Monday, November 30, 2009

Magical light-up book

For the Ghost of Christmas Past, we needed a magical book, where she could read the events of Scrooge's life. The idea was that it would light up and "glow".

The very first part of the idea was that the center pages of the book would be velum so that the light could shine through them. There were four pages total. Two of the pages were permanently attached as covers for the "light box." The other two were glued in just at the spine so that the ghost could turn the pages.

 I made the pages of the book out of craft store foam sheets which I cut the centers out of and then loosely attached to each other. One of the biggest problems with making a hollow book is that the pages will either lie flat when the book is open or lie flat when the book is closed, but not both. for this book it was much more important for the book to look nice open, but I still split the difference a bit and glued the pages with the book not quite fully open.

The cover of the book is lauan and the spine is made of gaff tape. I glued the outside page on each side of the book to the lauan cover. The tape wrapped from one side to the other to hold the front and back covers together and create a soft flexible binding.

You can see some of the tape through the fabric cover in this picture, if I were to do it again I would either use a thicker fabric or cover the entire book with a uniform layer of tape so it wouldn't be as visible.

The gold fabric was attached with spray adhesive, wrapped around the edges of the book and the edges attached down with a thin strip of tape. The gold detailing was done with puff paint.

The wiring on the inside was all done with supplies you can find at Radioshack. The circuits on both sides were run in series, two batteries and two light sockets. Both circuits were run through the same switch which I then set on the outside of the spine. It was hidden when the book was in the actor's hands and easy for her to switch.

Be careful that you get a wattage of bulb that your batteries can support. I spent a long time looking for a short in my circuit before discovering that the bulbs were just too high a wattage and were draining the batteries.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Some fun fake food

I love prop food. It is by far my favorite prop to work on.
I had quite a bit of prop food in Christmas Carol and thought I would share some of the fun.

This Christmas pudding is made of great stuff which I carved and sanded down to a smooth half sphere. I painted it brown (it's not visible in this picture but I used three different colors to bring out the texture) and then poured a thick mix of plaster of paris over it to make the hard sauce. A sprig of holly on top and we have an English tradition.

I found these hollow plastic potatoes in stock. cut them into eighths and filled each section with a squirt of great stuff. After the great stuff was expanded and cured I cut off the excess. I knew I wanted to spray paint them so I coated the foam with Elmer's white glue to seal it (in case you haven't yet experienced it, spray paint eats into any foam if it isn't sealed with something).
Both the turkey and the potatoes were painted with Design Master, Glossy Wood Tone spray paint. You can buy it at most craft stores (except in Chicago city limits where you can't buy spray paint anywhere). It is the easiest and best way to "cook" any fake food. It gives the perfect shine and color to make food look perfectly roasted.

These Green Beans are just dowel rods cut up and painted green, the carrots are bigger dowel rods, sliced thinner and painted orange. To make them more realistic I used a chisel to cut the edges so they weren't perfectly circular slices and added a touch of a lighter orange in the center of each slice. After arranging it on the plate I squirted Elmer's white glue over it, it ran down between the dowel rods and held everything in place as it dried.
First, I didn't make the turkey slices (wish I had but they are rubber and the theatre had them in stock). The other item on the plate though is one of my favorite tricks. I tore some old yellowed upholstery foam into small pieces (about 3/4" round), cut up an extra leaf from a silk flower, and drizzled hot glue over the entire thing. I wish I could tell you exactly what it is supposed to be, but I really can't. In a large dish it looks like a casserole, on a plate like this it sometimes looks like a pasta dish, sometimes a potato dish but it always looks like food. It's my favorite fall-back solution when I have to fill a table with food.

As a small side note, you may have seen the croissant in the backround of the last photo. I did not make it, if you've never checked out the fake food selection at Hobby Lobby you should. They have fake bread for incredibly reasonable prices, as well as decent looking cheeses and some fantastic looking fruits.

Blog Update

I just wanted to give everyone reading un update as I start to really get into the groove of writing this blog. First, I think that I'm going to be able to maintain a more regular schedule so, at least until the end of the year, look for a new post every 5 days. Second, with all of the Christmas shows already open and not much else going on, there isn't a lot of work in chicago right now. The next few weeks are probably going to be heavy on the thoughts on theatre and my process entries and rather light on the specific prop descriptions.  But not to worry, things get going full swing again in January and there will be some very exciting projects to tell you about.
Hope you enjoy reading and Happy holidays!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Turkey Adventures Part 2

 When I found myself needing to make another turkey a few years later I decided take my lessons from turkey number one, skip the latex and plaster mold and just start with a lump of great-stuff to carve. (as a disclaimer, the majority of the work for turkey #2 was done by a very talented props master named Maiko)
I figured that a more sold base would save a lot of great-stuff, so I used a milk gallon as the base and emptied a can of great-stuff around it. It was far too big.
My original reaction to this was "no big deal, we just have to do a little bit more carving." The problem with this logic is that the inside of the chunk of great stuff was a much softer more porous foam, so it carved decently, but it didn't take the bondo very well and it very much didn't take the sanding of the bondo well. It ended up being much more fragile then we would have liked and developed cracks over the course of the show. When we reused it the next season we almost completely redid the bondo shell and it still didn't hold up for a whole run very well. (Sorry, no pictures of turkey #2)

So for Turkey #3 I decided that I would go with carving, but start with a stronger foam, so I bought pink insulation foam, broke it into chunks, stacked it and attached it together with contact cement.

Big mistake at this step. If you are looking at the cans of contact cement in the hardware store there is one with a red label and one with a green label, if you read the labels it appears that the only difference between the two is that the green label is rated as flame retardant, both seem to be safe on foam. THIS IS NOT TRUE. Spend the extra couple of dollars for the green label, the red contact cement ate into the foam and caused me lots of problems.

After carving, using lots of pictures of every angle of a turkey, I started to coat him. I really liked the texture that the latex and cheesecloth skin gave turkey #1 before I had to abandon it, so I used it again here. The skin had the added benefit of covering the gaps left by my disintegrated foam. It turned out decently.

Lessons for when I do turkey #4-
Use the correct contact cement- I never really was able to cover up the seams created by the gaps in the foam.
Think about the shape of the turkey when gluing together the pieces of foam (for example, having wider pieces already set where the legs need to go would have saved me a lot of carving)
Not something I can change, but cooked turkey color is a lot easier to do than raw turkey (which is what this one had to be). I would much rather do a cooked turkey.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Shopping and other creative aquiring

When I am describing my job to people who don't know much about theatre, I find one of the hardest skills to explain is the intangible skill of "acquiring". I have encountered many people who look at this skill like an in born talent, ether you've got it or you don't, but I believe that like any skill it is just a matter of experience, practice and determination.
As a props master you have to have guts. You have to be willing to look rediculous, to hear "no" time after time and keep asking. You learn the stores and get to know the managers, you start to learn the tricks for buying on ebay and you develop a system for finding things on Craigslist.
Without a really logical way to organize this, here's a random list of advice and tricks for shopping and aquiring things:
  • Always smile and say thank you. It's simple advice, but it is easy to forget when you've been shopping all day and dealing with traffic and long lines and not finding what you've been looking for.
  • Ask for help. Especially if you've got a strange project or looking for something unusual it's wonderful to have the extra opinions and ideas of someone who knows the store and it's stock. I especially find that the guys at big box hardware stores enjoy the change of pace when you come up to them and say "I have no idea what I'm looking for, but this is what I need to do, do you have any ideas?" 
  • Remember program advertisement and comp tickets are tools at your disposal. See if you can arrange a trade. While with a small summer stock the local lumber yard gave us $300 worth of lumber in exchange for a program advertisement. I had a local furniture store loan a bed frame and nightstand for the run of the show while I provided lobby signs letting people know where the furniture could be purchased and encouraging patrons to support local businesses that support the arts. 
  • Ask for a discount. At thrift stores especially I find I can bargain by being totally honest. "I am interested in this large dining room table, but I only need it for two months and after that I have no place to store it and will donate it back to you, is there any way you could give me a discount?"
  • Make friends with the thrift store and antique store workers. Even when you don't find what you need make sure you say hi. At a large antique mall in a small town I was working in, the workers would have a scavenger hunt with me whenever I came in, because they got to know me one of the workers ended up inviting me to browse his personal warehouse storage unit for things I needed that weren't currently in his antique mall booth.
  • Write down contact info. If I am out and I pass an interesting store (the tiny magic shop on the side street or the canvas and drop-cloth dealers on the route out to the theatre on the other side of town) I write down the information (store hours, phone number, who to ask for) on a post it note and stick it in a file for when I need it (because the really good corner stores are also the least likely to have a website or be searchable on Google).
  • Never burn a bridge. You never know when you are going to need to contact that person you worked with three years ago because you remember their brother owned an antique accordion that is exactly what you need for this show or you want to know how they built that douser out of an old cd-rom drive. Theatre people get it and I find they are often happy to help no matter how long it has been since you've spoken.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My Process- part 3

The third part of the "my process" series takes place after the budget is made and before the first rehearsal. 

At this point I have a list, a good base conversation with director and an idea on how I plan to use my budget. After that the process can vary significantly depending on the type of show, but I'm going to try my best to give a general outline.

My next step is to go down my list and divide it up into pull, buy and build. To keep things easily accessible I will redo these lists separately so I can focus on the one I need at the time (taking the buy list out shopping or the pull list to props storage)

The pull list gets done first so I can be absolutely sure that I don't waste money and time on something the theatre already has in stock. As I am pulling, everything gets set together in a place where I can keep track of and organize it. While I am going through stock this first time I make sure to take as much as possible that might be useful. This includes pulling multiple options for things I have in stock and pulling rehearsal props for things I plan on acquiring later (even those I expect to have final props for long before they are needed). I take pictures of all the props I am hoping to use and email them to the relevant people.

Throughout the process I find that my camera is my best friend. I take pictures of everything and send them on to designers and directors. I don't think there is any reason not to embrace all of the technology available to you. Before working as a props master I saw no need for cell phone cameras, but now I use mine all the time. I can find a piece of furniture at a thrift store, take a picture, send it off to the set designer, and get a yes or no answer before I leave the store. In short, get a camera or camera phone and use it. It is worth the investment.

Next I start to tackle the buy list. I place ads for anything I think I might be able to get through freecycle or craigslist, then I take my shopping list and use it to make a preliminary list of stores that I need to visit. I find it incredibly important to take the full list into every single store and re-read it before leaving to make sure I have checked for everything that I might be able to find there. It is so easy for me to get hung up looking for one or two major things, and completely forget to pick up something little, which means I'll have to take another trip out shopping later.

The build list is the most variable by show, so it's hard to describe the step-by-step. I think the most important thing here is to keep your to-do list up to date and to continually consult it.When I am working in the theatre (or shop) I tend to have several projects in the air at the same time. An up to date to-do list allows me to find another task that can be completed while I am waiting for the paint or glue to dry on something. I will usually make my to-do list either at the beginning or end of the day at a point when I can sit and think through the whole picture. Taking the extra time to focus on the list, and making it as complete and detailed as possible, pays off later when I have a number of projects in the air and I can just trust my focused list and not have to stop and think through the steps again.

It is always my goal to have all the final props there by the first rehearsal, this never happens. There will be props you are making that take longer and things that have to wait until needs are decided in rehearsals, but the goal is always there and is a good one to strive for. At the very least you must have something there to represent every prop even if the rehearsal prop is nothing like what the final will be, having something the approximate size and weight to pick up in rehearsal is incredibly important for the actors in rehearsal.

Also going into the first rehearsal it is important to label everything with the item, scene and character who uses it. I find that the better props are labeled, the more likely actors are going to feel comfortable picking them up and using them earlier in the process, the more likely they will get used to them and comfortable with them, the less likely they are to want them to be changed.

So to recap, the most important parts of this part of the process are- 1. Take pictures of everything. 2. Take the time to keep a current and thorough list, 3. Trust your list, 4. Have at least a rehearsal prop for everything at the first rehearsal  5. Label everything.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Lots of Food Props!

I received this as a comment on one of my previous posts, and my response got so long I decided to make it it's own post.

"Hey, Jesse. I am currently directing a production that calls for a lot of drinking and eating. I am trying to figure out how to make a cake that gets frosted on stage every night and has but one bite taken out of it, beans thrown at the set (the designer is having a fit), edible stuffed mushrooms and scotch, wine and whiskey being consumed in mass quantities. Also, would ice made from melted glass beads pose any health threats to the actors? Please help!"

First off, consumables are just expensive.  For a short run (like a 3 performance high school show) it's no big deal, but for a longer running show the multiplication can get ridiculous and it's important to budget out these props early because they can come back to bite you.

First the cake: I would build a cake out of insulation foam (otherwise known as "pink foam" sold in most hardware stores), paint it to be the right color for your unfrosted cake, and seal it really well (try rosco foam-coat). When you are carving your cake shape, carve out an empty space where you can set in a small piece of cheap store bought cake every night. Because it's being eaten, you're really going to have to use real frosting, but you should be able to make it cheaply using a very basic recipe (powdered sugar, butter and milk). If you seal the cake well though, someone should be able to wash the icing off the foam every night pretty easily, reset a new piece of real cake in the hole, and be ready to go for the next performance.

For the beans, I am assuming that you're talking about some sort of pork and beans style dish (the brown saucy messy kind). I would stay away from real beans as much as possible, and my thought is to go with sponge. Cut lots of bean shapes out of sponge and then place them in a bowl of water colored with food dye. They should make a nice squish and splash when they hit the wall, but without making too much of a mess. You set designer should be sure to seal the paint on that wall really well though as it will probably need to be wiped down every night.

The stuffed mushrooms are tricky. I'm a little stuck on the mushroom base, if it's bigger I would look into using canned pear halves and cutting off the top part, otherwise maybe some sort of bread (half a roll? a muffin top?). The filling really depends on the base. If you use the bread you have lots of savory options (stovetop stuffing, scrambled eggs and dye, mashed potatoes and dye...) if you use the pear maybe try chopping up the cut off from the pear and mixing in some food dye, different jams or chutney).

For Scotch and whiskey either substitute tea or food dye (use mostly yellow with a touch of green). For white wine try white grape juice, for red wine, red grape juice or cranberry. I've also had some luck with Crystal Light powdered drink mixes.

I don't think that your glass bead ice cubes should be a problem in terms of safety. I've also made them by melting down clear plastic pony beads (made for kids projects so maybe even more safe in terms of chemicals). Check out this article on flickr for a great step-by-step.

Always with consumable food make sure you check with actors to make sure there are no food allergies involved, and make sure that you have arranged where you are going to safely store and prepare the food (there is nothing worse then finding out that someone ate your food prop for lunch).

I'm sure everyone has their own tips, tricks and favorite products to use for edible food props, so please feel free to leave a comment to share them.