A few months ago I was contacted by Hershey Park about building a magical music box. They were doing a Christmas show and wanted an exquisite antique music box owned by Santa. It had wood inlay designs and brass details. The actors would dance with it, but they wanted it to be able to light up, emit fog, and have the winding handle turn on its own.
This was a tight turnaround; 34 days from initial contact to having the prop in their hands. Nearly half of that was just hashing out the design and working on the contract.
The inside of the lid had an inscription and some inlay work. The inside of the box itself had a music box mechanism and a variety of floating gears.
The handle could be turned by the actor, and it also spun magically. The inside of the box lit up as well.
Oh yeah, a puff of magic smoke also came out of the box. The lights, fog, and spinning handle could all be activated independently of each other, triggered by a wireless dimmer hidden inside.
I was really proud of how this turned out. These are the kinds of projects I love doing.
I have an article out in this month’s Stage Directions magazine, hot off the presses. For “Cabinet of Wonders“, I spoke with Marc André Roy, the lighting project manager on Kurios, the new show from Cirque du Soleil. Kurios has a lot of props with wireless lighting and motion effects, and we looked at how Cirque makes that happen. I also talked with James Smith at RC4 Wireless, where all the wireless dimmers that Cirque uses are made. You may remember my blog post on my trip to RC4 Wireless earlier this summer.
These photographs of the inventories of British Soldiers are endlessly fascinating and useful. Thom Atkinson has taken all the gear and paraphernalia that a British soldier was issued at various times in history over the past 1000 years, and laid it all out on the floor. If you wanted to know what an archer was carrying at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 (say, if you’re doing Henry V), this is where you should go.
The Examiner has a great interview and profile of Beth Hathaway, a master of building creatures for film. Hathaway has been a fabrication specialist at Stan Winston Studios and KNB EFX for decades, working on projects such as Edward Scissorhands, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Walking Dead.
Finally, check out this LA Times story on Nick Metropolis, the famed LA store filled with junk and jumble of all varieties.
A few weeks ago, I visited Jim Smith out at RC4 Wireless. I was working on a magazine article about Cirque du Soleil’s new show, Kurios, and their use of RC4 Wireless units. Since Jim was just an hour down the road from me, I thought I’d swing by and see how they’re made.
If you’ve never seen or used an RC4 Wireless dimmer, think of a small box that lets you control electrical devices from your theater’s lightboard. So, if you wanted a flashlight, or a lantern to turn on and off during a light cue, rather then having the actor use the switch on the prop itself, these are one of the wireless dimmers that can make that happen.
When I got to his workshop and he showed me around, what surprised me most was the fact that he was building every single unit right there by himself. He starts with a printed circuit board, or PCB. These he gets made up at a factory, but then he prints the circuit paths on in his shop.
Next up, the boards go into his pick-and-place machine. Various components come on reels of “tape”. These are fed into the machine, which grabs what it needs, and places it exactly where it needs to go on the circuit board.
Before he got the pick-and-place machine, he was placing every component onto the board and soldering them in place by hand. Not only does the pick-and-place machine allow him to work much faster, but it allows him to use much smaller components. At a certain size, he has to use tweezers just to handle the components and a magnifying glass to see where to solder. He cannot physically work with anything smaller. With the machine, he can use smaller components, which mean smaller RC4 units overall.
Once all the surface mounted components are in place, he brings them over to an oven, which bakes the solder and locks everything in place.
He then adds the through-mount components. These are things like the DMX connectors or switches or anything that will be poked and prodded by a user. Using through-mounts gives them a strong mechanical connection. It’s basically like bolting the pieces on, where the pick-and-place machine can be thought of as “gluing” the pieces on.
The cases he uses are standard cases that he can buy in bulk. He then puts them in his CNC milling machine to cut out all the holes for connectors, switches and mounting hardware. The finished units then head inside his house where they get tested, programmed, labelled and packed. From there, they head off to companies like Cirque, where they are used for… well, you’ll have to wait for my magazine article to come out to see what they are used for.
This past week was the 53rd USITT conference in Milwaukee. This year’s conference featured a lot of things for props people. I couldn’t get to them all, but I saw a lot of them. I took notes which I may go through later, but since I’m writing this on the flight home (and have to work first thing in the morning), I’ll just give the highlights.
First off, there was the Expo floor, filled with companies, organizations and universities peddling their wares. Wonderflex World had plenty of samples of their products, including a sneak peek of a new product coming out soon that is pretty exciting.
Smooth-On had their usual cool booth with all the rubber monsters and foam cinder blocks you can make with their products. There’s a possibility I may start getting samples of their new products to test out for this blog. That would be neat.
StageBitz had demos of their props management and inventory software. I first tested them out about two years ago, and it’s almost completely different now (in a good way). You can do a 3-week free trial of their software from their website, which is really the only way to start discovering how easy and seamless this can make propping a show, from letting the designer share images and research with you, to letting you send the designer pictures of items in your stock, to keeping up with changes in rehearsal, creating to-do lists to send to your artisans and shoppers, maintaining a budget, to finally adding all the props to your stock when the show closes.
RC4 Wireless Dimming had tiny wireless dimmers. It sounds simple, but it’s amazing how these little devices act so seamlessly to let you control any sort of battery-powered light or motor from your theatre’s lighting console. I also attended a session called “Wireless Light and Motion for Propmasters”, where a couple theatres were showing off various ways they used the RC4 units.
One of the last sessions of the conference was on sustainability in design and production led by Donyale Werle. It included the exciting unveiling of the College Green Captain Toolkit, based off of the already-successful program which every Broadway show participates in (I’ll post a link when it appears, or you can contact the Broadway Green Alliance for more information). Jacob Coakley from Stage Directions Magazine live-blogged much of the session.
“Grave Matters” was a session with a lot of good tips and tricks for making gore and corpses. One of the speakers, Gary Benson, has his presentation online , including step-by-step photographs of how he made some skulls.
“You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” was a bit disappointing since 3 of the 4 presenters could not be there. However, you can check out the handouts on firearm safety that they had. You will also find a link for a survey they are running to discover how various theatres deal with guns on stage (and off). I’m not sure how long that link will last, so you should download those files rather than bookmarking them.
I got to check out the Young Designer’s Forum, which had some great work. I was also able to meet two of my future coworkers this summer at the Santa Fe Opera.
The Milwaukee Rep props shop hosted a SPAM get-together at their space, though it was nice to see plenty of non-SPAM props masters and prop makers there as well. I wrote about their shop for Stage Directions this month, but to actually see their work space and storage facilities in person was a great treat.
Oh yeah, I also sold out of my book by the end of my signing. The response has been overwhelming so far. I am ecstatic that so many people are excited about this book, and I can’t wait to hear back from those of you who use it or teach from it.
Did I forget anything about the conference? Was there something I missed? Let me know in the comments what you saw at USITT that excited you.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies