Ward Works builds a vacuum former and presents the whole step-by-step process with photographs. The whole thing was done for under $600, though you can save money if you have a lot of scrap around the shop.
Triad Stage’s holiday show this past year was Beautiful Star: An Appalachian Nativity. It was one of their most popular shows from before I started working there, so they decided to bring it back. It had a whole new design though, including some all new puppets. The lion puppets are the first ones I’ll show you.
Robin Vest, the scenic designer, made the drawings for the lion puppets in the photo above. They were for the Noah’s Ark scene, so we needed two. She wanted them to look like folksy papier-mâché puppet heads with floaty silk bodies. I decided to carve a head out of foam to use as a form for Wonderflex.
I used my favorite kind of foam: free. It was polystyrene foam and the pieces were fairly big, so I broke out our hot wire cutter to cut the initial shapes. I pieced it together from a few pieces since it was so big; it also made it easier to maintain symmetry.
The pieces were joined with Gorilla Glue, which works great on foam. The rest of the carving was pretty standard stuff; lots of Olfa snap blades and carving with the surformer. When it was finished, I had a form that I could use to make as many lion heads as I wanted.
Next up was the Wonderflex. If you’ve never used it, it’s a low-melting thermoplastic sheet with an embedded fabric mesh. You can heat it up with a hot air gun and it becomes flexible, but it is still cool enough to shape with your bare hands. I used it because I could quickly form a mask-like shell around the form that would retain its shape but remain light-weight. It also cools down and is ready to paint in just a few minutes, unlike papier-mâché, which can take a few days to dry.
I made the ears out of more Foamies. I still don’t know whether this is XLPE or EVA foam, but it doesn’t matter, it’s great stuff. It can be shaped with heat, too. I curved them over a PVC pipe, heated them up, and they maintained that little curl when they cooled down.
I ended up doing a single layer of papier-mâché on top of the Wonderflex to give it the right texture and to cover up some of the seams. I used butcher paper dipped in Rosco Flexbond so it would remain somewhat flexible when dry. That way, no matter how many times it got pulled in and out of its crate during the show, it would always bounce back to its proper shape.
My assistant, Lisa Bledsoe, cut and sewed the long silk bodies and made a fun mane for the male lion out of small pieces of silk. The show is coming back next holiday season if you wanted to see them in action!
Happy first day of May, everyone! I’m going into tech today, so the links will be short but sweet:
Jay Duckworth made 160 candlesticks for Hamilton, the most popular show in the world right now. Read his article in Stage Directions to find out how he did it. Hint: he used his drill press like a lathe. Okay, that’s a bit more than a hint.
Behold! The quickest tutorial on Wonderflex! Demented Cosplay has a video briefly going over the properties of Wonderflex, a plastic sheet that becomes pliable with very little heat, and hardens into place at room temperature.
The majority of my time this past autumn was spent working on puppets for Triad Stage’s production of “Snow Queen”. The play is an original retelling of the Hans Christian Anderson tale, set in the Appalachian Mountains with bluegrass music.
The animals (other than the two birds) were designed to look like they were constructed from cut and folded paper. Bill Brewer, the puppet designer, came up with the range of motions he wanted the puppets to have. Each puppet only had one puppeteer to operate it, which is tricky when the puppets are this large and manipulated by actors rather than trained puppeteers. We worked together to distill their movements down to the simplest motions so their moments on stage would be evocative and magical.
The stag had the most logistical challenges, so I began work on him first. The main challenge was that the lead actress rides him around on stage, so it needed to support her weight and remain comfortable for the operator to carry her while still working the puppet. I used a marching band snare drum harness to attach the puppet to the operator. We used these out at the Santa Fe Opera this past summer for a similar purpose, so I already knew it was the best option for comfortably distributing the weight over the operator’s body while keeping a strong and stiff connection to the puppet.
You can watch the evolution of the skeleton and mechanisms in the video below:
It took me about a month and a half to get the movement right (I was working on the other puppets at this time as well, and we produced a whole other show within that time frame as well). My goal was to have this skeleton ready for the first week of rehearsal so the actors could begin working with it and discovering what it could do.
When the puppets were not being used in rehearsal, I took them back to start adding the three-dimensional bodies. It was vital that the actors used the puppets in rehearsal; the evolution of the puppet scenes was shaped dramatically by the discoveries of how the puppets moved and reacted.
For the solid parts, I attached chunks of EPS foam and carved them into shape.
To get the “folded paper” appearance, I laid some pieces of Wonderflex over top of the foam. Wonderflex is a plastic sheet which becomes formable at a very low temperature; you can let it drape or fold it like fabric, and when it cools, it retains that shape.
For the neck, I needed a much more flexible material, and after some experimentation, found a type of fabric which matched the appearance of the rest of the stag, but would allow the puppet to retain its full range of motion.
The head itself was carved by Brewer. We played around with a few designs for antlers, and ended up making them out of several interlocking segments. The ears were cut and shaped from more Wonderflex.
By that point, we were already loading into the theater, so the long task of filling, sanding and priming was done there. After base-coating the puppets to a uniform white color, they were shaded with grey and silver paint to accentuate the flat plains and folds. Most of this was done by Howard Jones, the scenic designer on the show.
Happy Friday, everyone! For those of us in the middle of holiday shows, whether Nutcracker, Christmas Carol, Tuna Christmas, or what have you, I hope it’s going well. I have some fun things from around the internet you can read:
Propnomicon has been doing some research into early shipping crates and packaging, and has shared some of the discoveries made. It may be surprising to see that manufacturers were shipping products in corrugated cardboard boxes rather than wooden crates back in the 1920s.
A short article of note tells how 3D printing is finding a home in Hollywood. Of course, regular readers of this blog already know this, but it is still interesting to see specifically how and where prop makers are using 3D printing technology.
La Bricoleuse has an interesting post up about the parasols her students made in her decorative arts class. Now I know many props masters do not consider parasols to be a “prop”; I’m sharing it because Playmakers’ props assistant (and good friend) Joncie Sarratt has a stunning diagram of the parasol she had to create for their production of Tempest.