Tag Archives: automata

Bubble Blowing Automaton

If you’ve ever seen the play Buyer and Cellar, you know that a key scene revolves around the description of “Fifi”, an antique bubble blowing automaton. An automaton is a mechanical device that repeats a series of predetermined motions; think of a wind-up toy, or a cuckoo clock. They were really in vogue in the 16th through 18th centuries, when clock makers made all sorts of intricate moving automata in the shape of humans and animals playing out various whimsical scenes.

Most productions of Buyer and Cellar imply the existence of Fifi. The whole set is usually quite minimal, and the props are limited to a chaise and a book. For Triad Stage’s production, the director wanted to know if we could actually have a doll that dipped a wand into soap and blew bubbles out of it. She felt the audience, like herself, may not know what an automaton was, and this pivotal scene would be confusing without some visual reference.

I told the team it would be no problem to make an automated doll that moved by itself, and then I feverishly racked my brain as to how I was going to pull this off. I have been reading The Automata Blog for years, so I had a good mental catalog of potential solutions (anyone interested in automata should definitely dig through the archives on that site).

I put together a  video that describes how the final mechanisms work and that show the doll in motion.

Bubble Blowing Automata

My apprentice, Shay, started off by sculpting the head and arms. The head was foam, while the arms were made of wire wrapped in tape. Everything was coated in Apoxie Sculpt. She mounted them to a “birdhouse” which would contain the mechanism.

Sculpting the doll parts
Sculpting the doll parts

As explained in the video, all the movement was driven by a single crank shaft run by a motor. We prototyped the crank shaft with some bent wire, then transferred the measurements to a full scale drawing which I used to fabricate a more robust shaft from steel.

Laying out the crank shaft
Laying out the crank shaft

I used nylon spacers which were free to spin around the pieces of quarter-inch rod on the crankshaft. I cut a small groove around the center of the spacers to keep the string from slipping side to side. Everything was welded together to make a single piece.

Crank shaft near completion
Crank shaft near completion

I began by using string to connect the crank shaft to the arms and head. It would frequently get caught by the spinning crank shaft, causing Fifi to stop working. I tried a number of ways to prevent the string from wandering far enough to the side to get caught, but nothing worked one hundred percent of the time. I wanted to use stiff wire, but the distance between the shaft and the doll’s arm changed as it spun, so I needed the string’s ability to go slack. Eventually, I realized I could use a piece of wire that was long enough to clear the crank shaft, and then attach it to a piece of string for the rest of the distance to the arm.

Motor and crank shaft
Motor and crank shaft

The motor was a basic hobby motor with an attached gear box that slowed it down to 12 revolutions per minute. The crank shaft was not perfectly straight, so the motor was mounted loosely, allowing it to “float” a little bit. The pneumatic portion of the prop is explained in the video; Fifi was attached to an air compressor backstage, with tubing running up her arm and aimed at the bubble wand. A solenoid valve was triggered by the crank shaft whenever her arm was raised, causing air to rush out for a brief moment.

Fifi, the bubble blowing automaton
Fifi, the bubble blowing automaton

Though Fifi had a lot of challenges, once we got her working, she worked pretty flawlessly throughout the entire run.

End of the Week Prop Roundup

The New Antiquarian has a lovely article on the small bookshop that helped the Mad Men props master find all the vintage books used in the show. The characters on the show read voraciously, so the team was constantly hunting down pristine first editions of the books most popular during the time period.

A gallery in LA put on a Guillermo Del Toro tribute show, and Cinema Fantasma made this amazing wooden automata inspired by Pan’s Labyrinth. Check out the video where they transform logs into an intricate moving sculpture.

The Hustle has an interesting article about the women who make a living doing cosplay. It delves into just how someone makes money by dressing up in costumes, and shows how constructing the costumes is just the first step. It reminds me a lot of the new generation of internet “superstar prop makers”, who have fan bases built around watching them work; the actual props are almost secondary, and are never really used in film, theatre or television.

Finally, The Roadbox has a humorous look at how Bosch is marketing their new battery-powered hot glue gun.  I mean, the tool itself looks eminently useful, but hot gluing a chair together is the last thing you want to do.

Friday Link-o-Rama

My shows have all opened for the season, but plenty of other people are still doing cool props stuff around the Internet. Let’s check them out:

Tested has teamed up with Punished Props and Smooth-On to document the construction of a replica alien assault rifle from the film District 9. Part 1 is up now, showing how Bill drew out the design and cut all the layers from MDF and styrene.

The most incredible parts of Carnegie Hall are offstage. As a theatre person, I’m more interested in the backstage and behind-the-scenes parts anyway, but Carnegie Hall has some especially interesting and historical details going on under the hood. Atlas Obscura takes us on an illuminating tour deep into the depths of this famous performance hall.

Dug North continues his 16-part series of automata tips with this article on cams and cam followers. A cam can give some pretty intricate movement to a prop just from a single spinning shaft.

We’re going back to Tested with this great article on creating the practical creatures from Gremlins. Videos and photographs show how Chris Walas and Joe Dante made dozens of ground-breaking animatronic puppets on a shoestring budget to bring the story to life.

Finally, Popular Woodworking tests out some methods for removing rust from steel using only lemon juice and vinegar. It’s a nice little technique to keep your tools in tip top shape, or when you need to spruce up that antique you just bought for a show.

Unboxing Some Props Links

I hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday season!

Smithsonian Magazine has a great article on the history of the humble suitcase. It seems that every show that takes place in the twentieth century involves a suitcase. Even the shows that don’t require a suitcase often get them added in rehearsal (only to be cut during tech rehearsals when they realize they can’t carry their other props, and they don’t know where to put the suitcase at the end of the scene).

Speaking of histories of objects, the Toaster Museum is a whole website dedicated to the history of the toaster.

Popular Woodworking has posted a quick guide to screws. This downloadable PDF first appeared in a 2004 issue of their magazine. Now you can download it or print it out for easy reference to the different kinds of screws, different screw heads, and the best screws to use for common applications.

The Credits talks about building the sets for The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies. Though the initial reviews of the film indicate it may be the weakest of all the Lord of the Rings films, the scale and detail of the sets—both miniature and full-scale—are breathtaking to behold.

Dug North came across these nifty kits for getting started with automata. Timberkits are solid wood pieces that you assemble to make your own working automata. Seems like a cool gift if you didn’t get what you wanted this Christmas!

Speaking of Christmas gifts, if you got my Prop Building Guidebook this year, head on over to the Amazon page and leave a review!

Friday Links

Before I jump into this week’s links, I wanted to mention that next Saturday (October 26th), I’ll be traveling to Central Pennsylvania for a book signing at my alma mater, Bucknell University. If you’re in the area and want a signed copy of my Prop Building Guidebook: For Theatre, Film, and TV, or just want to say hi, swing on by the Barnes and Noble from 10-11am!

First up is this fantastic glimpse into the Trinity Rep prop storage. Take a look at the thousands of props which props master Michael Getz keeps in what was once an old cotton mill.

Dug North has another great installment of 10 Handy Tips for Woodworkers and Automaton-makers. The tips are useful for anyone working on smaller and more detail-oriented props, not just automaton or wooden pieces.

Collectors Weekly has a great article on the history of amusement park dark rides. A “dark ride” is like a haunted house, except you ride in a car, rather than walk. Collectors Weekly interviews George LaCross, one of the leading experts on dark rides. LaCross has produced a documentary on the history of the Knoebels Haunted House, a well-known dark ride which I must have ridden at least once a year throughout my entire childhood.

Fresh has a quick little interview with Alexis Labra, props master on the film Bunks

and Marvel has a short interview with Barry Gibbs, prop master on Thor: The Dark World.

Finally, this is interesting in its possibilities. Disney is developing software to help design automaton and other moving machines. It looks like you just draw what you want a figure to do, whether it is a cheetah that runs or a man that pushes a block, and the software will automatically position levers, linkages and gears to create that movement from a single rotating axle. The video below shows it much better. Not only can you design it all, but it looks like you can then send the drawings of the parts to a 3D printer or laser cutter and have them fabricated exactly as they were in the software. It’s the future!