open and close the lid.
The most time-intensive part was the applied decoration. I used styrene plastic for this because using actual brass would have been prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, and a cheaper metal would have required just as much paint to match the appearance that the added labor was not worth it. I began by going through all the scenes in the TV show where the chest appeared and pulling out as many clear screen shots as I could, and then manipulating them in Photoshop to get a straight-on view. I scaled them up to full-size, printed them out and cut the pieces into patterns to trace on the styrene. Some parts of the design needed to be extrapolated slightly because I never got a clear view, but because it was symmetrical, repetitive and followed a certain logic, I was pretty confidant with how well my version matched the original.
Nearly every element was made of at least two layers of styrene, so after cutting the several hundred pieces out, I began gluing them together using model airplane glue. I did not attach them to the box just yet, but I did lay them out to test fit everything.
With all the pieces ready, I began painting. They received a base coat of hammered silver spray paint, followed by a heavy dusting of hammered bronze spray paint. They would receive more paint later on, but at this point I began attaching them. Working on one side at a time, I first laid every piece out and used careful measurements to make sure everything was symmetrical and evenly-spaced. I then traced every single piece in place and labeled them by number before taking them off. I did some tests and found contact cement gave the strongest bond, though that meant I had to apply it to both the plastic piece and the box, and I could not apply it to the parts of the box where the wood was visible, so I had to carefully paint it within the traced outlines I had made. Luckily, the contact cement bonds almost instantly, so I could begin working on another side after one was completed.
The inside of the chest was leather, though I went with a slightly-more processed version which was already finished and could fit through my sewing machine. I stitched all the pieces together first, and then attached them in as a single unit. I used a bit of spray adhesive to keep them from shifting around, but they are mostly held in place with the visible upholstery tacks. I pre-drilled holes for the tacks so I could make sure the spacing was even, and also because the ash was too hard to just hammer the tacks straight in.
I found hinges online that were so close to the ones on the real chest that I wouldn’t be surprised if the prop makers bought theirs from the same supplier. I could not source the hasp though, so I had to fabricate it from scratch. I started with a basic hardware store hasp and cut notches in the edges. The tip was cut from another decorative gate hinge. I cut a bar of steel to length and bent a curl in the edge, than plug welded the whole thing together from behind and ground the welds flush to the surface.
With all the pieces in place, all that was left was some painting and sealing. The top layers of all the decoration were sponged with a lighter brass color to set them off, and the whole chest was washed down with some dark browns and blacks to age and weather it. Finally, everything was coated in a clear satin Polycryclic.
I did the props for Elon University’s Wild Party back in February, but I haven’t gotten around to posting pictures of a quick gramophone horn I made. The budget was tight and nothing was available to borrow or rent, so I decided to construct my own.
The style of gramophone horn we needed is made up of six “petal” pieces all connected together. Luckily, I found a drafting of the pattern piece needed online. I scaled it up and copied it six times onto some matboard (I used two different colors of matboard because that was all I had in the shop). I attached the bottoms of the pieces to a hexagon of plywood I had cut out.
The horn was attached to a length of PVC pipe which I heated up and bent. The back of the horn needed to be longer, so I cut some trapezoids of Masonite to extend the shape back.
The record player itself was totally not the kind that would have a gramophone horn, so there was nowhere to attach it (a big apology to all you fans of historical accuracy). It was also a rental piece, so it could not be modified. Since the upstage side would never be seen, I attached the horn itself to the table, and built this little plywood bracket to hold the horn so it would look like it was coming out of the record player.
I cut out some matboard “trim” to run along the circumference of the horn to strengthen it and give it a nice clean edge. It was almost ready for paint, but the back of the horn still looked pretty bad.
To finish off the shape, I needed a piece that could taper from the horn to the pipe, while curving around the bend in the pipe. The shape was also starting from a hexagon and ending up as a circle. Also, it was only a day or two before opening night. The quickest solution I could think of was to pattern a scrap piece of Wonderflex and wrap it on there. It needed some sanding and filling to make it smoother, but otherwise it worked like a charm.
So there you have it; a down-and-dirty gramophone horn made of paper and plastic.
With this summer’s season at the Santa Fe Opera at an end, I can begin to show off some of the props I’ve built there. First up is a giant champagne bottle.
We needed four champagne bottles of a very specific size; they were going to be the barrels of cannons that I would also build. Nobody manufactures champagne bottles that large, so we had to make them. Since we would vacuum-form them from plastic, I began by making a solid foam bottle.
I drew out half the shape at full-scale on a piece of plexiglass. We have a duplicator on our lathe, which allows us to rough out the shape by directly following a pattern like this. I also got the block of foam ready. This piece was so wide, it barely fit on the lathe; I had to take most of the attachments off and round off the foam by hand before there was enough room to put the attachments back on.
As you can imagine, turning a block of foam this large creates quite a bit of debris. I am still finding bits of foam in my clothes to this day.
To vacuum form this piece, I only needed half of the bottle. I built a box so I could hold the bottle straight. The top of the box reached the exact middle point of the bottle, so when I ran a hot wire along it, it sliced the foam bottle directly in half.
I mounted the foam onto a board and drilled holes all around the circumference, as well as holes in the concave portions to ensure the plastic would be sucked all the way down. I also coated the foam with Aqua Resin and sanded it smooth. I posted a video a few weeks ago showing the vacuum forming machine in action; check it out if you want to see how I made the piece in the photo above.
With a successful pull on the vacuum former, this project was turned over to the crafting department, and my work on it ended. They began manufacturing clear plastic halves like you see above, and spraying them down with green dye to match the color of a real champagne bottle.
They glued the halves together and added some labels and gold foil to complete the look. The final bottles were over four feet tall.
For those of you in the regular world, happy four-day weekend! For those of you in theatre, get back to work! I have a couple of really great links for everyone this week:
The LA Times had a fantastic front page article about Film Biz Recycling, a New York City-based non-profit that rescues props and set items from finished productions, and sells them for thrift store prices. It’s the kind of store I wish existed in more places around the country; whenever I work a strike where an entire dumpster is filled with salvageable material, I can’t help but think of all the small theatres and schools where just a few scraps of plywood would make all the difference.
Volpin Props has an epic post up about a recent build for a Militech Crusher, a fictional gun from a video game series. It has a wide range of tips for working in plastics and inventing shapes and textures from scratch, as well as some really cool paint techniques.