Tag Archives: recipe

Homemade Coatings

I found a couple of recipes for a coating in some old props forums (circa 2002). They refer to the coating as “homemade Sculpt-or-Coat”, though it is very similar to recipes for scenic dope and monster mud. I have not tried any of these recipes, but I am posting them here for my own future reference and for yours.

This coating is useful for coating foam, to “paper mache” burlap, cheesecloth or muslin to wood and steel, or for use as a general texture. For texturing, you can mix in sawdust, sand, vermiculite, etc., for various results.

For a 5 gallon recipe:

  • Fill 2/3 of a 5 gallon bucket with a 50/50 mix of acrylic caulk and joint compound.
  • Add 1/2 to 3/4 gallon white latex paint.
  • Add 1/2 gal. Rhoplex.
  • Mix well with a drill and paddle mixer.
  • Add about 1/3 gal. of white glue. Mix thoroughly.

You can tint it using latex or acrylic paint, or universal colorant. You can thin it with more white paint or Rhoplex. You have about 20-30 minutes of working time, and it dries fully in 12-24 hours. It should not go on thicker than 1/4″ or it will be prone to cracking. You can alter the recipe to suit your needs; adding more joint compound gives a harder and more rigid finish, while more acrylic caulk gives a more flexible finish.

Rhoplex is an acrylic binder made by Dow Chemical Company. It can be tricky to find, particularly in bulk. There are many other acrylic binders you can find at hardware and paint stores, though I am not sure whether these will also work. Other posters in the thread say they use PVA in lieu of Rhoplex (the PVA paint binder, not PVA glue or PVA mold release).

In another thread, Wulf points out that Rhoplex is pricey and hard to find, and that it may be easier and cheaper just to buy Sculpt-or-Coat for small batches. His own recipe involves PVA white glue, powdered clay and latex paint. Simply combine equal parts, stir very thoroughly and allow it to stand for about a day for the clay to absorb.

Links for a Taxing Weekend

You have only a little more than two weeks left to enter my Prop Building Guidebook Contest! Don’t wait until the last minute to enter. I also wanted to point out that a week from Monday (April 22nd), you can start voting for your favorite prop in the contest; tell your friends they can vote for your prop once per day until the contest ends on April 30th. In addition to winners in each of the individual categories, the prop with the most votes will win its own prize category, so vote early and vote often! And now, onto the links.

Here is a fantastic article about the guys at Spectral Motion, one of Hollywood’s finest creature shops. They’re responsible for most of the monsters in the Hellboy films, as well as for work in X-Men: Last Stand, Blade:Trinity, and this summer’s Pacific Rim. The article is replete with information about how they got started, what kind of work they do, and what inspires them. It is also heavily illustrated with photographs showing their workshop and the inner workings of some of their creatures. I especially love the following quote about why practical effects are still necessary in an era of digital mimicry:

“A lot of times people turn to digital solutions. That’s also good, if the application is correct. But, you know, a lot of directors that we talk to are of the mind that a practical effect is far better for exactly that reason–because the actor does have a co-actor to work with, to play off of, and to have feelings about.”

I came across this short interview with Mickey Pugh, prop master on films such as Saving Private Ryan and Last of the Mohicans.

From the prop masters email list this week comes Click Americana, an ongoing collection of vintage photos and ephemera from all decades of American history. You can search for specific topics or just browse through by decade, from the 1820s to the 1980s. It has a whole section dedicated to recipes, too, great for when you need to provide period food.

And finally, if you missed my Tweet this week, I shared this video looking at the blood effects in Trinity Rep’s Social Creatures, a “zombie” play now running. Production director Laura Smith and assistant props master Natalie Kearns show us how they make the blood and organs squirt and fly.

Elevenses Links

Happy October 29th! Or for those of you on the Gregorian calendar, happy 11/11/11!

From Ryan Voss comes this fantastic-looking blood recipe based off of Crayola washable markers. They said they used it in a production where a character in a white wedding dress was covered in blood every night. (h/t to Propnomicon)

So Field & Stream, of all places, has a behind-the-scenes look at the props of AMC’s upcoming western show, Hell on Wheels. They focus a lot on the guns used and how they achieved the many gun effects in the show, but be sure to make it to the bottom of the article, where they have a video on building an entire train. That’s right, an historically-accurate steam locomotive made of styrofoam, wood and a fog machine. I thought my cannon was cool, but this is simply amazing.

You’ve seen some of this before on my blog, but Rosco shared a more in-depth look at how we made the portraits for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

This looks strange and promising. Autodesk has a free preview of their 123D Make software, which will turn a 3D computer file into something you can print out, cut apart, and assemble into a three-dimensional object. They have a video which does a better job explaining it. The software is only available for Mac, and it is only free until February, so if anyone with a Mac tries it out, let me know how it goes.

Mantle Studios has a very well-made tutorial on sculpting with wax. I’ve done a bit of wax sculpting, but nothing approaching the level of detail in this tutorial.

A case against Metric

Suppose you want to divide one foot into four parts: that is three inches. Divide a foot into three parts and you have four inches. Divide a meter into four parts: each part is 25 centimeters. Divide it into three parts and you are left with 33.33… cm.

The same is true with liquid and dry measurements. Take a cup. Now double it and you have a pint. Double it again and you have a quart. Take a gallon and divide in four; that’s a quart. Divide a liter into four parts, and you have to call it either 2.5 deciliters or 250 centiliters.

Look at a clock; it has sixty seconds in every minute, and sixty minutes in every hour. You can divide a minute in half, thirds, quarters, fifths, or sixths and in every case, you are left with a whole number of seconds. No fractions or decimals.

Metric may be good for scientific and technical measurements with things that increase by orders of magnitude. For example, hard drive memory started out with bytes, than kilobytes, followed by megabytes, gigabytes and now terabytes. But when dealing with carpentry and recipes and other measurements used in the construction of props, you are not having to convert between units which are one hundred or one thousand times larger than other units. You are dividing things into halves and quarters and thirds. You want to be able to take a measurement with a ruler which gives you one or two whole numbers and a fraction. It is so much easier to say “this prop is one foot and three inches tall, two feet and five inches long, and three quarters of an inch thick” than it is to say “this prop is 38.1 centimeters tall, 73.7 centimeters long, and 19 millimeters thick.” Furthermore, when you look at a tape measure, the hash marks for the fractions of an inch are all different sizes, so you can easily see whether you are at 1/4 or 5/16. With a metric tape measure, you have ten tiny divisions per centimeter, all at the same height. Is that .7 cm or .8? Who knows! (Of course, the greatest sin is a tape measure with both metric and customary units.)

The system of inches and feet were developed from commonly experienced physical objects, like a human thumb and a human foot. Their subdivisions were developed to measure commonly constructed objects for everyday use. This is what we deal with in props; the construction of everyday items on a human scale. A meter, on the other hand, was derived as a fraction of the Earth’s diameter. How much more sense does it make to say “this bench should be as long as three of my feet” than it is to say “this bench should be large enough so that 3,187,000 of them will fit end-to-end from one side of the planet to the other, going through the center”? Balderdash!

Metric is a centrally-designed hierarchical system which is applied to the measurement of everything conceivable, while customary units are a collection of localized systems specifically altered to the items and entities being measured. It may be funny to dig up archaic names of measurements to ask rhetorical questions like “how many hogsheads in a morgen”. In reality though, you will never need to convert the measurement of a cask of wine to the measurement for a plot of land. As an aside, archaic units are not limited to the customary system; does anyone in metric still use a stère?

It may be tricky to calculate how many inches are in a mile, but you rarely need to use that conversion in day-to-day life. Finally, despite the often touted ease of converting from nanograms to kilograms to megagrams, scientists have settled on essentially using the kilogram to measure the mass of everything, from the sun to an electron. No need to convert anything!

This is not so much a case against metric, but an appeal for hybrid systems and specificity in measurements to the task at hand. There is no harm done if I build a bench using inches and feet while biologists measure the volume of a cell in micrometers. I don’t wear the same outfit as a biologist, and a biologist doesn’t use the same tools and machines as a props artisan. That would be absurd. Neither of us have to convert the volume of a cell to the height of a chair. That would be even more absurd. Both of us using the same system of measurements? That’s the absurdest.

Tape measure

Making Fake Drinks

“As a substitute for tea, wine, whisky or brandy he serves to the actors water colored with a piece of toasted bread to suit the shade of the desired liquid and then strained. This, by the way, is not a device of modern times.

It comes from the days of Shakespeare, according to stage tradition. Sometimes ginger ale or tea is used, but these are not favored generally because they will not suit all tastes.

To one actor the ale is too pungent, to another the cider is too sour, while the third may not be able to take tea without milk, which, of course, could not be used without impairing the color of the drink. So toast-water has been accepted as the regular thing, agreeable to every palate.”

-The Morning Call, San Francisco, December 25, 1890, pg 19.

A toast to drinking! Playwrights love to make their characters drink. More popular than eating on stage, drinking on stage can be found even in plays where it is not directed by the text; a bottle of booze or well-concealed flask is a common comedic bit or a way to add layers to a character. It’s not surprising; nearly every culture through the history of civilization has had some form of fermented drink.

Many of the fake drink recipes I’ve come across over the years deal with alcoholic drinks. Very few plays feature characters drinking fruit juices. Further, drinking real beer, wine or liquor on stage is mostly a bad idea for your actor’s health and for the integrity of the show. You can find anecdotes of great stage thespians who drank real spirits while performing in a play, but these are the rare exception rather than the rule. Other drinks need stage substitutes as well. Sweet or syrupy drinks cause phlegm, which affects an actor’s vocal performance, in what some call “frog throat.” Milk or chocolate–based drinks can do the same. Coffee or tea is sometimes used if it does not need milk added, or if a milk-substitute can be found. De-caffeinated versions are preferred because most shows commence in the evening.

A number of other factors can affect your fake drink recipe. The stage lighting of the scene it plays in can alter the look of it; what looked good in the prop shop may look wrong on stage. It is often helpful to have a bottle of the real stuff on hand for comparison. Other times, the director or designer may want to veer away from complete accuracy and request a whiskey which is darker than real whiskey, or a red wine that is redder than real red wine. The recipe you come up with needs to be economical and consistent. It is no good to come up with a complicated method which either takes too much preparation time or results in every batch looking different. You must also consult with your costume department if the drinks are spilled or splashed, or if they are strongly-colored, as is the case with red wine. Some recipes stain more readily than others. Finally, pay attention to the packaging and accoutrements surrounding your liquid; drinking has a lot of accessories and rituals which, if done properly, can help sell the idea more effectively than endless experimentation with your recipe. I should also mention that if a drink starts in an opaque container and is poured into an opaque cup, you may not even need to use anything other than water.

It should go without saying that gin, vodka or any clear liquor can be imitated with plain water. If you wish to serve a gin and tonic though, a tonic water would be better than plain. A vodka and Red Bull requires just Red Bull (or a non-caffeinated/unsweetened look-alike).

I’ve never run across or used the “burnt toast” method mentioned in the quote above, but another old standby in the prop person’s bag of tricks is using cold brewed tea for various dark liquors and even some wines. I’ve seen it mentioned in texts as early as 1907. The varieties of teas available gives you an endless selection of colors and opacities, and further looks can be achieved by varying the amount of time the tea seeps or by diluting the tea afterwards. Whiskey, scotch, bourbon, sherry and others can all be made. We’ve even found “red zinger” teas which can pass for red wine on stage. Though neutral on the vocal cords, some actors dislike the taste. In some cases, this may be preferable, as it forces the actors to sip their drink in a realistic matter, rather than chugging down enough whiskey to kill a horse in a single scene.

Another old trick for these drinks is using a small amount of burnt sugar solution in water. Caramel coloring is a form of burnt sugar; you can buy it on its own or use diluted caffeine and sugar free colas which have gone flat. Some props masters have even diluted these ingredients enough to make a white wine substitute. You can also find cola concentrates for use in home soda makers, like a Sodastream, though be aware that the plain versions will still contain sugar and caffeine. A small amount is all that is necessary for a convincing whiskey, while a few drops may be all that is needed for a white wine.

Cheap and/or watered-down apple juice has found its way as a substitute for whiskeys and white wines as well. I have also heard of cranberry juice, blackcurrant juice and cherry juices used for red wine, and diluted grape juice or weak lime juice substituted for white wine. Experiment with combinations of ingredients; many a prop master has found success by mixing one of the above fruit juices with a bit of flat cola for the perfect blend of color and translucency.

Food coloring can be an economical solution, particularly when crafting fake beverages in great quantity. A bit of red and a touch of blue can appear to be red wine. One drop of green may be all that is needed for a convincing white wine. Again, success may be found by adding a touch of food coloring to one of the above recipes.

Champagne is a bit tricker, especially when the director wants to see the bubbles, or worse, when they want a bottle to open with a convincing “pop”. The mechanics of pressurizing and corking a champagne bottle are beyond the scope of this article, but in many cases, ginger ale is the closest substitute. I’ve run across some older recipes that call for using either charged water or a bicarbonate of soda with similar coloring as the white wine recipes above, but this may be adding a layer of complexity which is unnecessary.

Beer can be even trickier. Often, the only convincing substitute is a low-or-no alcohol beer if your actors are okay with that. A convincing head can be achieved with cocktail foam, such as Frothee Creamy Head. You can find recipes to make your own using egg whites (or powdered egg whites if you are squeamish about consuming raw eggs) and an acid such as lemon juice, but again, this adds to the complexity of preparation.

Milk can be tricky as well. I mentioned above that milk fat can lead to frog throat, so skim or nonfat milk can be substituted. Some actors are lactose intolerant, so a non-dairy alternative is called for. Some prop masters have used powdered non-dairy creamer in water, others have used baking soda in water, though I imagine that must taste unpleasant. Diluted milk of magnesia has been used in the past, though if too much is consumed, it can have, er, dire side effects. Unsweetened coconut or rice milk may also serve as suitable substitutes. These days, your health food store may have all sorts of convincing, albeit pricey, lactose-free milk-substitute drinks.