Saturday, March 28, 2015

Prop Designs

Old Buoso in the half tester bed

Sometimes things we need on stage just don't exist.  Sometimes they are too expensive to buy, Sometimes things have to be built.  For that there needs to be a design.  Typically, for bigger things the scene designer designs the prop or furniture piece and either the scene shop or prop shop builds it.  For smaller things, sometimes the scene designer gives photo reference and leaves the actual design up to the prop master.

Here are a few of my designs for furniture or other props

Half Tester Bed--Gianni Schicci
For our production of Gianni Schicci, we decided to set it in the 1950's in a mob home.  Old Buoso is dead at the top of the show and we decided to have the entire opera take place in Old Buoso's bedroom.  So we needed a particularly cool bed.  The director wanted a half tester bed so we could hide Gianni Schicci when he's dressed as Old Buoso.

I designed a queen size half tester bed with curtains for the show.  First I did period research on what half tester beds look like.  I decided how big it needed to be to fit in with everything else on stage.  I had to figure how to get it off stage in a ten minute intermission because we did two chamber operas on the same night, the other one was Dido and Aeneas.  As I was preparing to design the bed, I looked in our inventory and found a whole bunch of old porch posts.  I'm sure we'd had them for many years before I arrived.  I decided to design the whole bed around those.

Here are the drawings of the bed, followed by a photo or two.

Side view of the half tester bed

Top view and front elevation of the half tester

Plan view of bed

Details of headboard and footboard

The half tester bed

The Podium--Doubt
We did the play, Doubt in the Black Box Theatre.  The play was done in a modified round and we needed a podium that looked stately but still was portable enough to be moved on and off stage.  Once again I turned to our supply of porch posts.  Also in our inventory we happened to have some resin corbels and some gallery rail finials.  Some props have a life beyond their original purpose.  We have used the podium in several plays since the original.

Here is the drawing of the podium followed by photos

Drawing of the podium

The podium as used in the play, Doubt

As used in the play Bielzy and Gottfried

The Prie Dieu--Lamp at Midnight
For Lamp at Midnight we needed a prie dieu for the Pope to pray at in her personal chambers.  I did some period research and discovered many different kinds of prayer stands.  I chose one that was kind of rococo looking,  I realize it was a little out of phase historically, but it was portable and had to be schlepped on and off rapidly.  I had a few bad 1970's plastic wall shelves that I had picked up at a thrift store a few years ago, so I decided we would Frankenstein them together to create something that would work for a renaissance era Pope.

After it was built, it was painted and I upholstered it with red velour and gold bullion fringe.  When that was done, it just didn't look finished so I took some sewing gimp and twisted it around the center post, reminiscent of the twisted columns at St. Peter's Basilica.  After that, I coated the trim with mastic and painted it to match the rest of the piece.

Plans for the prie dieu

The prie dieu in Lamp at Midnight

As a scene designer who has also been a properties master, designing props is gratifying.  Designing props that are used over and over in show after show is especially gratifying.  I love taking things that exist already and making them over into something they weren't meant for.  Prop people see things not for what they are but for what they can become.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Art Nouveau Compact--Tutorial

Modern makeup compact

As a prop master, I've had to come up with vintage makeup packages and applicators from time to time.  Sometimes I'm fortunate to find vintage pieces, but there are times when they need to be created.

My wife had a used Covergirl compact for face powder and I asked her for it when it was used up.  I had an idea for making an Art Nouveau compact that would be stage worthy.

Step #1:  Research
I did a quick google search for Art Nouveau compacts and came up with a couple of images I liked.  One was a dragon fly with a blue background, the other was a cast silver piece with bas relief.  I decided to Frankenstein the two of them together.

Image research

Step #2:  The Colored Background
I chose a scrap piece of red velvet for the background color for this piece.  First I turned the velvet over and with a sharpie pen drew the outline on the backside.  Then I cut the circle out, but made sure I cut it a little smaller than actual.  I don't know if this was good, bad or indifferent, it made sense to me to do it that way.

When it was cut, I took it to the fume hood in the shop and coated the top of the compact and the backside of the velvet circle with Super 77 Spray Adhesive.  I double coated the velvet.  I gave two coats to the velvet because fabric is absorbent and I wished to seal the fibers.  The second coating was for adhering.

I can't say enough about having proper ventilation when using solvent based adhesives or other chemicals.  If you are fortunate enough to have access to a fume hood, use it.  

I waited for a few minutes to let the spray adhesive get tacky and then I put them together, hoping to create a permanent bond.  I was successful.

The parts

Tracing the outline


Cutting the circle

Circle of velvet

The fume hood.

3M Super 77 Spray Adhesive

My Dad always said it was a fool who stated the obvious...

Coated with spray adhesive

Attached with a permanent bond

Step #3:  Prepping
I noticed at this point that there was a paper sticker on the back of the compact that would need to be removed.  I turned to the always handy, Goo Gone for that

One thing I hadn't accounted for is the fact that velvet is a little stretchy and as I applied it to the top of the compact it became a little misshapen.  I used an exact-o knife to trim the edges back to where I thought they ought to be.

Once the edges were cleaned up, I transferred the image to the velvet with a sharpie pen.

An important ingredient in any prop master's kit, Goo Gone

Label gone.  Amazing!

Cleaning up the edges

Transferring the image freehand

The image

Step #4:  Hot Glue
Hot glue fell out of favor among prop artisans and costume craftspeople in the nineties.  I think it's been having a slow rebirth in the prop field.

I like to use hot glue as a sculpting medium when making certain props.  It's a great way to get something 3D in a hurry.  I used two sizes of hot glue guns when doing this project.  A large one and a small one.

Hot glue works best for distance work.  If this were something I had to put on film or very close up I would use a different medium.  However, at a distance it works quite well.  At a distance broad brush strokes show up better than fine detail.  Close up work demands the fine detail.  Fifteen feet away, though this piece becomes stage worthy.

With the line work drawn in, the hot glue step becomes more of a paint by numbers proposition.  Fill in the black parts.

Hot glue is notorious for leaving behind little spiderwebby strands.  It's important to wait for the hot glue to completely cool before removing them.  I used a toad sticker to get the leftovers off of the piece.

Large hot glue gun for the broad strokes

Smaller glue gun for the smaller detail


The toad sticker

Step #5:  Gold Leaf
This step can be done with any color metal leaf.  I had originally intended to use silver leaf but discovered I didn't have any on hand.  Since this was a prototype prop, I went with what I had.

I started on the bottom of the compact and gold leafed that, then I moved to the sides.  Once they were done I moved to the hot glue on top.

The first step of gold leafing is to apply the metal leaf size.  Basically it's an adhesive.  I have gold leafed with spray adhesive before, when I was in a hurry.  It works okay, but I think the effect looks better when a brush on size is applied.

The size goes on with a milky color.  When it dries to the touch and the milky quality has turned clear, it's time to apply the metal leaf.  It's imperative to keep your hands free from the adhesive when you are applying metal leaf.  If you don't, it sticks to you and causes messes and problems.  Keep your hands clean.

Lay the sheet of metal leaf on the size very gently, then press it straight down into the size.  Once you are certain you have a good bond, then you can get a stiff paintbrush and burnish the metal leaf.  This does two things, first it completes the glue bond and second it gives the metal leaf a luster.

Once the metal leafing is finished, inspect the piece to make sure there aren't any spots where the metal leaf missed.  Cover any missed spots by repeating the process.  When you are satisfied with the metal leafing, the final step is to seal the metal leaf.  The company that makes the size also makes a sealer.  It's important to seal the metal leaf, especially if you are using imitation leaf.  The metal leaf will dull over time and oxidize to something really ugly.  I've had a little experience with that actually.

Metal leaf size

Gold leaf package

After the size has turned clear, apply the metal leaf gently to the surface, then press straight down into it.


Applying the size to the sides

Metal leaf applied, ready for burnishing

Applying the size to the hot glue

Metal leaf applied to the hot glue


The finished piece

So, this was a prototype, and I think it is definitely stage worthy.  This is project I will attempt again.  I think next time I'll take greater care with the hot glue and maybe choose a pattern that isn't so specific.  This was an enjoyable project for me.  I hope the readers enjoy it.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

How to Hack a Bigmouth Billy Bass--Tutorial

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The Genesis of This Project
Several years ago I attended a lecture by the Prop Master at the San Diego Opera.  He was talking about some of the odd places he had picked up props.  For one show they did, there was a market place with a fishmonger.  He looked around for good prop fish, and there weren't a lot of them in those days, and remembered the greatest piece of Hillbilly Kitsch, the Bigmouth Billy Bass.

He remembered that when you go to the store, you push the buttons on the bass and it would sing, except sometimes it wouldn't.  Who knows why, the battery may be dead, short circuit, faulty workmanship, whatever.  He wrote to the company and told them who he was and what he did for a living and where, then he inquired as to what they do with the Bigmouth Billy Bass's that get returned for some reason or another.  He didn't hear back from the company and kind of forgot about it.  A few weeks later, a semi-truck backed into the loading dock of the San Diego Opera and offloaded several pallets of rejected Bigmouth Billy Bass's.

I made the quip in the Q&A, "So when we need a Bigmouth Billy Bass, we should write to you."  After the session was over, he walked over to me and handed me my very own Bigmouth Billy Bass.

During his presentation, however, he mentioned that they could be hacked.  He didn't say how, just that they could.

Challenge accepted.

I have a buddy in the Physics Department on campus that I consult with when I have science questions.  I tell my technical theatre students all the time, "You thought this was a class on technical theatre.  You were wrong, it's Physics."  Technical theatre is all Physics based.  I thought, when I took my beginning Physics class in college, "Well that was cool, those were cool tricks, but when would you use something like that?"  Then I became a theatre technician and I understood.

Together, David (my Physics buddy) and I dissected the Bigmouth Billy Bass and created a hack for it.  It's really quite simple actually.

Step I:  Acquiring Bigmouth Billy Bass
I don't know if Bigmouth Billy Bass is still being manufactured or not, but I see them in thrift stores frequently.  I also have picked up a Travis the Trout, a Frankie the Fish (Frankie the Fish was a gift) and a Larry the Lobster who also sing.  There are singing Deer mounts and I found a singing moose one time.  I think they are all made by the same company and the electronics are very similar inside all of them.

Bigmouth Billy Bass ends up at thrift stores for a couple of reasons.  One:  They stop working.  Two;  They are kind of tacky and people get them as gifts and send them away.  Personally, I think if you pay more than about four bucks on a Bigmouth Billy Bass at a thrift store you're being cheated.  Most of the time, when they stop working, it's a battery issue.  Either the batteries have run out of power or they have failed and leaked corrosion into the battery case.  Bigmouth Billy Bass runs on four C batteries.

Step II:  Demolition
The first step on this hack is to remove the fish from the plastic mount.  On the back of the piece are six small phillips head screws.  When they are removed the back comes off and reveals the insides of the piece.

There is a small printed circuit board that is attached with phillips head screws.  It needs to be removed.  There is a mounting bracket that attaches the fish to the plastic with screws and they need to be removed as well.  There is a small speaker and two switches that also need to be detached by removing screws.  The first switch is a slide switch.  That one arms the circuit.  The second switch is a momentary push button switch.  That fires the circuit.

In addition, there is a motion or light sensor, a battery mount and a DC power attachment that are all soldered in place.  Those are disassembled by cutting the wires.  At this point, I like to cut the wires as far away from the printed circuit board as I can.  Only cut the wires to the motion sensor, the DC converter and the battery housing.  Cutting other wires will come later.  I'd like to say that the wires are all color coded but I've dug into several Bigmouth Billy Bass's and the only wires that seem to have consistent color coding are the power supply wires, universally red and black.

Because of the lack of universality of the wiring, it's a good idea to keep track of what color of wire goes to what apparatus.  When we did this yesterday, we wrote it on the board.  I sometimes will take masking tape and write on it and then put that on the wires as I clip them.

1.  Clip the wires as far away from the PC board as possible.
2.  Keep track of what the wires go to.

Removing the six screws on the back.  Notice the thrift store tag.  I think I paid two bucks for this one.

Lifting the back off.  Note the wires still attached

Removing the speaker

Note the arming switch in the foreground which was detached by removing two screws

Detaching the PC board

Clipping the power supply wires

Removing the mounting bracket

Finally, once the screws have all been removed and the power supply, DC adapter and motion switch wires have been cut, it's time to break the mount.  I use tin snips.  It is always a good idea to use eye protection when doing this step as the plastic is brittle and has a tendency to fly about a bit.  I only cut as much as I need to.  I don't want to carelessly snip a wire at this point.  I cut from one edge of the mount to the center square hole and then twist the plastic to release the fish.

Cutting the plastic housing with tin snips

Releasing the fish with brute force

The fish is now free

Step III:  Wiring the Power Supply
Bigmouth Billy Bass is notoriously wiggly.  He moves in ways that real fish don't, so part of this hack involves making him less animated.  We want Bigmouth Billy Bass to flop a bit and then gasp for breath.  We don't want him to move like a singing fish.  The regular Bigmouth Billy Bass runs on four C size batteries.  C and D cell batteries have the same voltage.  My Physics buddy and I experimented with reducing amperage and discovered you can run Bigmouth Billy Bass on two C or D batteries.  He doesn't flop wildly anymore, rather he looks kind of like a fish out of water.  Like he's supposed to.

Bigmouth Billy Bass has three servomotors, one for the tail, on for the body and the third for the mouth.  I think it's important to identify which wires drive which servos, particularly if you wish to eliminate one of them, such as the tail.  I think if you were making a basket of dying fish and wanted some movement, I'd have some fish that all they did was gasp.  Other fish would bend and gasp while some of the others would do all three movements.  I like variety.  It's very easy to fix the movement, all you have to do is clip the wires.  Movement gone.  I'd always leave long enough leads so you can come back and reattach them at a later date, however.

The first step of the wiring process is attaching the power source.  I like the battery holders from Radio Shack.  I use either the four cell or the two cell battery holders.  When I use the four cell, I sometimes will wire around the last cell so I hack it to make it a three cell holder.  Gives me variety in movement.

Join the red wire to the red wire and the black wire to the black wire.  Add solder.  Done.  I twist my wires together, then place the tip of the soldering iron on the bottom of the wire joint.  When it has sufficiently heated, I add solder to the top and let it flow through the wire joint.  When it cools, I bend it flat and add a covering of electricians tape.

Identifying which wires attach to which servos

Radio Shack battery holder

Stripping the ends of the wire leads

Twisting the wires together

Heating the black wires with the soldering iron

Add the solder.  When it flows it's done.  I draw the iron along the solder joint when I detach to make sure I don't take the solder with me.

Soldering the red wires

The solder joint

Step IV:  Wiring the Switch
The first step in wiring the switch is to identify which wires on the PC board were attached to the original push button switch.  In this case, it was the yellow wires.  I like small momentary switches from Radio Shack.  They work well.  A momentary switch is like a doorbell.  Push it and release.  Like a doorbell, the Bigmouth Billy Bass needs only a moment to complete the switch circuit and the rest of the action drives through.  In other words, you don't need to have the switch depressed the entire time you want Billy to gasp for breath.  I purchase the switches that are "Always Off".  that means that they have to be depressed in order to complete the circuit.  They also have "Always On" which when depressed it interrupts the circuit.  When buying switches for this hack avoid the switches that say "Normally Closed."  Those are the "Always On" switches.

I took an electronics class in high school many years ago.  Alright, decades ago.  A long time ago.  I learned about heat sinks in that class.  A heat sink is a clamp you put on an electronic component before you solder it.  The point of the heat sink is to put it between the delicate parts of the component and the soldering iron.  What happens then is the soldering iron heats the portion of the component you need to solder to but the heat sink wicks the heat away from the sensitive parts.  Then you don't damage your component.

I like to use the heat sink for switches because I'd hate to burn a switch out while soldering it.  Just makes extra work.  Once the heat sink is in place, the soldering is like the soldering for the battery pack.  Join the wire to the lead, heat up the area to be soldered, apply solder, remove heat, repeat for the other side, done.

Momentary switch, (normally open)

Threading the wire

Wire twisted on

Adding the heat sink

Heat sink serves to hold the piece in place.  Notice the heat sink is between the component and the solder area

Add solder.  Voila

Step V:  Testing and Cleanup
This is the moment of truth.  Add batteries to the battery pack and push the button.  Normally when I do this hack, I take the speaker off before this step.  I wanted to demonstrate, though how the hack worked this time and I left the speaker on.  I demonstrated the fish with the speaker, then I removed the speaker by clipping the wires close to the PC board and demonstrated it again.  What I showed was that the fish is still singing, or at least being driven by the music card on the PC board even though you can't hear it.

When I had demonstrated those two things, I cut off any of the other extraneous wires, all the redundant stuff to clean up the Bigmouth Billy Bass who now just gasps for breath.

The fish with sound.  As you can see, the movement of the tail is less than the fully amped counterpart.  It makes the movement a little more realistic.  The body doesn't bend as much either because the servos aren't drawing as many amps as they would with four batteries.

Cutting the extraneous wires, including the speaker

The fish without sound

When we did Shakespeare's The Tempest, we had several Bigmouth Billy Bass's and a Larry the Lobster all hacked and mounted on serving trays that the Ariels fed to the shipwrecked sailors.  We had five Ariel's, If one Ariel is good then five are obviously better.

One of the Ariels with a tray of food which contained a hacked Larry the Lobster

This has been a fun project to do and it's a relatively easy hack.  If you don't spend too much for Billy, it can be done for less than ten dollars.

As a bonus, here's what Larry looks like, hacked.