Tag Archives: special effects

Friday Link-opolis

Hello, internet. It’s been a pretty busy couple of weeks; Crazy for You (which I am prop mastering) begins tech this weekend. It has quite a large number of elements keeping me pretty busy, so I did not have time to write a blog for this past Wednesday. But I do have some fun links I’ve come across that should fill you with proppy goodness.

Anna Warren seems to be even busier than me over at Milwaukee Rep, but she has returned to write a new blog post, and it’s a cool one. She details how she molded and cast fried chicken out of latex and foam, using real fried chicken as the model.

The flip-side of molding and casting real food to make fake food is molding an object to cast it out of an edible material. This brings up many safety concerns, as very few molding materials and mold releases are food-safe. Smooth-on has a wonderfully-illustrated tutorial for casting edible items using a food-safe silicon putty.

I have yet to catch the TV series Face Off, in which special-effects makeup artists compete in time-intensive challenges (like Project Runway for the sci-fi set), but I’ve heard good things about it. Jamie Frevale interviews Rod Maxwell, one of the contestants on the show, about his work and what it was like “performing” that work on television.

Finally, just in time for Halloween, we have this video of a CNC machine which can carve Jack-o’-lanterns:

Pure Smoke

This was making the rounds on email yesterday: The Pure Smoke system by Jason Brumbalow. Say you need a clothes iron or a tea kettle to make steam on stage, but generating that kind of heat is too dangerous for the actors. You can probably hide one of these somewhere and let it make some room-temperature theatrical fog for you.

It essentially works like an e-cigarette with a nicotine-free cartridge. The major difference is you cue the vapor with a squeezable trigger rather than an airflow sensor which is activated when you inhale on the end. The vapor is generated from propylene glycol, which is among the safer kinds of chemicals used in theatrical foggers and electronic cigarettes. 1

The website lists the system at $147, with refill smoke packs starting at around $25. It says each cartridge gives you over 80 large “puffs”, with a refill pack giving you 10 cartridges, so that’s about 3 cents per puff. The cost is a great deal cheaper than palm-sized theatrical foggers ($1850), though I’d imagine the vapor is considerably less dense and long-lasting.

It has a battery pack which takes 4 AA batteries (not included) which is connected through a long wire to a squeezable trigger mechanism. The mechanism is rigged to be strapped to a performer’s chest, though I imagine you can alter it to fit any prop you need the smoke in. A hose runs from the mechanism to the dispenser tip, which also holds the smoke cartridge. The dispenser is about 3 1/2″ long; the diameter of the base is about half an inch, and the tip is a quarter of an inch.


  1. The amount of vapor produced by the Pure Smoke in the video looks to be extremely small, but if you are interested in the possible health risks of inhaling propylene glycol, especially in the quantities produced by full-stage theatrical foggers, I urge you to check this fact sheet about propylene glycol from Monona Rossol, the leading expert on chemical hazards in the entertainment industry.

First links of 2012

I’ve been checking out the site Make it and Mend it lately. It does have a lot of “I turned this coffee can into a piggy bank”–type projects, but if you dig around, you can find some great and useful ideas for repurposed materials and doing things on the cheap. Even if you don’t find anything that will help you in work, it can help you in your life too, since props people don’t get paid nearly enough for what we do.

So, episodes of the Woodwright’s Shop are online. In fact, PBS has a lot of their shows available for viewing online, like Craft in America. You won’t find these on Netflix or Hulu.

Wide Angle/Closeup is a site featuring interviews with filmmakers. Of particular interest are the production design and special effects categories (like talking about the blood effects in the Godfather movies).

The Textile Blog has been around for some time now. It talks all about the design, history and art of textiles from around the world.

Review: Grande Illusions 1 and 2

Grande Illusions by Tom SaviniHappy Friday the Thirteenth! If you are a horror film fan, you must surely recognize the work of Tom Savini if not the name; he created the horror effects for the film, Friday the 13th. He has a book called Grande Illusions: A Learn-By-Example Guide to the Art and Technique of Special Make-Up Effects from the Films of Tom Savini. His resume of films is quite impressive for this kind of work; besides the aforementioned Friday the 13th, he has also done makeup and horror effects for Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Day of the Dead, Monkey Shines, Creepshow, and many more. In addition to influencing many horror effects artists working today, he also runs the Special Effects Make-Up and Digital Film Programs at the Douglas Education Center in Pennsylvania.

It is beyond beneficial to us in having a book written by a man who has not only practiced these techniques for years, but has also pioneered many of these effects. It is even more fortunate that he has taken so many photographs and detailed notes of his process and working methods over the years that he can share with us. It would be like discovering a diary written by Shakespeare in which he discussed how he wrote his plays and how the productions evolved into what we know them as today.

In addition to the descriptions of his work on specific films, he has a number of step-by-step tutorials scattered throughout. Casting a head, casting teeth and fangs, working with foam latex and dealing with undercuts are some of the techniques Savini describes in this book.

What is great about these books is not only that Savini presents the materials and methods he uses, but he goes through so many examples in which he has used them. Rather than being repetitive, he shows how a repertoire of skills can be used and adapted for problems which seem similar at the outset but actually present new and unique challenges. A props artisan is always learning something new, even in fields they’ve already mastered.

Grande Illusions 2 by Tom SaviniIn the same vein, Grande Illusions: Book II presents another batch of films which Savini has worked on. This book also features tutorials on creating a breakdown of makeup appliances from a sculpted head, punching hair, and making a case mold from a bust. Though either book is good on its own, together they present a fairly complete picture of Tom Savini’s work and the techniques he uses to achieve it.

This book does contain copious photographs of movie gore and injury, so if the sight of severed heads and impaled bodies, even fake ones, are not your cup of tea, steer clear. It’s also a good idea to screen it first before presenting it to younger makers (though I should add that unsupervised usage of the materials and techniques presented is far more dangerous than the possible psychological damage in seeing these images).

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.