Category Archives: How-to

Guides to building props or using certain techniques and materials

A body for Bacchae: Part One

For the upcoming production of The Bacchae at Shakespeare in the Park, we have to make a ‘meat suit’. In the play, King Pentheus is dismembered and has pieces of his flesh torn off by the Bacchants (the party-goers). This happens off-stage, but his torn-apart body is wheeled onstage, where his mother, AgavĂ«, attempts to reassemble him.

The director envisioned a corpse covered in meat. We in the props shop needed to find a way to mimic that look. It also needed to hold up under the weather, as the Delacorte is an outdoor theatre.

Jay Duckworth, the properties director at the Public Theatre, decided to use Dragon Skin, a silicone rubber product from Smooth-On, Inc. It comes in liquid form in two parts. You mix an equal amount of each part together, and you get a viscous liquid which can be cast or brushed on. After a little over an hour, it becomes a rubbery solid.

Getting ready to use Dragon Skin
Getting ready to use Dragon Skin

We began experimenting with casting these up into meat-shaped pieces. Dragon Skin can be colored with “Silc Pig”, a silcone pigment which comes in a number of colors. I found good results by mixing two batches up simultaneously with different levels of pigmentation. By pouring them into the mold at the same time, we could achieve random differences in color throughout the piece, which gave more realisic results.

Jay pours Dragon Skin into a mold
Jay pours Dragon Skin into a mold

Jay found good results from painting the Dragon Skin directly onto the skeleton pieces.

Painting the Dragon Skin directly onto the skull
Painting the Dragon Skin directly onto the skull

I suggested using spray-foam to build up chunks of muscle on the bones, and then painting the Dragon Skin onto that. Along with Michael Krikorian, we prototyped up a number of bones with a variety of techniques to compare them. We decided that overemphasizing the depth of the ridges and covering the foam with Rosco FoamCoat led to our favorite results.

Layering Dragon Skin on top of foam
Layering Dragon Skin on top of foam

“Silc Pig” comes in a number of different colors, so we mixed various batches of Dragon Skin to simulate fat, muscle, skin, and various other bits of chunky ooze on the bones.

There are a number of important things to keep in mind. First, silicone rubber reacts with certain chemicals, which keep it from curing. Most importantly is latex, so if you use latex gloves when working and touch the mixture, it will remain in liquid form. Use vinyl or nitrile gloves. We also found that hot glue will keep the Dragon Skin from curing. Also, use an accurate scale. The measurements need to be precise, and you cannot do it by sight alone.

Most importantly, as always, good research is the key to a realistic product. Everybody knows what muscle looks like until it comes time to actually carve it. Needless to say, doing research for this project was particularly vomit-inducting.

Now that we’ve come up with a repertoire of techniques to use, we can begin work on the actual prop. Keep watching this blog for more photographs of our progress.

The final skull prototype. All photos by Eric Hart
The final skull prototype. All photos by Eric Hart

Dragon Skin

This week, at the Public Theatre, we begin working on some props for The Bacchae. Since there is going to be a dead corpse which is picked apart and torn up on stage, Jay Duckworth has ordered some “Dragon Skin” from Smooth-On to experiment with.

Many of us in the props world are familiar with Smooth-On and their range of products for molding and casting. My father, a potter in Pennsylvania, has been using their polyurethane for years in his mold-making, and they’ve really pushed some new products for theatrical purposes in the past decade or so.

A Silicone Severed Head
A Silicone Severed Head

But wait, there’s more! Their website isn’t just some bland information portal. They have a treasure trove of guides, tutorials, and instructions for using their products. On the special effects and propmaking section you can find step-by-step video sequences, photo sequences, and examples of what other people have done with their products.

You can also find a Smooth-On video channel over at YouTube. This contains many of the same videos showing molding and casting with their products as their website. They also have a list of “Favorites” showing videos from other users making and casting molds.

RAC Props

RAC Props is a website and online magazine run by Richard A. Coyle. Mr. Coyle has made props for Star Trek II, IV, V and VI, as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The magazine has a wealth of articles on props, written by Coyle and others. Some highlights include

It’s an interesting mix of original prop making and fan replica prop making.

Funerary Urn Trick

For Twelfth Night, the director wanted a funerary urn trick. When the actor knocks it over, he wanted the lid to fall off and a puff of ashes to fly out. I decided on a pneumatic solution.

The Funerary Urn in Action
The Funerary Urn in Action

Early on, we decided the urn should be on a base which was hinged to the floor, which would keep the urn from rolling down the hill into the audience, and also have it fall in a consistent manner during every show.

Air Tank and Valve
Air Tank and Valve

This trick is actually extremely simple in concept, and pulling it off only requires a minimum amount of research to find the right parts.

The idea behind it is the same as filling a straw with corn starch and blowing it out. Instead of a person blowing it out, I have a tank of air which is filled before hand. And instead of a person deciding when to blow, I have an electric valve which is triggered when the urn hits the ground.

The tank of air is just a soda bottle. I fitted a tire valve onto the cap; I got it from an old tire, though you can buy them new if you wanted. A hose runs out the back of the bottle into the valve, which then runs to a hole in the stage which holds the corn starch. The valve runs off of eight AA batteries, though it can be changed to be plugged into the wall. Finally, I wired in a button between the valve and the batteries, which is on the stage floor where it can be pressed by the urn when it hits the ground.

Here is a video of it in action:

Weapons Storage

I received a question last week about how various prop houses store their weapons. First, there’s how they should be stored. Every prop house I’ve worked at, and every one I know of, keeps their weapons locked up. The depth and breadth of rules and regulations dealing with weapons, theatrical or replica, varies incredibly amongst states, cities, municipalities, and institutions. Locking up is the least you can do.

But I digress. The question was geared more toward the logistics of weapon storage. Props storage is a never-ending compromise between the ease of locating a specific object with the need to cram as many objects into a limited space.

Continue reading Weapons Storage