Tag Archives: future

Product versus Process

I heard a story awhile back from a fellow props artisan. A large company was in town, putting on the kind of show that required hundreds of specialty props, all created specifically for their production. They started out working with one of the larger prop shops in the area. The shop was good, but they were still not happy with a number of the props; the performers themselves needed to talk directly to the artisan in order to give all the details and needs they were looking for. When the prop was finished, they wanted to be able to use it in rehearsal for a bit, then work with the artisan again to suggest changes and ask for modifications.

The large prop shop wasn’t set up to do business like this. They were used to taking drawings and draftings from a designer, constructing the prop, and delivering it to the theatre. They could certainly deal with the changes and additions that happen in every production, but the kind of individual one-on-one experimentation with props throughout the rehearsal process that these actors wanted was beyond their capabilities. This is where the fellow props artisan comes in. He was able to provide this kind of daily collaboration. He would talk through the prop with the performer, making notes and asking questions, then head to his shop for the rest of the day. The next morning, he would bring a newly constructed prop to the performer who would try it out and then suggest new changes and additions based on what was learned.

This is the difference between props as a product and as a process, and it is one of the reasons why good props artisans will always be needed. In one case, you are “ordering” a custom prop from a prop shop. In some ways, it is just like you would buy some of your props off of eBay or from a catalog. Having this shop continually make changes and modifications becomes expensive, inconvenient, or even downright impossible. Even if all of the props are built by an outside group, you will still need an artisan on hand who can modify and work with the props to make them do what the show needs them to do. Having an artisan on hand also allows the props department to be a bigger part of the whole collaboration. Like a conductor who lowers the volume of the trumpets or speeds up the tempo at certain parts in the music, an artisan can alter the weight or balance of a prop, change the color, or add a secret handle between rehearsals.

I’m not trying to knock commercial prop shops in this post, but rather make a point about the continuing need for artisans in an age where our industry is seeing more and more computerized fabrication. CNC routers and 3D printers are great technologies, and hold even more promise in the future, but they are no replacement for a good props artisan. They create products. They don’t replace the process.

A CNC router can cut an intricate shape out of a piece of plywood with very precise measurements, and it can do it a thousand times with no difference between all the pieces. A props artisan is more than just his ability to cut out a shape drawn on a piece of plywood. A props artisan takes the needs and wants of a prop, balanced with the input of the director, the designer, the actor and the stage manager, and weighs it against the limitations of the theatre, the shop, her skills, and all the resources available to her. She chooses the materials and techniques which best fit all of these requirements to construct the prop. And she does it knowing that it may need to be changed or modified later, or even cut entirely from the show.

A smart props artisan will keep on top of the changes in technology and tools available to him and learn when to integrate them into his process. We’ve integrated computer printers into our manufacturing of paper props. Even with all the amazing things one can do with graphics software, artisans still use a surprising amount of non-computerized techniques to add life to paper props. A good artisan uses all tools and methods available to him rather than altering the prop so it can be manufactured by a certain machine.

The Future of Making Props 2

In the last post, I looked at desktop fabricators and how they might impact the future of building props. In this post, I’ll check out what kind of new materials will change how we make props.

New Materials

by conarcist
by conarcist

One of the grandest changes in the way we make things came from the development of plastics during the last century. Consider the scope of plastics: Styrofoam, epoxy and epoxy resin, acrylic, Plexiglas, PVC pipe, styrene, nylon, kevlar, many laminates like Formica. Consider too the amount of adhesives we use based on plastics. PVA and most contact cements are plastic-based, while most tapes are at least backed in plastic. These days, a small prop shop can work with materials whose properties would have seemed miraculous even as late as World War I.

The downside of course is the ecological damage these materials cause, both in their production as well as their disposal. The future of making props will see a transition to more organic and biodegradable materials which can exhibit the same properties as synthetic plastics.

The first phase will see greater use of recycled materials. We are already beginning that phase. The field of props is almost defined by its reusing and repurposing of otherwise worthless cultural objects, and many of us build new props from material found in scrap bins or the trash. But we will also see more “new” materials made out of recycled bits. Many of our fiber and particle boards are made from the dust and scraps which are left over from processing lumber.

Instructables’ user Star Simpson has a guide on plastic smithing, where you can construct plastic objects out of old plastic bags.

We may also see a return to older, friendlier ways of constructing things. The Victorians made beautiful objects out of plastic milk and papier-mache, and there’s no reason these techniques cannot be used for the more temporary theatrical productions. You can find information on how to make your own plastic milk at Instructables, or at Joey Green’s Mad Scientist, which also has some fun facts about the stuff.

These kinds of things may be fun to experiment with, but may not be useful for more commercial shops. However, companies around the world are developing new materials based off of these homemade projects using organic and biodegradable products. It is worth it to keep on top of these products and try them out if you have the chance.

One website which showcases new materials with interesting materials is Transmaterial. Some products they’ve featured in the past include a polymer fiber which is five times stronger than steel. A company called Ecovative Design has developed an insulation foam substitute made out of mushrooms.

All in all, the explosion of materials technology we’ve seen in the last century or so shows no signs of slowing down. Our challenge now, as it always is, is finding the best materials to do our jobs. Are there any new materials you’ve been trying out lately?

The Future of Making Props

Every once in awhile, I thought I’d try to look ahead at the future of building props. Prop-making has come a long way in the last few decades, from papier-mache and chicken-wire, to sculpted Styrofoam and CNC-routed parts. Today, I’ll take a peek at desktop fabrication.

Desktop Fabrication

If you need a color copy of a printed page, you can scan it and print it within minutes on the computer which is already in your office. Paper props have become vastly simplified with today’s computer and printing technology, and if your shop has a large color plotter, you can print nearly anything up to four feet wide.

Imagine doing the same with a three-dimensional object. You scan it in, and then “print” an exact copy.

A Fab@Home Fabber
A Fab@Home Fabber

The technology to do that already exists, and has for years, but remains bulky and expensive. Products like the Desktop Factory bring the dream of a desktop factory in every school, business, and home closer to reality.

According to the blog at Ponoko, the Desktop Factory is similar in price to the first consumer laser printer which was released in 1985. If we look ahead, we can see how prices have changed. These days, it can sometimes be cheaper to buy a new printer then new ink! In ten or fifteen years, desktop fabricators can easily cost less than a hundred dollars.

For the truly adventurous, there is a wealth of resources dedicated to constructing your own “fabber”. Fab@Home has everything you need to build and program your own machine to make three-dimensional objects out of a whole range of materials, from plastics to sugar.

When you combine desktop fabrication with more sustainable materials, you get machines like the Matrix 3D Printer, which uses sheets of letter-sized paper to build up a three-dimensional object.

These machines make objects which can be molded and cast, or in some cases, used directly.

I can certainly see more commercial prop shops using these kinds of machines and technologies. For smaller prop shops or university shops, they can still come in handy. Obviously, a desktop model will not let you print out a giant prop. Likewise, if you need a piece of wooden furniture, you can’t use a fragile plastic fabrication, nor would it make sense to cast a piece of furniture in some kind of resin. Additionally, these fabricators would require at least some knowledge of 3D computer programs, such as CAD. While many prop shops have at least one person with a working knowledge of one of the CAD programs, generating a precise drawing of a complicated piece may be too specialized a skill for a five-person shop.

I see the more immediate benefits of a machine like this as a way to make all the “bits and bobbins” that a prop shop is always looking for. Think about the boxes of finials and rosettes we keep around, or the bucket labeled “brass things.” Now imagine building up a virtual library of all of these parts, and whenever you need one, you just print it out. There are many other times when you need some kind of custom shape for a prop where precision is key.

I’m interested to hear how everyone else feels about these possibilities.

**Update** The Desktop Factory is no more.