Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Grande Illusions 1 and 2

Grande Illusions by Tom SaviniHappy Friday the Thirteenth! If you are a horror film fan, you must surely recognize the work of Tom Savini if not the name; he created the horror effects for the film, Friday the 13th. He has a book called Grande Illusions: A Learn-By-Example Guide to the Art and Technique of Special Make-Up Effects from the Films of Tom Savini. His resume of films is quite impressive for this kind of work; besides the aforementioned Friday the 13th, he has also done makeup and horror effects for Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Day of the Dead, Monkey Shines, Creepshow, and many more. In addition to influencing many horror effects artists working today, he also runs the Special Effects Make-Up and Digital Film Programs at the Douglas Education Center in Pennsylvania.

It is beyond beneficial to us in having a book written by a man who has not only practiced these techniques for years, but has also pioneered many of these effects. It is even more fortunate that he has taken so many photographs and detailed notes of his process and working methods over the years that he can share with us. It would be like discovering a diary written by Shakespeare in which he discussed how he wrote his plays and how the productions evolved into what we know them as today.

In addition to the descriptions of his work on specific films, he has a number of step-by-step tutorials scattered throughout. Casting a head, casting teeth and fangs, working with foam latex and dealing with undercuts are some of the techniques Savini describes in this book.

What is great about these books is not only that Savini presents the materials and methods he uses, but he goes through so many examples in which he has used them. Rather than being repetitive, he shows how a repertoire of skills can be used and adapted for problems which seem similar at the outset but actually present new and unique challenges. A props artisan is always learning something new, even in fields they’ve already mastered.

Grande Illusions 2 by Tom SaviniIn the same vein, Grande Illusions: Book II presents another batch of films which Savini has worked on. This book also features tutorials on creating a breakdown of makeup appliances from a sculpted head, punching hair, and making a case mold from a bust. Though either book is good on its own, together they present a fairly complete picture of Tom Savini’s work and the techniques he uses to achieve it.

This book does contain copious photographs of movie gore and injury, so if the sight of severed heads and impaled bodies, even fake ones, are not your cup of tea, steer clear. It’s also a good idea to screen it first before presenting it to younger makers (though I should add that unsupervised usage of the materials and techniques presented is far more dangerous than the possible psychological damage in seeing these images).

Review: Backstage Handbook

Backstage Handbook
Backstage Handbook

I feel almost silly reviewing the Backstage Handbook: An Illustrated Almanac of Technical Information by Paul Carter and George Chiang; it is already so well-known and ubiquitous in the theatre world, I don’t know that I have anything to add. Nonetheless, every time I pick it up, it’s like I’m rediscovering how much useful information it has in it for the props professional. If you haven’t gotten this book because you think it’s aimed solely at the carpenter, electrician, stagehand or stage manager, think again.

Inside, you can find illustrations differentiating the type of moulding we use, parts of a window and wood joints. You can find lists and illustrations of the common hand and power tools you would find in a prop shop, as well as all the hardware and fasteners you will come across. It also includes definitions and descriptions of the various fabrics at our disposal, the multitude of adhesives we use (along with their ingredients) and the different types of rope and cord you can choose from. Along the way, you can also learn how to tie the most common types of theatre knots, how to draw a variety of geometric shapes (like pentagons and hexagons) and how to build a flat. Of course, you can also find all sorts of general theatre knowledge, such as the parts of a stage and the types of curtains we use.

So really, this isn’t much of a review; it’s more of a reminder that if you work in technical theatre (or film for that matter), you should own this book. Case closed.

Review: A Guidebook for Creating Three-Dimensional Theatre Art

Guidebook for Creating Three-Dimensional Theatre Art
Guidebook for Creating Three-Dimensional Theatre Art

A Guidebook for Creating Three-Dimensional Theatre Art, by Ann J. Carnaby, is quite the mixed-bag in terms of books about props.

First let me start with the good. The first chapter is probably one of the best-written texts on developing an approach to building those props you need to build which you’ve never built before. It is one of the reasons I got this book. When I began writing my own book and working on my presentation for the 2009 SETC Theatre Symposium, I discovered this book; after reading the first chapter, I recognized the similarities in our approach and knew I was on to something.

The second chapter on safety is also wonderfully comprehensive and useful for the theatre artist.

It is after that when the problems begin. This is a good idea for a book, and that’s what the majority of it feels like: an idea. The writing is chopped up into so many bullet points and little blurbs that it never feels like more than an outline or book proposal. The interesting parts are not fleshed out enough, and the uninteresting parts are given an equal amount of room. Even the layout is troubling; this book has so much white space (some pages have only a handful of words), that were it removed, it would probably be more like a large pamphlet rather than a whole book. The first two chapters show so much potential, with an author who obviously knows her props, while the rest reads like a poorly-made PowerPoint slideshow. And let’s be honest; no one can make a PowerPoint slide sound interesting.

Speaking of layout, should I mention that the headings throughout the book use a font that looks suspiciously like Comic Sans? That, along with sample projects like cow masks and elf shoes, promise a certain amount of quirkiness, but the text itself remains dry and humorless.

Perhaps all of this could be forgiven if the photographs and illustrations were well made. Alas, this is not so. Even the largest pictures are no bigger than a wallet-sized photo, and they are all in black and white. Some are so washed out you cannot make out the details, while others are left with no context; for example, a photograph of a “shampoo bottle costume” shows a costume without a person inside of it, so it looks like a regular shampoo bottle. With a plain background, you cannot even discern the size. Some of the sections do not even have photographs. This may be forgivable in the chapter on materials; a picture of “muslin” would be nice, but not necessary. However, there are a few projects which do not even include a picture. With the descriptions sparse as it is, neglecting to include a photograph makes one wonder why the project was even included.

Since I mentioned the chapter of materials, I’d like to mention another problem I have with this book. In a seemingly random collection of materials one would use for making props, the book lists generic materials alongside brand-name products. So one page will talk about urethane foam, while the next page discusses Sculpt or Coat. The whole chapter reads more like the contents of one’s supply cabinet rather than a comprehensive overview of the materials available to a props artisan. Without placing a product like Sculpt or Coat within the context of materials, you make the discussion irrelevant to an artisan who lives in an area where one cannot buy Sculpt or Coat, or it becomes obsolete when the brand goes out of business. Finally, I just have to point this out: the book lists “backpack frame” as a material. Really?

I do not mean to heap complaints onto this book, but I feel I need to give a fair review. The final major problem I have with this book is its lack of focus shown by its choice of projects. Of the 31 projects, 7 are “animal heads” and 7 are crowns/hats. The rest of the projects include costumes, a puppet, shoes, some masks among other random props. It feels like the projects want to be either more general, or more specialized. If one is interested in learning more, there exist books on any of these project types that explain the processes far better. Perhaps if the projects were more exemplary, this type of hodge-podge collection could be overlooked (Thurston James’ Theatre Props Handbook takes a similar scatter-shot approach in the materials and techniques it explains, but makes up for it in its wit and sheer amount of knowledge it contains), but one of the projects is literally hot-gluing flowers to a costume.

I don’t know what it is about books about theatrical props where even when a talented artisan is involved, the end result feels cheap, shoddy and incomplete. You only have to browse the crafts section of any bookstore to see any number of trite and instantly forgettable books which are nonetheless chock full of beautiful full-color photography and clear writing. If you are looking for general books about theatrical prop-making, you would be better off with Andy Wilson’s Making Stage Props, James’ Molding and Casting Handbook, or even his aforementioned Theatre Props Handbook. If you want more focused books on specific crafts, such as millinery, puppets or costume crafts, you can find any number of books with far better instructions.

Review: The Prop Builder’s Molding and Casting Handbook

The Prop Builders Molding and Casting Handbook
The Prop Builder's Molding and Casting Handbook

In Thurston James’ second book, he tackles the subject of molding and casting for prop makers in more detail. The Prop Builder’s Molding & Casting Handbook guides you through the most common materials and methods used in many prop shops. Because of its specific focus (and better organization), this book is far more successful than his previous Theatre Props Handbook, which, as I mentioned in my review, meandered through disparate topics with no way to quickly find information.

Though written in 1989, the methods described in this book still hold true today. Though the range of materials we can use today have grown dramatically, they remain improvements and new formulations to older materials whose predecessors can be found in this book.

It remains one of the most widely recommended books for molding and casting props because of the unique niche it fills. It describes the most common materials and methods used in props shops and by hobbyists; these materials are used because of their cost, ease of use, availability, and proven results. Books on molding and casting for manufacturing and industry are more focused on specific or specialized materials, and they aim for a level of consistency and cost efficiency which the prop artisan would never possibly need. Shaving a tenth of a cent off the cost of a casting makes a difference if you are casting ten thousand pieces, but it will be impossible to notice if you are only making ten.

James seems to have had an epiphany in shop safety between this book and the last, as he now presents clear and accurate safety precautions in the beginning of the book, and continues to reiterate them throughout. In his Theatre Props Handbook, safety precautions were nearly nonexistent.

The book does a good job of covering the generalities of mold making and casting. It discusses the model and its preparation, and defines a number of necessary terms, such as undercuts, release agents, mother molds and the like. It describes the considerations of making a mold of your specific piece, and breaks the various molding materials and casting agents into categories. In a way, it describes the process of choosing your materials in an almost flowchart-like manner. If you know what your model looks like, and you know what kind of properties and appearance your castings need, then you can narrow your choices of mold material and casting material down to a few choices. In the book, he describes over thirty of these material choices.

The bulk of the book is used to guide you through the specifics of working with each of these materials. Specifically, he talks about plaster, alginate, latex rubber, and silicone rubber (RTV) mold-making. The casting materials he describes include latex, neoprene, papier-mâché, Celastic, fiberglass (GRP), hot melts (such as wax, plasticine, hot melt glue and hot melt rubber, breakaway glass, thermosets (specifically polyester resin), water-extendable polyester, and urethane. He also has a section on casting with hardware store products, like caulk, autobody filler, water putty, and several others. Finally, the last section of the book describes vacuum forming and how to construct a vacuum forming machine.

Review: Making Stage Props by Andy Wilson

Making Stage Props - Andy Wilson
Making Stage Props - Andy Wilson

This is a story about Making Stage Props: A Practical Guide. A very good story indeed.

This book is tailor-made to anyone who works as a props artisan. In many ways, it is the book I wish I had when I first started out as a props carpenter. It does not talk about shopping, or organizing a prop list, or talking with directors. It is not a collection of tips and tricks used by props people, such as breakable glasses, blood knives, or fake food. Quite simply, it deals with how to construct props the way a professional prop shop constructs props. For the most part, that means furniture, though it also includes examples of large decorative pieces, masks, and some weaponry.

Because it deals with more tried-and-techniques (and it was written in 2003), it is one of the most up-to-date books about making stage props you can find.

Wilson divides the chapters by material and/or process: wood, steel, modelling, making moulds, casting and laminating, expanded polystyrene, upholstery, and paints and finishes. So while you can read the book from cover-to-cover, it works just as well as a reference which you can refer back to over and over again, depending on what your next project is. I would, however, recommend reading the introduction first. I had a strong sense of déjà vu the first time I read it; the way Wilson describes approaching a project is similar to what I wrote in my paper for the SETC Theatre Symposium. Guess that means I’m on to something

As you may have noticed from his spelling of “moulds” above, Wilson is British. The book is still highly useful even with a few linguistic and cultural differences—20mm plywood instead of 3/4″, for example.

The photographs, though all black-and-white, are very clear. He also includes a lot of diagrams and illustrations. Obviously, a book on prop-making can never hope to contain all the materials and processes one can ever use; he does, however, cover the most common ones which can be used to build probably 90% of the props you will ever build for the stage. Some of the information he includes can be oddly specific; for example, in the chapter on “wood”, he includes a diagram for a lathe, with all the parts listed. This is the only tool that gets such a diagram in that chapter. Why? I’m not sure.

Overall, the amount of information Wilson packs into this compact book is amazing, and it has something for prop-makers of all skills, whether new to the field, or experienced artisans. I feel strongly that it is one of the few “necessary” books for prop-makers, and even for prop people in general.