Tag Archives: horse

All Props Day

My latest magazine article is out. In “Printing a Set“, I talked with several set designers who are using 3D printing technology as part of their process.

3D Printed Furniture
3D Printed Furniture

Here’s an interesting story. Some soldiers in Afghanistan were having trouble carrying and reloading ammo for the new guns they were issued. To improvise a solution, they were inspired by a prop which Jesse Ventura used in the film Predator, and set out to recreate it. It worked.

The title of this article says it all: Dexter’s Prop Master Tells How He Made the Show’s Most Gruesome Set Pieces. It is fairly gruesome, so I caution clicking through if you do not want to read about severed body parts and other macabre details.

Here is a local news article on Karl Luthin, the owner of KEL Equine Productions, an Illinois-based company which has provided historically-accurate equine props, horse wranglers and set dressing to the film industry for years. His latest work will be seen in the upcoming Lincoln film by Steven Spielberg. You have probably seen his props in films such as “Glory,” “The Patriot” or “The Last of the Mohicans“. Check out his webpage too, for photographs of many of the items he has.

You can find pictures of early variations of the game Monopoly (known as “Landlord’s Game”) as well as rules and other historical facts here. There are over a dozen variations spanning from 1903 to 1939.

Finally, I like this set of behind-the-scenes photographs from the original Alien film. It’s just a guy chilling in a monster costume, whatever.

Friday Link-topia

Here are seven short (under 10 minutes) films about obsolete occupations. I think as prop makers and prop masters, we are called on to do the work of each of these occupations at least once in our careers.

The TK560 discussion board is geared towards making stormtrooper armor from Star Wars, but they have a large section devoted to general tips and tricks for vacuum forming (including instructions for building vacuum forming machines of all different sizes and budgets), molding and casting, and working with plastics in general. There is a treasure trove of useful information here.

I’ve seen discussions of dying plastic in the past as an alternative to painting it, especially with plastics that refuse to take paint (such as polyethylene). Here is a good step-by-step description (with pictures) of dying the case to a MacBook computer.

CNN recently did a profile on Dale Dougherty, founder of Make Magazine and the Maker Faire. You can watch a short companion video and read a brief column by Dale titled “How to make more ‘makers’ – and why it matters.”

Finally, here is an extremely cool infographic on how the War Horse puppets work.

War Horse puppet
infographic on how the War Horse puppets work.

First Links of November

What a week, campers! After last weekend’s freak snowstorm (with thunder and lightning!) we’re all set for a sunny and mild two days off here. King Lear opens next Tuesday, Love’s Labor’s Lost closes on Sunday, Titus Andronicus began rehearsals and Mike Daisey’s show continues making audiences think. Let’s see what’s on the internet:

Photographs of toy manufacturing in China. Amazing how much of the work is done by hand.

This next one is an oldie but a goodie; I somehow missed it all these years. Mike Lawler gives an introduction to the theatrical props department, with interviews of Jim Guy, prop master at Milwaukee Rep, and Michelle Moody, former prop master at PlayMakers Rep.

I like this tutorial for sculpting a tiny horse figurine by Hilary Talbot. Again, it’s a few years old, but I’m just finding it now.

James Kendall’s grandmother-in-law never threw packaged food away. He photographed some of the oldest bottles and cans. It’s a fantastic look at packaging going back to pre-WWII days in Britain.

Here is a massive list of tips and tricks for tabletop gaming modeling.

Beware the time-suck that is Cracked. But they do have a fun article on 5 ridiculous gun myths everyone believes thanks to movies.

Mechanical Sound Effects

Before sound could be reproduced by recorded means, any sound effects needed in the theatre had to be created by mechanical means. The props department was in charge of coming up with the machines and devices to achieve that. In the rare cases that live sound effects are used in a modern performance, it still tends to be props’ responsibility, though with the advent of sound designers, you will always have some cross-departmental collaboration.

The devices used for the most common sounds were fairly standard during the last few centuries. I found some great illustrations of these in a 1900 book entitled Secrets of Scene Painting and Stage Effects by Van Dyke Browne (what a name for a scene painter!)

Thunder sheet and Galloping steeds
Thunder sheet and Galloping steeds

Thunder was created by hanging a large sheet of thin iron and shaking it. If you’ve ever carried a large sheet of thin sheet metal, you can imagine the sound something as large in the picture can create.

Wood blocks were used to generate the sound of galloping horses; they had elastic bands to keep them on the prop-person’s hands. The book points out that some property masters preferred the use of coconut halves, though this required the cut ends to be perfectly flat and smooth.

Rain and Wind
Rain and Wind

The sound of rain was made by filling a long box with small pebbles. The box had a center pivot point which allowed it to tilt; all the pebbles would tumble to the other side. If you’ve ever played with a rain stick, it is the same general idea.

The “wind-producing drum” is a bit of a mystery to me. Browne neglects to describe this drawing, and I cannot be certain of its possible sound or intended use. Most of us are more familiar with the next drawing as a machine to create the sound of wind.

Wind Machine
Wind Machine

A piece of silk is draped over a drum made of slats of wood with spaces in between. The drum can be turned to create the sound of wind.

The following are more esoteric devices. With the advent of cinema, foley artists (as the creators of mechanical sound effects were called) had to come up with ways to create sound effects in much smaller places; after all, a cinema has far less space backstage than a theatre for plays.

Horse Trotter
Horse Trotter

This is a horse trotting machine. It acts like a more automated version of hitting two coconut halves together. A shaft above has a number of “tappets” (C1 and C2) which pushes the top cup away from the bottom cup (Fig 2). When the tappet clears, a spring connecting the two cups pulls them back together, creating the sound. The triangular cutouts in the top cup help make a louder and richer sound. The “foot lever” on the bottom is used to adjust the distance of the cups from the shaft. When it is further away, the tappets do not push the cup as much, creating a softer sound. Thus, it gives the operator some control over the volume of the galloping horses.

Sound Machine
Sound Machine

This last machine is an attempt to combine a whole bunch of sound-generating devices into one. The back part (S) has a number of pipes, whistles and bells (V), through which compressed air is run. You can trigger each one individually by turning the air on and off. In the middle of a large drum is a thin sheet of stiff metal (M). Using the handle, you can slap it against the drum to simulate artillery fire. Because it is on a roll (P), you can alter the length of the sheet to control the volume of the slap.

A final lever (R) can be used to generate a rolling effect on the drum, which apparently mimicked the sound of automobiles quite successfully.

The final illustration does not have to do with sound, but it was in the same chapter. I recently wrote a post about the variety of ways a props person simulates snow on stage. Though a snow drop itself is not usually a prop department’s responsibility, it is helpful to know how one works, and so I include the illustration below.

Snow Drop
Snow Drop

Illustrations originally printed in Secrets of Scene Painting and Stage Effects by Van Dyke Browne. 5th ed., 1900, George Routledge and Sons, Limited. You can read the whole book at the Internet Archive.

War Horse

War Horse is currently playing in London’s West End, and is tentatively scheduled to open in New York in 2011. In “Making Horses Gallop and Audiences Cry“, Patrick Healy gives more in-depth information about the show and the amazing puppets, designed by Adrian Kohler:

The basic construction material for the horses is cane, which Mr. Kohler soaked to make it more moldable. “It is light, flexible, and the figure increases in strength as more and more struts are bound together,” he said. The struts create the look of joints in the horses’ legs and necks.

Silk patches were then applied to gauze to suggest the animals’ skin patterns and also partly to conceal the two puppeteers inside each adult horse.

The article also has a great number of photographs showing the puppets.

The puppets were constructed by the Handspring Puppet Company, a South African puppet group. It was founded in 1981 by Basil Jones and Mr. Kohler. On the website, they give a little more information about the horse puppets:

Some of the horses are fully articulated with two interior and one exterior manipulator and because they have aluminium spinal structures, they can carry human riders. Other horses are more abstract with no legs and only one manipulator.

The Giraffe puppet from Tall Horse, made by Handspring Puppet Company
The Giraffe puppet from Tall Horse, made by Handspring Puppet Company

The horses are based on the designs first used in Handspring’s production of Tall Horse, about a giraffe. Elsewhere on their website, they describe this puppet:

The puppet was constructed from a frame of carbon fibre rods and takes two puppeteers, on stilts, to operate it. The puppet is fully mechanical – its head, ears and tail can be manipulated by the puppeteers, through a complex system that allows the puppeteers, inside the body frame of the giraffe, to manipulate the appendages through bicycle brake cables.

The giraffe can turn its head, flap its ears and tail and walk with the swaying, graceful gait that anyone who has enjoyed the sight of the magnificent creature in the wild will recognise. Manned by two puppeteers on stilts, the giraffe is the central character of Tall Horse, which is a magical tale of the discovery of Europe by Africans.

If you are interested in learning more, Handspring has a few books out. Journey of the Tall Horse: A Story of African Theatre describes the production process for Tall Horse, while The Horse’s Mouth: Staging Morpurgo’s War House gives an in-depth look at the current production of War Horse. Until then, I’m looking forward to 2011!