Asked by theatre-whovian
Hey! That’s me! :D It’s no problem! I’m 100% game for answering questions.
The frame was made out of 2x4s originally with some PVC for things like arms that bended and some support. (We had a PVC Bend-It so we were able to very easily heat and form it anyways we wanted. Here’s the frame with the base pole for the scythe:
We did not have a fake skeleton inside, we welded together and bent out a hand structure out of 1/4” pencil steel and wrapped where we wanted the joints in tape and then covered it in cheese cloth + roofing compound. Then we attached the hands to the supports for his arms. (The wings were PVC bent into space with cheesecloth + roofing compound).
We used burlap and wood glue/water mixture (basically mache) for the main body of him. We cut what we wanted for his robe, draped it to test then dunked it in the mixture and rehung it on him. We also has to burlap-mache the inside of this hood so no chicken wire was peaking out.
It didn’t really weigh much at all. It was a little awkward and pokey (dried glued burlap can be sharp) but if he wasn’t attached to the base/maybe a little shorter I’d be able to sling him over my shoulder and carry him away.
Voila! Also he was fairly weather proof, his little circle area flooded twice during his run outdoors.
Thanks so much! And lemme know if you’re curious about anything else!
Life-size Grim Reaper tutorial from Backstageleft
We are doing a little props presentation this week on prop ‘magic’ and are brainstorming some examples of neat stuff we’ve made or fun prop tricks that would appeal to a non-technical audience.
So we thought we’d ask you— what kind of props do you find particularly cool? What insider props knowledge impresses and amazes your friends? Which prop tricks and hacks are your favorite? Let us know!
DIY Crystal Chandelier (or How to Electrocute Yourself)
A recent production required us to recreate the environment of a Chinese business class hotel that included an ostentatious 6’ chandelier as its focal point. Since our other 6’ chandelier did not make the cut, the Props Department either had to buy one (for $8,000!) or make one from scratch. It was a pretty obvious choice.
M sketched out a design to work from that specified the dimensions and what kind of materials would be used. He bent and welded metal rod into the ellipses that make up the tiered dome. Rather than using circular rings, we had to adjust the shape into ovals so it could fit in our fly space between all the lights and drops. This functions as optical illusion since it still looks like a full circle from the audience’s perspective.
R took over from there, welding the rings to the center column and creating a sturdy connection point on top so it could be properly rigged. She also welded on all the lamp parts (they are called nipples, no joke) that the light fixtures attach to and started the wiring process.
Wiring our chandelier got a little more complicated than we anticipated, partly due to a short we had trouble locating, so after tripping the breaker a couple times we had to take it apart and re-wire it…twice. S jumped in to help finish the job and spray paint it gold.
Now came the fun part, adding all the crystal prisms and swag to create the bulbous shape. T and R pieced together remnants of our stock swag until the strands were long enough. We used over 350 feet of crystal swag to decorate our chandelier. Bling it on!
All we had left to do now was get it to the theatre, hang it up, and plug it in… or so we thought. The designer preferred a cooler blue light rather than the warmer white lights we had used, so we made a last-minute trip to buy blue lights and also added two extra circles of Christmas lights to emphasize the shape.
In the end, our homemade chandelier was a smashing success!
The Tale of Three Giant Tables:
For our most recent show, we had to create two 12-foot boardroom tables (one traditional and one modern) and a 16-foot bar that ‘magically’ turns into a concession stand. (Aside: I’ve come to dread the word ‘magic’ when used in relation to props… it’s usually a euphemism for ‘massive headache’, lol)
Between three props artisans and three weeks, we pounded out our ginormous masterpieces.
R took on the ‘traditional’ mahogany table that would fit right in to Donald Trump’s boardroom. Photo 2 shows the original inspiration (and for only $2500 it could be yours!). Photo 3 and 4 is the table in progress, with a gajillion different kinds of wood thrown together—2 types of plywood, 3 kinds of molding, 1x pine, lauan—and straight casters hidden in the 3 leg-columns. You may notice my table was not nearly long enough to accommodate mondo-table. I base-coated all the wood to help bring cohesion to all the various tones and textures (Photo 5) and stained it to match other mahogany parts of the set while creating a fake starburst-veneer pattern (Photo 6). We had intended for more of the original wood grain to show through (otherwise why did I hand-route those fluted columns!?) but the stain process ended up being fairly heavy-handed. Photo 1 shows the finished table in action.
T made the modern white conference table (Photo 7). Apparently square=modern. Just ask IKEA. If you look closely at the blocky legs, you’ll notice the bottom is covered in mirror plex (and of course it is hiding casters… we’re all about the hidden casters over here in proplandia).
S took on the bar-turned-concessions stand (hint: it’s double-sided!) and got to practice his faux-marbling skills (Photos 8 & 9). The backstage run crew had to figure out how to swing it 360 degrees offstage when it magically changed over… we modified a car jack to help with the heavy lifting! The inner shelves on the concessions side are removable so actors can convincingly sit behind the bar. We all had a blast filling up the shelves with a mix of real and faked Chinese products. (Paper props are the best!)
That’s our story, but we’d love to hear yours. What are some of the biggest props you’ve made?
I am currently working on a production of Lord of the Flies, and have to make at least two fake heads. I read your post on the heads that you made, and was going to do exactly that - but then I saw the cost of it! As a high school theater, that wouldn’t fit into our budget. I then thought of taking a mannequin head and covering it with the Dragon Skin product that you used, maybe by brushing it on, and then painting it to fit the actors’ faces. As someone who has worked with that product before, do you think that would work? Thank you!
Thanks for your question. We were chatting about it and came up with several possibilities. A lot of it depends on how the heads are used-durability vs fragility- and what the needs of the show are (for instance, are you throwing the heads across the stage? Or displaying them on a table?).
To answer your first question, we’ve had mediocre luck brushing on Dragon Skin to build up layers. It is really meant to be cast. I did ‘ice’ it onto bead foam to make my fake cheese wheel and that turned out ok but it was a flat surface (and I used a silicone thickener, which would be another expense). I don’t think it would work quite as well with the level of detail needed in a face, especially because it might have a tendency to thin out on the protruding parts like the nose and settle into the cracks.
To approach it in a similar way, you could just make a mold of the actor’s face (Dental alginate is a quick and dirty route, not too expensive, though you’d need a mother mold as well) and cast a couple layers of Dragon Skin into that. Then take your Dragon Skin cast and attach it to the face of a styrofoam mannequin head with a silicone-appropriate glue or more Dragon Skin.
(Side note: You can’t use normal paint on Dragon Skin, you have to use silicone pigments mixed with an appropriate base, like Psycho Paint or a thin layer of Dragon Skin itself. Also pay attention to whether you use platinum cure or tin cure silicones, as they are different and don’t play together well.)
Another option would be making a plaster mold of the actor’s face with gypsum bandages or cheesecloth dipped in plaster, and use that to cast his/her likeness. You could cast the entire head in solid plaster, which is very inexpensive and easy to work with, but the final product will be somewhat fragile and easily scratched/chipped. It would also take a lot of work to make it convincingly look like skin.
M has had luck in the past using the same plaster-mold method to cast a layer of Bondo and attach that to a mannequin head with Liquid Nails. It would still be somewhat fragile and susceptible to cracking, but sturdier than plaster.
I would NOT try to cast Dragon Skin into a plaster mold as that would likely end up as a chalky mess.
One more option would be forgoing casting the actor’s face altogether and just sculpting it. You could do that by applying a product to build up a sturdier surface on the styrofoam head, and then shaping it to achieve the look you want (Dremmels are handy for this). Some products you could try are Foam Coat, Sculpt-or-Coat, Das Prontos sculpting putty, Free Form Air (another SmoothOn product), Bondo, or even JB Weld’s various epoxy putties.
I hope that helps. If other people have suggestions that have worked for them, please feel free to add your $0.02.
The past few shows this season have called for a lot of fake food props. Here are some of our tips and tricks.
1 & 2: Severely Charred Hamburgers. I cut MDF circles, rounded the edges, painted in white glue and dipped in a texturizing agent (Pearlite). Then I painted them with black latex paint that was made to bubble up with a heat gun. (See our post on distressing furniture to look charred: http://proplandia.tumblr.com/post/45308539811/a-recent-play-we-worked-on-took-place-inside-of-a ) If you want less-burnt hamburgers, paint them accordingly.
3 & 4: Bowl of Latkes. Latkes are Jewish potato pancakes. I planed some pine boards down to get longer, stringy pieces of sawdust that are a similar color and texture to raw shredded potatoes. Then I cut out some uneven cardboard bases, spray glued either side, and dipped in the sawdust mixture. I painted them with semi-glossy brown glazes. Could have probably gone a little darker…
5 & 6: Fish Basket. If you’re trying to make an ‘ice’ effect but don’t have enough fake ice, use shiny plastic bags over grey painted foam/wood to heighten the icy glare. Aluminum foil is another common hack to help along fake ice. We bought the acrylic ice on Amazon and had some fake fish in stock.
7+: Cheese Wheel. This one was a little more complicated because the actor had to slice off a chunk of fake cheese AND a piece of real cheese to be handed out onstage. I started by cutting out some bead styrofoam with a jigsaw, then shaped it with a rasp and cut out my wedges. I embedded strong magnets in the fake wedge so it would join together with the main wheel until the actor ‘cuts it’, and embedded a fork and a few more pokies on the other side to hold the real slice. The outside was covered in foam coat for the ‘rind’ then pressed into burlap for texture, and the inside was covered in SmoothOn’s Dragon Skin, a rubbery flexible silicone that has a texture similar to cheese. Painted the whole thing with yellow/orange tones, and voila.
Our completed Dalek. All the lights work, the flashlight telescopes out, the head spins around, and the ’hands’ move when puppeted (there’s a trap door in the back for someone to climb in). Some of the materials we used: a flashlight, bike lights, plastic garden edging, security mirror, nerf balls, plastic ball pit balls, whisk, grabby claw, a bunch of large tubs, round insulation foam, mylar tape. It was supposed to be more like a cobbled together ‘bad prop’ than an exact replica.