Tag Archives: paper mâché

New Cover for The Prop Building Guidebook

We are still about a year away from the release, but I just turned in my last chapters for the second edition of The Prop Building Guidebook: For Theatre, Film, and TV. I am very excited about this book. The first edition filled a void in the props world, and continues to be a great success. Now that it has been out for a few years, I can take everything I learned from it and incorporate that into a new edition.

But let’s skip all that for now; I really want to talk about the cover. I always wanted to do a custom setup showing a prop being built, but did not have time during the first edition.

Coming up with a cover idea for prop building is tricky. Most finished props just look like a regular object. If you have a picture of a chair, people will think it’s a book about chairs. A picture of a treasure chest will make it look like a book about treasures. I needed a process shot. I did not want a collage or series of images for the cover, so I realized I would need to build some weird hybrid prop where half of it was finished, and the other half was still raw materials.

I wanted to incorporate the “most proppy” kinds of materials and techniques into the cover. I knew I wanted foam carving, molding and casting, paper mache, and a cool paint job. I would have loved to get some metal and thermoplastics in too, but I only had a weekend to plan, build, and photograph this. I did manage to get some plywood and found-object decorating in though.

Figuring out the prop itself took some thinking. It would have to be something that could conceivably come from a show; something you would not just buy or adapt from existing items. With the different materials I wanted to show off, I realized it would need to be quite fanciful. It would be the proppiest prop that ever propped.

I also needed it to fill the square cover. I could not make anything long, like a staff or wand. I did not want to stick a gun or other weapons on the cover either. I dug back into my opera roots and decided some kind of chalice or vase would be best; a bowl with carved handles, held by three sculpted figures.

First I had to find the sculpted figure that I would mold and cast. I had nothing in stock and I did not have the time to sculpt something. I headed out to the stores and looked high and low. I needed something that would be easy to mold and cast, but that looked cool enough to warrant molding and casting. I finally found a little seahorse figurine. My prop would now have an underwater theme.

Seahorse mold
Seahorse mold

I made a two-part mold using Smooth-On Oomoo 30. I realized using $20 in materials to make three copies of a $3 figure was silly, but hey, he’s going to be a star.

With the seahorse in place, I searched for a bowl that would look good on top. A stainless steel mixing bowl in stock fit the bill perfectly; it was also a good shape to use as a form for the paper mache. I cheated a bit here; I did not have time to actually paper mache a bowl and wait for it to dry. I molded a piece of Wonderflex over the bowl first, then added a single layer of paper mache to the inside and outside of that. So now my prop was actually a prop version of a prop.


With these in place, all that remained were the handles and the base. I carved a piece of foam into a handle, and cut another one out so it looked like it was about to be carved. I cut a circle of plywood and nailed some upholstery tacks along the edge for decoration.

I painted half of the prop with a faux marble treatment and a drybrushed brass. All that was left now was to pop it onto some butcher paper in my “photo studio” and artfully arrange the various materials, tools, and molds around the prop.

Cover photo for The Prop Building Guidebook
Cover photo for The Prop Building Guidebook

Ta da! I feel like I have an image that better captures what the book is about. And now I have a weird half-finished seahorse trophy I can carry around with me.

The Elephant Kicks, 1891

This article first appeared in an 1891 newspaper. The elephant discussed here was built by famed Met Opera technical director Edward Siedle.

Update: I found another article which claims this elephant was built by Woolson Morse. I now think Siedle built the elephant for the 1904 remount of this show.

Actor DeWolf Hopper’s big elephant that drinks a quart of beer every night and on Saturday afternoons at the Broadway Theater, threatens to become troublesome to the management, says the New York Sun. The elephant has been kicking vigorously for a week past. The kick comes from the elephant’s hindquarters. In order to understand the full significance of the insubordinate behavior it is necessary to explain that in private life the “Wang” elephant is Mr. James Flynn and Mr. Mike Stevens Holahan. Mr. Flynn is the accomplished front legs and beer-drinking trunk of the elephant, and Mr. Holahan is the hind legs, and it is he who initiated the kicking. Mr. Flynn shows a disposition to join in the protest, and favors an elephantine strike.

When he is not the hind legs Mr. Holahan is the property-man of the opera company. He has to look after the costumes and wax candles, spears, bits of cut paper, Wang’s treasure-chest, and a lot of other miscellaneous stuffs used in the stage production. He was requested the other night to work on Sundays, too, and look after the distribution of display posters along Broadway on that day, and to paste the posters on the bill-boards. He intimated that this was crowding him a trifle too much, and that he did not propose to dabble in paste-pots at all. The matter was compromised by hiring a professional bill-poster to do the work.

Mr. James Flynn’s complaint is based on the plain ground of overwork. Mr. Flynn is a strong man, but he asserts that it is getting to be pretty tough work on hot nights carrying Mr. de Wolf Hopper on his head, and working the trunk of the elephant at the same time. Mr. Hopper is about seven feet high and weights in proportion to his towering stature. Mr. Flynn says this weight, combined with a Turkish bath atmosphere inside the papier-mache head of the elephant, and the necessity of keeping track of the innumerable pulleys that operate the rubber trunk of the elephant, gives him a headache every night. Moreover, he says that after he escapes from his half-hour imprisonment in this oven, he has to appear as a dancing master, and lead a dance of Emperor Wang’s twelve Siamese daughters-in-law, and later he has to climb on stilts and become a high priest—considerably higher, in point of fact, than Mr. Hopper himself. Mr. Flynn says that he quits the performance completely played out after his triple achievement. Manager Ben Stevens said last night that he thought he could square matters temporarily by allowing Mr. Flynn to partake of a bumper of beer as generous as that consumed every night by the elephant.

A funny thing in connection with the discontented elephant is that any number of children and adults, too, have written to Manager Stevens to find out whether the elephant is really alive. A Broadway merchant made a bet a fortnight ago, after he had seen the elephant drink its beer, that it was really a live baby elephant. He bet a new white tile on the point.

“The Elephant Kicks.” The Morning Call [San Francisco] 8 June 1891: 7. Print.

Behind the Scenes part 2, 1890

The following comes from an 1890 news article in the San Francisco Morning Call. The first part can be found here:

Though he borrows household effects and commonplace things that can be readily had, he manufactures much. In the banquet scene of “Macbeth,” which is often represented with fully 100 persons before the audience, the shining tankards, brilliant cups, luscious-looking aggregations of fruits, even the fowl, are made of this unique paper [papier-mâché].

Who has ever gazed upon the immense cannons, the lifelike horses, the warlike accouterments in the battle scene of “Henry V,” and was not impressed with their faithfulness to the real? Yet the admiring spectator would laugh himself tired if he saw the “property boy” pick up a horse with one hand, put a cannon under the opposite arm and walk off complacently after the curtain went down.

The hankering of the propertyman after imitation has originated many interesting effects by novel methods. Several times in the American drama, “Held by the Enemy,” there is occasion to feign the sound of horses’ hoofs moving rapidly on a hard road, as if the animal were carrying his rider at a deep gallop. This noise is counterfeited by a patent wooden clapper, slapped on a marble slab covered with a piece of rubber. The operator using both hands can moderate as he chooses the steps of the supposed horse, from apparently a long distance to just outside the scene, with startling vividness.

Published in The Morning Call, San Francisco, December 25, 1890, pg 19. Originally written by Felix Barnley in 1887.

Friday Link Letters

Busy week here at the Opera! Luckily there is always time to find interesting things to read and watch on the Internet:

This looks like a great method for making papier mâché clay. You mix up a bunch of pulp from egg cartons and magazines, then form it into balls which you can store until needed.

Hat tip to Seán McArdle for pointing me to this wonderfully illustrated guide to Louis-style chairs.

Check out this one-day build where Adam Savage builds Han Solo’s blaster. It’s well over 16 minutes long, so fire up some popcorn and settle in.

Finally, here is a very vintage video from the Stan Winston archives showing an Alien Queen head sculpture in progress: