I hope everyone enjoyed the nineteen interviews I’ve posted over the last month. Thanks to Ron DeMarco’s class at Emerson for taking the time to do that, and allowing me to post all of them. If you haven’t read them yet, they are a great cross-section of how prop masters get where they are, and are filled with wonderful advice on how to build your own career.
Even though I was running these interviews for awhile, you may have still seen my name out there in the internet. I made a little video showing an Iron Man mask I constructed for my baby this past Halloween.
Thankfully, all that has died back down again. The mask was a pretty simple build. As the video states, I found the pattern online and scaled it down. I assembled it in paper first to check the fit and make some modifications ( I left the back and sides off so it would just sit on top of his head rather than act as a full mask). The actual piece was built out of EVA foam, aka “fun” or “craft” foam. It is the same material I built some of the puppets out of for Snow Queen, which we are currently remounting at Triad Stage.
Collier is still in the hospital, but getting better. He wishes all of you a Happy Thanksgiving!
I made the blade out of wood again; on the original swords, I used plywood, which does not really make a convincing faux metal. This time I went with a solid piece of oak. After priming and sanding it, I used some Krylon Stainless Steel spray paint, which, after rubbing it with some steel wool, makes a very convincing metallic finish.
I decided I would make the hilt as a separate piece, then mold it and cast it directly onto the blade. I wanted a strong connection between hilt and sword that would not break when you played with it. Another reason was that the hilt was a very time-consuming piece, and I wanted the option of making more swords in the future.
Casting the hilt directly onto the blade was a very challenging and hairy process for me. Despite how awesome I seem, I do not have much experience with molding and casting. The process was far from perfect, but the end result was pretty satisfactory (though you can see some wibbly defects in the picture below).
I also tried sculpting the quillons out of clay, which is not something I typically do. I used an air-drying clay that was way too soft; if I were to try this again, I would look for a much harder clay. In fact, I would probably be tempted to carve most of it from a solid chunk of wood.
We have a bit of a break during the summer at Triad Stage between when the last show opens and the new season begins. It’s the time we spend cleaning and organizing the shops. We’ve been busy in the props shop doing a pretty big overhaul with building new shelving and storage spaces, and moving around where things go. Organizing a props shop can be a challenge, since props people want to save every bit and scrap they come across. I thought I’d share some pictures of various shops I’ve been in to show how others have tackled this problem.
The first picture is actually from the scene shop at ACT in San Francisco, but props shops need to store and organize hardware as well. It’s pricey way to store things, with tons of metal shelving and matching bins. But it allows everything to be separated out while allowing you to find anything just by visually scanning the room; nothing is tucked away.
Childsplay Theater in Arizona uses the full wall approach, where a whole wall is covered in shelving from floor to ceiling and filled with bins. You can see boxes and bins of all sizes, as well as plastic tubs, baskets, and loose items. It’s very modular, allowing one to change what is stored there if you run out of one type of material and decide not to reorder it. It also has the benefit of displaying everything you have available without hiding anything away.
The Berkeley Rep props shop takes full advantage of using every square inch of their tiny props shop. A mix of open shelves, bins and drawers fill every hole in the wall.
Various cabinets and shelving units are tucked in every corner to keep every spare area utilized. I’ve found that if you don’t designate uses for all the out-of-the-way areas of a shop, they end up accumulating piles of random items and scraps in a big heap. Likewise, if you don’t have a bin or shelf to put a thing away in, then it will always be in the way, and you will always be moving it around.
Here is part of a shop of a Broadway prop maker in New York City. He is also using the “every square inch” approach in his tiny shop, though he has opted to keep everything out in the open, rather than in bins and boxes.
Props shops seem to naturally accumulate little metal file box cabinets over the years, and Milwaukee Rep has put them to good use. With bins, you can carry the whole bin to wherever you need it in the shop, whereas with drawers, a prop maker doesn’t have to hunt down a missing bin that someone else has taken. It’s a matter of preference which you use, though many prop shops have a mix of both.
I liked these drawers underneath the chop saw in the San Francisco Opera. Adding storage under tools and machines is a great way to use space, especially if you can store the materials and equipment associated with that tool.
The tool and hardware cabinet at the Public Theater was in a weird area, so a custom storage area was built by the shop. The angle in that corner was not square, and the walls sloped backwards as well, so any ready-made shelving or storage units would end up wasting precious space.
Here is the opposite side of the Public’s tool cabinet. With the right organization and storage, a shop can hold more tools, materials and supplies, and yet have more open working space than a poorly organized one.
How is your shop organized? I’d love to see pictures. Send them my way.
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.
A few years back, I was working on a project in a facility that had a number of groups using the space. There was a group of students doing the props and furniture for a show, and they were so proud of how far under budget they had come. They were given $300 to do all the props and furniture, and they had only spent $30. Here’s the thing though: it looked like they had only spent $30, and spending a bit more money could have made it look a whole lot better.
We talk about the importance of not going over budget, but we rarely talk about the flip side: not using enough of your budget. As props people, we are always looking for a great deal or a bargain that other mere mortals may think impossible. And it’s great to get an item for a fraction of the price you would normally pay… if it looks like the full-priced item. If you have $300 to spend, it should look like you spent $3000.
It’s a great skill to try and produce as much as possible for as little money as you can. If you have zero budget and you only spend $30 on all the props and furniture, that’s quite the achievement. But if you are given a budget of $300 and you still come in with the $30 solution, it makes me wonder what happens when you have a budget of $1000. Or $3000. Or $10000. Are you still going to show up with the $30 solution? Because managing larger budgets has its own set of skills: knowing when to buy nicer materials, or when to buy certain items to save time fabricating them; paying money for little details that make your prop look more like the real thing; hiring extra help or outside contractors to help you get more done in the same limited time frame.
It makes sense if you compare it to your other resource: time. If you only have two hours for a project, you will probably come up with a very creative and inventive solution, albeit not a very impeccable one. Now, if you have two weeks for the same project, imagine showing up with a prop that looks like you whipped it out in two hours. You wouldn’t let your time go to waste just to prove you can make a prop with minimal effort, so don’t let your budget go to waste just to prove you’re a spend-thrift.
With time, we are almost always working right up until the props are taken from us (or the audience is being seated). I usually have a few notes left on my to-do list by Opening Night because I can always find things to improve. The show is certainly fine if I never get around to them; I just find it difficult to declare, “Everything in this show is perfect, and I can stop working on it.”
The same is true with the budget. I allocate all the money I have to specific items; I don’t leave any large chunks sitting around (other than contingencies, which I build into the budget). Of course, as rehearsals progress, the budget shifts around; items are added or altered, I discover solutions that allow me to save money, etc. If a change requires me to spend more money than I was anticipating, I take that money from something less essential. However, if new conditions cause me to save more money than I was anticipating, I find somewhere else to spend it. Maybe I was using a cheap solution for a nonessential prop, and now I can buy a nicer version for stock that I know I will use in later shows. Maybe I buy some hardware that I was planning on fabricating, and save myself some time that I can use elsewhere. Or maybe I just buy some more dressing, because you can never have too much dressing. If everything works out, by the time I get to opening, my budget is pretty much on the nose.
Sometimes, things are cut or changed at the last second, and the opportunity to spend the money never comes up, and I come way under budget. I don’t just run out and start buying random things. The important point is that I had plans for that money. You should have a plan for how you are going to spend every dollar in the budget given to you, rather than trying to avoid spending any dollar. You can tell when things were done for cheap.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies