Tag Archives: weather

Beware the Sites of March

Beware the Sites of March

This post is a few years old, but interesting nonetheless. Art Direction, Props and Authenticity talks about the importance of realism in prop making, specifically the realism of a prop’s weight. A prop that appears too light can take the audience out of the moment.

Game of Thrones has a new video out showing some of the work that goes into their props. It features prop master Gordon Fitzgerald, some drawings of props, and a look at how the smallest details are taken care of.

The Make Magazine blog featured a cool tip for using polycaprolactone plastic to make sanding blocks (they use Shapelock, though Friendly Plastic is another familiar brand name). If you need your sanding block to have a different shape for fitting around a curve or other odd surface, just heat it up in boiling water and reshape it to what you need.

Finally, if you have the time (about a half an hour), here is a good video featuring Adam Savage as he weathers and ages a prop. He articulates his process rather well, even though a lot of the process is carried out by instinct and intuition:

A Place to Buy Thunder, 1898

The following excerpt was originally published in the March 6, 1898, of The New York Times. It is not only interesting in its description of a theatrical prop store and shop in Midtown Manhattan at the end of the nineteenth century, but remarkable in the fact that the proprietor is a woman. Unfortunately, the article never mentions her name!

A Place to Buy Thunder

That, as Well as Lightning, Fog, Snow, and a Moon, for Sale by a Woman.

Assortment of Oddities

Ingenious Devices Under the Head of Theatrical Hardware—A Japanese and a Donkey Skin Made to Order.

She has thunder by the sheet, fog by the yard, lightning by the box, snow by the bushel, and the child who cries for the moon can get it there, if he will only wait until it is manufactured. It won’t be made out of green cheese, either, but more likely from pale blue silk, for moons have been made out of that before now, and they were eminently satisfactory and couldn’t have been told by any one but a connoisseur from the real article; and who is a connoisseur in moons?

And the mistress of all these natural elements is not a Mme. Jove, either, but a nice, ordinary, every day sort of woman, and this queer collection of hers is merely food for herself and her children. Not literally, for even a pretty, pale blue silk moon might be indigestible, but she provides them for “the profession,” and indirectly they become oatmeal and coffee, roast beef and plum pudding.

It might be thought that the establishment where all these strange things are to be found would resemble those regions supposed to take a low position in the universe, and to be the home of all things unpleasant and flamable, but it doesn’t. It is a modest little place, not so far from Thirtieth Street, on the line of the elevated road and the proper business of the proprietor, when it is called by its right name, is that of dealer in theatrical hardware. The visitor would not even guess, in taking a view of the stock, that the word theatrical was appropriate, for nothing but small articles of seemingly ordinary hardware are in sight.

That is not strange, as there is never a demand for the same kind of thunder, lightning, or other theatrical appliances which are supplied on demand of the property man or the stage carpenter, and very little of anything is kept on hand, though they can be had at a moment’s notice. The hardware proper is the most prosaic part of the business. That consists of the wheels, bolts, screws—everything that is needed to make the curtains and scenery of a theatre stay where they are wanted, and move when they are not wanted. Continue reading

Snow

Every winter, many performing arts institutions put on some kind of winter or holiday show. From a traditional Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker Suite, to the more modern A Christmas Story and The Santaland Diaries, many of these shows involve snow to some extant. Now, depending on the context of the snow and the traditions of the theater you work at, snow can be the responsibility of one or more departments: props, scenery, sometimes even lighting. Still, it doesn’t hurt to know some of the many ways snow is recreated, whether or not it ends up being the prop department’s responsibility.

For the 1936 Broadway production of Ethan Frome, scenic designer Jo Mielziner was very specific about the properties of the snow which covered most of the stage. It fell to Joe Lynn, the property master, to come up with a recipe. After much trial and error, they arrived at a mixture of white cornmeal, ground quartz and powdered mica flakes. As Mielziner himelf explains:

The cornmeal provided the right consistency, the quartz gave the crunching sound and the mica simulated the sparkling surface of snow in moonlight.

(from Designing for the theatre: a memoir and a portfolio, by Jo Mielziner; Atheneum, 1965, pg. 90)

Joe Lynn also added some rat poison to the mix to keep vermin away, which is probably not the safest solution available to today’s theatres. Also, using particles and powders as a floor covering—this is true of sand as well—can trigger issues with your fire marshal and even Actor’s Equity; you want to make sure you involve them as soon as possible so that you don’t end up using something which is not allowed.

For snowballs, previous props people have used white bar soap shaved into bits with a cheese grater. The resulting bits can be packed into a snowball which explodes on impact. Others suggest instant mashed potato flakes. In either case, water can be mixed in or spritzed on to make the snowballs stick better. If the actors are throwing the snowballs at people, obviously you want the snowball to break apart on impact as easily as possible. A lot of variables come into play: how hard the actor throws it, what it is hitting against, the temperature and humidity in your theatre, how far in advance you need to make the snowballs, etc. As a result of all these variables, there is no “exact recipe”, and research and development is essential.

Another option is the interior of disposable diapers (new ones, not used ones). They contain a powder called sodium polyacrylate, a polymer which absorbs 800–1000 times its own weight, effectively turning a liquid into a solid gel. It is also sold in magic shops and novelty stores as “slush powder”.

If a show calls for falling snow, it is often the props departments duty to procure the snow, while scenery is in charge of making it fall from the air. I know, it’s bizarre. The preferred method for at least the past hundred and thirty years is using clipped paper. Unfortunately, regular paper will not pass today’s fire retardant standards. If the thought of fire-proofing every snowflake for every performance is too overwhelming, theatrical suppliers, like Rose Brand, sell flame-proofed paper snow flakes. Expect to pay a lot though, and be aware that everyone needs snow during the winter and they are often sold out by this time of the year.

A more modern alternative is plastic flakes. Rose Brand sells these as well, but you can make your own if you wish. You can find paper shredders (for offices) which not only cut in strips, but also crosscut those pieces to make confetti. You can run white grocery bags or garbage bags through one to make your own plastic snow flakes. Bear in mind that you need a lot of snowflakes to make even a short-duration snowfall over a small stage. You’ll need more for multiple performances. You may be tempted to sweep as much as you can from one performance to use in the next one. Be aware that when you are picking up the old snow, you are also picking up all the dirt and dust from the stage. You don’t want to rain crud down onto your performers during a show; the dust can get in their eyes, and larger particles may even injure them when dropped from the top of the stage.