Tag Archives: process

Using soft materials to mimic hard details

Every once in a while you come across some curved or otherwise intricate detail on a prop you wish to recreate that seems far too intense and labor-intensive to undertake by hand. Take, for instance, the curved ridges running along the front of the arm in the picture below (the parts in grey).

Ethafoam on a decorative arm
Ethafoam on a decorative arm

Rather than spending two weeks carving these out by hand, I made them out of Ethafoam. Ethafoam is a actually a trademark of DOW Chemical for their spongy, cushiony polyethylene foam used for packaging and wrapping pipes. It’s great for theatre because it also comes in rods, which can be cut in half to make flexible half-round molding.

Ethafoam rod
Ethafoam Rod

Now, this is not an article about the wonders of Ethafoam, but rather the idea of using soft and flexible materials to simulate hard and rigid objects. Ethafoam is just one of the many materials used in theatre for such purposes. You can see another example in the photograph below.

Closeup of cast iron bench
Closeup of cast iron bench

You can also see yarn used at the very bottom. This was a replica of a cast iron bench I made for the Santa Fe Opera a few years back. The research called for a very ornate and detailed-looking bench, and the short time-frame I had to build it meant I had to use a lot of found objects and unconventional materials to pull off the look.

painted cast iron bench
painted cast iron bench

On closer inspection, you can see more materials, such as fabric fringe were used. Once it was artfully painted, the illusion was pretty convincing, especially under stage lighting and seen from a distance. The painting of soft materials like Ethafoam or fabric can be one of the trickiest parts of this process. Either they soak up all the paint or the paint simply will not stick to it. You usually need to coat it with something first, though that can be tricky as well; because the material is flexible, you need to use a coating which also remains flexible, otherwise it may chip and flake away. Brushing on watered-down PVA glue or a coating of something like Jaxsan is usually sufficient.

When you look through older texts dealing with props, you can find numerous examples of using industrial felt, upholstery trim, or any number of other fabrics and soft materials to mimic solid decorations. If you ask prop artisans about it, you will get some mixed responses. Some love the versatility it gives them, especially on a budget. Others abhor it as an amateurish “proppy-prop” trick. In my own opinion, I try to avoid it if I am making a prop that gets handled by an actor. Nothing looks sillier than when an actor picks up a supposedly marble vase only to have the decorative ridges squish under his hands. It also threatens to break the actor out of character even if it is not noticeable by the audience. If, on the other hand, you need to add ornamentation on set dressing or on the parts of a prop that are unlikely to be touched during the performance, than it’s a great trick to use, especially when you are on a tight budget or tight deadline.

What Material Chooseth You?

Often, choosing the material for your prop can be the most difficult part of the process; it will in fact determine the process. Choosing the wrong material can lead to added expense, additional labor and a whole lot of headaches. It can even result in a prop that does not look or perform as it should, with the only way to fix it being to rebuild it from scratch.
How do you know which materials to build your prop out of?

How do I make a…?

“How do I make this?”

It’s the question faced by the props artisan on a daily basis. Whether you work in theatre, television, or film, you will be asked to build an infinite variety of objects for an infinite variety of uses. Props are found in many other places as well, such as advertising, photography shoots, commercial displays and exhibitions. You may also wish to build props for your own personal uses, such as holiday decoration or hobbies. Whatever your reason, you are reading this because you want to know how to build anything and everything.

Sometimes the answers are self-evident. If the scenic designer wants a wooden chair, you build a chair out of wood. But what if the director wants the chair to be broken during every performance? What if the designer wants a prop from a historical period where the techniques and materials used are no longer available to us? Most commonly, what if the production calls for props which have no counterpart in the real world?

The men and women who build props come from the most diverse backgrounds imaginable, and are skilled in an endless number of techniques and processes. They approach the construction of a prop from a variety of angles, honed over years of experience and trial-and-error. The “why” of props construction is often based on which materials they are most comfortable using, or by asking questions from those who have been in the business longer than they.

Is there a way to more clearly define this approach? Is there a “scientific method”, as it were, to apply to every prop whose construction is not self-evident?

If you have any time over this Thanksgiving, leave a comment with any insights on your own process; what informs your decision on how to construct a prop?

Friday Link-a-palooza

Here are some more links for your pre-weekend perusement.

  • Ever think your prop shop is too poorly-equipped to make anything well? Here’s the story (actually, a long review of a book) about a Malawian teenager who built a windmill out of scrap parts and garbage to provide electricity for his village.
  • Jesse Gaffney has the first part of a series detailing her process of propping a show.
  • Like Steampunk? Here is a massive chronology of Steampunk works in literature, movies, comics, and stage.