Tag Archives: techniques

On sharing and secret knowledge

We do not invent things whole cloth out of the depths of our brains. Every idea we have is formed by making connections with all the experiences we have absorbed. Every book we read, play we watch, conversation we have, event we witness, song we hear – all of this fills our head and swirls around, sometimes for years, before getting regurgitated as a new flash of inspiration. We are seldom cognizant of how this works. The bizarre surreality of our dreams are a testament to that. But even dreams are simply what we already know, broken into tiny pieces and stitched back together in the most arbitrary fashion.

This is how our knowledge is built. Nothing springs forth from inside us. Rather, the knowledge already exists outside of us. It is our ability to use this knowledge and make new connections and discoveries with it that makes us useful. Some may argue it is the knowledge itself that keeps us employed. It’s true that some who jeaulously guard their tricks and formulas, methods and materials can keep a small monopoly on their services. But as the majority of knowledge can be discovered from other sources, the usefulness of these people disappears once someone with the same knowledge comes along. This is not to say knowledge is not important. Obviously, a prop maker needs a large base of knowledge. They take the time to learn all that is needed for their craft and seek out information which others may not care to discover. But that is merely the first step; what makes a successful prop maker is how they use that knowledge, how they experiment and integrate the various nuggets of information they hold to form new discoveries and inventions.

We should not think of our brains as fortresses, jealously guarding our secrets until the day a coworker spills them all and renders us useless. Rather, we should think of the sum of human knowledge as something we can all draw from and contribute to.

Consider this. You find a map which leads to a treasure. It takes you ten years to reach the point marked on it. Once there, you discover another map. You can keep this information to yourself; while you follow the path on the second map, anyone who wants to undertake the same quest must first take ten years following the first map just to reach the same point you have already reached. If you had revealed the second map at the beginning, that person could have spent those same ten years helping you follow the second path, perhaps even finding a shorter route than you would have found on your own.

Some may argue that it is more important to seek knowledge on your own than have it handed to you. This is of course true; the ability to seek and understand is great indeed. What matters less is what knowledge we are seeking. The information we start with is often taken for granted. The truths we take for granted were hard won before our time. We have the benefit of accessing all the discoveries acquired before our birth. Should not the next generation have that same benefit, even if it includes our own discoveries? Discoveries which we may have spent most of our lives on? Should we spend our most passionate and fruitful years learning which plants are poison and which are edible? Or should we spend them inventing delightful recipes to make with them? And should our children reinvent the same recipes, or spend the time creating cheaper and healthier versions of these recipes? The virtue comes not from discovering the same knowledge that our forefathers discovered, but rather from discovering any knowledge at all. We should never egotistically assume we have learned all there is to learn about our craft. Rather, by arming the next generation with our discoveries, we allow them to spend their passionate and fruitful years making new discoveries. More often than not, we work long enough that we can still benefit in our own lives with some of their discoveries.

When something has already been figured out, isn’t it inefficient to spend more of our limited time on earth figuring it out again? There is so much more that needs to be figured out on this world, and desperately so.

On Making Things

One of the first objects I can recall making out of wood was a letter “E” that you hang on the wall. I was about 11 or 12, and it was one of my projects in junior high shop class. I traced the shape onto a piece of pine, and cut it out on the bandsaw. My shop teacher remarked on how neatly and precisely I followed the pencil line on the saw. I should have known than that carpentry would be an integral part of my vocation. I nailed a hanging bracket on the back so it could be placed on a wall, and finished it off by coating the whole thing in epoxy (with some assistance from the teacher).

I distinctly remember the feeling of pride and astonishment I felt after the “E” was finished. Here was an item you can buy in a store, but I had made it. It was like I had unlocked a small part of the great mystery of where objects come from.

That feeling followed me as I learned new techniques and worked with new materials. Every time I was introduced to a new tool in carpentry, it was as though I was delving deeper into the mysteries of furniture. It was as if I could look at a table or chair and it would wink back at me as if to say, “you know how I was made”. When I began to learn how to work with metal and weld, it was as if a whole floodgate of knowledge was opened to me as well. Objects fell apart before my eyes into their component parts and the techniques it took to put them together.

Every new skill or technique I pick up adds to my arsenal of making things. Every project is an opportunity to apply or try out a myriad of processes and materials. Making things isn’t just a way to create objects with custom properties and parameters; it’s a way for me to be in control of objects, rather than objects being in control of me.

Monday Link Busters

Here are some sites and other things I’ve run across lately.

  • Curbly looks like it has a lot to offer, such as this article on how to antique paper.
  • Sugru shows some promise as a useful material for props. It looks like it’s similar to epoxy putty, in that it can be used as both a filler and an adhesive. The difference is that Sugru air-cures, rather than having a separate hardener, and it remains flexible, so it can be used on items like textiles. If only I could get my hands on a sample for testing…
  • Amateur woodworker has a quick rundown on distressing wood. They add some neat tricks to the repertoire of techniques, such as adding cup rings.
  • Finally, the costume design blog has a post about putting together a design portfolio. Though aimed toward costume designers (obviously), it is still very applicable to the props artisan.

Monday Link-O-Rama

I didn’t do a Friday link-o-rama, so here’s one for Monday. Hopefully I will be back to writing more better articles once we get out of tech for Bacchae.

  • Flower Power – The McCarter Theatre has to clean the uncleanable. Read about their solution.
  • Theatre on a Shoestring – A number of how-to articles on prop making, such as fake cigars, hefty chain, and sugar glass.
  • Model-Making Techniques – David Neat discusses tips and techniques for making scene design models. A lot of this info is also great for prop making.
  • Master of the Movie Prop – An interview with Kevin Hughes, the prop master for films such as Borat, Freddy Got Fingered and Boogie Nights.