I like things that move on their own. An automaton is a self-operating machine, usually through mechanical means. Animatronics is a more specialized type of automaton; it is a form of mechanized puppet. Neither of these should be confused with a robot, which is an object which can sense and/or react to its environment. Here are some starter links if you are interested in making or learning more about animatronics and automaton.
“How Animatronics Works“, by Jeff Tyson. A look at how Stan Winston Studios creates a full-scale animatronic Spinosaurus. In addition to describing the animatronic parts, it’s an interesting look at how to sculpt, cast, and fabricate a full-size dinosaur.
Instructables has a number of guides on creating animatronics of varying complexity:
Grim Reaper Animatronic is one of the simplest; it uses an oscillating fan for its movement. It shows how you can simplify things by using already existing parts and mechanisms if you can look at their possibilities. This is true of all props.
Halloween Animatronics is a nice introduction to computer-controlled movements. It uses a USB interface to connect the parts directly to your computer for manipulation. My how far we’ve come.
How to create simple animatronics – Part one: using the MAKE controller. Using a controller board allows your animatronics to be self-contained, since the controller board takes the place of your computer. You still set up the board with your computer. This tutorial also involves hooking up sensors to control the movement, much like in the first link, where Stan Winston Studios uses arm-length gloves to control the Spinosaurus’ arms.
For Automaton, the Automata/Automaton Blog is the greatest place to start. Not only does it continually update with photographs and information about both antique and contemporary automaton, but it’s the perfect starting place for further exploration of information.
Let’s face it. Swords are cool. Luckily for props people, swords pop up all the time on prop lists.
I learned some basic swordmaking techniques from Tom Fiocchi while at Ohio University. Usually, when I’m asked to make a sword, it’s a decorative or trick sword with a very show-specific look. If it’s for stage combat, the swords are often rented or pulled from stock. For Twelfth Night at Shakespeare in the Park, we rented many of the swords from Weapon Specialists here in New York City (hopefully I’ll be doing a tour of them in the upcoming weeks).
Old Swords has a wealth of information on historic swords. There is a gallery of swords categorized by nationality and time period, as well as a comprehensive search function of their database. The site also includes a cornucopia of resources, articles, and links about antique swords, sword makers, and anything else you may need for research and reference. You need to sign up to access the information, but it’s free, quick and well worth it.
Use care in the selection of your properties. Study your text. Avoid anachronisms. Do not use muskets and pipes in a scene that is laid before muskets were invented and tobacco discovered. Do not use modern lamps to light a mediaeval scene. Do not use modern musical instruments in a scene that is laid in Grecian or mediaeval times. These are some of the average mistakes. Remember that penholders and pens are a modern invention. Use quill pens and sand for plays whose scenes are laid before the early nineteenth century. Do not use clocks in Greek or early Saxon scenes. If your characters are writing or sending letters in the time when parchment was used, have the paper yellowed to look like parchment. Do not have a modem fireplace in a peasant’s home where the hearth would naturally be built of stone. Do not use modern dishes in mediaeval scenes. Buy paper plates and cover them with colored tissue paper, or paint them till they resemble the kind of platters you need. Brown will represent earthenware. Gold and silver for fairy palaces can be made by gilding them over or covering them with gold paper. Remember that forks and spoons were not in popular use in the days of Robin Hood. Fingers and knives did the required work. The hearth was used for cooking. Beware of modern cooking utensils in fairy, Puritan or Colonial scenes. “Gad- zooks” and modern coffee pots do not go together. Beware of modern frying pans for hearthstone scenes. Use iron skillets instead. A kettle for these scenes is always permissible, but if it is a peasant scene, see that it is not the too shining brass of the tea kettle of the afternoon tea table. Remember that coal fires are modern. If you are having a fairy peasant scene use wood instead. Use braziers where the scenes require it. They are always effective; and can be made by blacking a tripod washbowl, and lighting a little red fire powder in it, or some joss sticks which will give a thin blue smoke. Or a red electric bulb can be used in it if there is no spot light.
Be careful of your lighting. The Greeks had torches when they wanted a bright light, and small, bowl-shaped lamps with a wick and oil for smaller illuminations. Gold cardboard torches from which stream slashed strips of flame-colored tissue paper are safe substitutes. The Saxons and early English had rushlights and bowl lamps. A bowl that looks like earthenware, with the stub of a candle in it, will do. In mediaeval times swinging lamps and candles were for the rich; while the humble were content with tallow dips only.
Don’t use the spinning wheel before the spinning wheel was invented, just because it is decorative. Don’t use a modern glass “tumbler” for your doublet and hose hero to drink from. A cheap glass goblet covered with gold paper will look like a gold goblet.
If possible have your youthful players make their own properties. Take, for instance, a fallen tree trunk, or a log for a forest scene. It can be made by fastening together two small vinegar barrels, and covering them with green and brown burlap to represent bark and moss. Or it can be covered with brown burlap and gray lichen—real lichen fastened to it with strong glue. Such a stage property as this can be used again and again. And the boy who went to the outlying fields or suburbs to get the moss—may he not know something of nature’s secrets that he had not known before? And may not the eager quest bring him hours of entire happiness? A seventeenth-century broom can be made by tying an armful of hazel or willow switches to an old broom handle. The browner and sturdier these twigs are the better. This broom material can be gathered at the same time as the moss.
The prop man must scratch the word “can’t” from his vocabulary. The property man of the studio, the man who gets various articles that appear to make the setting realistic, has to know what to get for the studio to develop settings which the audience sees completed.
In order to achieve this vital aim, the chief of the department and his men are ever on the alert. They don’t wait until something is requested before they start looking for it. They always strive to be a little ahead of the game. They get a line upon everything which they think will ever be used as a prop and enter it in their index. They never miss an opportunity. If they see a strange vehicle, an unusual antique or anything else which isn’t on their lists, they get all possible information concerning such an article, where it may be found at a moment’s notice, and put that information down in black and white in the department files. Only a few weeks ago the chief of props in one studio, while driving in the business section of Los Angeles, saw a Ford taxicab of the 1913 model. He noted immediately that it possessed a very unusual feature — that despite its age, it looked almost new, having received excellent care and perhaps little usage. The value of such a condition lay in the fact that pictures are often produced wherein the action supposedly takes place some years ago, but in which new or almost new properties are required. The property must be physically new, yet it must be suited to the period of time in which the action takes place. He chased the taxicab for twelve blocks and finally caught it. He obtained the address where it might be obtained and a description of the car, which he entered in his index. Not more than two weeks later a director asked for just such a car for a comedian to drive. Without difficulty the machine was secured and rented.
In the studio department there are two property indexes. One is a list of the properties on hand in the prop room and names, describes, and numbers something like sixty-five thousand items. The other is a list of obtainable props, much larger than the first list, and contains all necessary information about properties not on hand but which may be secured on short notice. This list includes a ridiculous variety of entries, ranging from trained monkeys, snakes, and canary birds to false teeth.
Loading a dummy with animal blood and animal intestines for realistic disembowelings
Hiding a lamb’s tongue in an actor’s mouth to simulate him biting it off
The history goes all the way back to Ancient Greece. It’s interesting to see how real blood and offal was used throughout all but our most recent history. Though the information presented is brief, it’s a great starting point for anyone interested in this kind of thing.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies