Tag Archives: wonderflex

Puppets from Snow Queen

White-tailed Stag

The majority of my time this past autumn was spent working on puppets for Triad Stage’s production of “Snow Queen”. The play is an original retelling of the Hans Christian Anderson tale, set in the Appalachian Mountains with bluegrass music.

The animals (other than the two birds) were designed to look like they were constructed from cut and folded paper. Bill Brewer, the puppet designer, came up with the range of motions he wanted the puppets to have. Each puppet only had one puppeteer to operate it, which is tricky when the puppets are this large and manipulated by actors rather than trained puppeteers. We worked together to distill their movements down to the simplest motions so their moments on stage would be evocative and magical.

Puppets from Snow Queen
Puppets from Snow Queen

The stag had the most logistical challenges, so I began work on him first. The main challenge was that the lead actress rides him around on stage, so it needed to support her weight and remain comfortable for the operator to carry her while still working the puppet. I used a marching band snare drum harness to attach the puppet to the operator. We used these out at the Santa Fe Opera this past summer for a similar purpose, so I already knew it was the best option for comfortably distributing the weight over the operator’s body while keeping a strong and stiff connection to the puppet. 

You can watch the evolution of the skeleton and mechanisms in the video below:

It took me about a month and a half to get the movement right (I was working on the other puppets at this time as well, and we produced a whole other show within that time frame as well). My goal was to have this skeleton ready for the first week of rehearsal so the actors could begin working with it and discovering what it could do.

Skeleton and mechanisms
Skeleton and mechanisms

When the puppets were not being used in rehearsal, I took them back to start adding the three-dimensional bodies. It was vital that the actors used the puppets in rehearsal; the evolution of the puppet scenes was shaped dramatically by the discoveries of how the puppets moved and reacted.

Adding the foam
Adding the foam

For the solid parts, I attached chunks of EPS foam and carved them into shape.

To get the “folded paper” appearance, I laid some pieces of Wonderflex over top of the foam. Wonderflex is a plastic sheet which becomes formable at a very low temperature; you can let it drape or fold it like fabric, and when it cools, it retains that shape.

Fabric and Wonderflex
Fabric and Wonderflex

For the neck, I needed a much more flexible material, and after some experimentation, found a type of fabric which matched the appearance of the rest of the stag, but would allow the puppet to retain its full range of motion.

Head and antlers
Head and antlers

The head itself was carved by Brewer. We played around with a few designs for antlers, and ended up making them out of several interlocking segments. The ears were cut and shaped from more Wonderflex.

Painting and filling
Painting and filling

By that point, we were already loading into the theater, so the long task of filling, sanding and priming was done there. After  base-coating the puppets to a uniform white color, they were shaded with grey and silver paint to accentuate the flat plains and folds. Most of this was done by Howard Jones, the scenic designer on the show.

White-tailed stag
White-tailed stag

 

Friday Prop Links

Happy Friday, everyone! For those of us in the middle of holiday shows, whether NutcrackerChristmas CarolTuna Christmas, or what have you, I hope it’s going well. I have some fun things from around the internet you can read:

Propnomicon has been doing some research into early shipping crates and packaging, and has shared some of the discoveries made. It may be surprising to see that manufacturers were shipping products in corrugated cardboard boxes rather than wooden crates back in the 1920s.

A short article of note tells how 3D printing is finding a home in Hollywood. Of course, regular readers of this blog already know this, but it is still interesting to see specifically how and where prop makers are using 3D printing technology.

La Bricoleuse has an interesting post up about the parasols her students made in her decorative arts class. Now I know many props masters do not consider parasols to be a “prop”; I’m sharing it because Playmakers’ props assistant (and good friend) Joncie Sarratt has a stunning diagram of the parasol she had to create for their production of Tempest.

Finally, Kamui Cosplay is poised to release The Book of Cosplay Armor Making with Worbla and Wonderflex. I haven’t seen the book yet, but if it is anything like her tutorials, it’s sure to be a very informative look at working with various low-temperature thermoplastics.

Trimmed and attached

Wonderflex legs for a cast-iron stove

For our upcoming production of Snow Queen at Triad Stage, I am building some super-awesome puppet animals. But you won’t see those until December. Instead, I will show you a stove leg I had to replace. See, the show needs a wood-burning stove, and we had a great one in stock, but one of the legs was broke and another was missing. I could have molded and cast some new ones, or sculpted a new one out of wood, but I needed a ten-minute solution that did not cost anything.

Luckily for me, I had ordered several sheets of Wonderflex for the aforementioned puppets. I figured I could just use a few of the scraps to make myself some new legs.

Wonderflex leg
Wonderflex leg

Wonderflex gets sticky when hot, and I did not want it sticking to the leg, so I wrapped the leg in aluminum foil (not pictured here). Next, I heated the Wonderflex and essentially draped it over one of the legs. I worked it tight against the surface using my hands, and really dug in along the sides to pick up the raised-edge detail in the original. I wrapped the remainder around the back. Once it had cooled a bit, I carefully pried it apart and pulled the original leg out, than let the Wonderflex finish cooling until it was hard again. I was able to peel most of the aluminum foil off the back of the Wonderflex (the back had picked up the texture of the foil, but it did not show through on the front).

Trimmed and attached
Trimmed and attached

I trimmed the excess material around the edges, leaving some extra on the top. I placed the leg in place and heated up this extra top material and shaped it to fit the underside of the stove. Once cool, I added a bolt to hold it in place.

Painted
Painted

Finally, I painted it. I started with a flat black spray paint, then dry-brushed some rust color and some grey. You can barely tell which leg is real and which is fake in the photograph above. Plus, the whole process was less than ten minutes of total work time, in between other tasks on the show. The end with the fake legs does have a block of wood underneath to hold it up; the Wonderflex is nowhere near sturdy enough to support a cast-iron stove on its own.

 

Almost finished

Gramophone Horn

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.

Pattern pieces
Pattern pieces

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.

Extending the back
Extending the back

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.

Mounting to the table
Mounting to the table

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.

Almost finished
Almost finished

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.

Tapering on a curve
Tapering on a curve

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.

Wild Party
Wild Party

So there you have it; a down-and-dirty gramophone horn made of paper and plastic.

 

Chairs as far as the eye can see.

USITT 2013 Wrap-Up

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.

An earlier session on “Reimagining Theatre with Green Ideals” also featured information about sustainability and the Broadway Green Alliance. Once again, Jacob Coakley live-blogged the whole discussion.

“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.

Chairs as far as the eye can see.
Chairs as far as the eye can see.

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.