Monday, January 30, 2012

Roman Shields

For the "re-mount" or The Black Nativitty at Congo Square Theatre (I put re-mount in quotes, because you should never believe anyone when they tell you that a show will be a re-mount and therefor less work because "we already have almost all of the props."), we had three roman soldiers who needed swords and shields.They needed to be light, so they could maneuver while dancing, and large enough to be intimidating. I was told historically they were intended to cover from the neck mid-calf, but we compromised on shoulder to knee. To create the tricky curved shape of a roman shield I decided to start with round concrete-form tubes. 
I started by slicing two tubes vertically and placing one inside the other.
To pull the tubes open to a wider curve, I placed them on Rowdy (that's the name of our beer can party cooler). I spread some liquid nails between the layers,

and then screwed in a number of small screws around the edges. The thought was that the glue and the screws would prevent the two layers from sliding back past each other, and would force the cardboard tubes to hold their shape in the wider curve.
Unfortunately that didn't work as well as planned, I believe because the cardboard is too soft and allowed for more flex and movement around the screws.
For my second attempt to spread out the curve I added chunks of 1x2 at the top and bottom.
While the 1x2 pieces did help to spread out the cardboard, they also left the cardboard looking a bit twisted and warped.
To finally straighten out the shields I ended up adding verticals to create a full frame on the back side of each shield.
I trimmed the edges and rounded the corners to finish the final shape of the shields. The flat 1x2 frame left the shields looking a little squished and messy at the tops; a uniform coat of paint helped hide this, and from the audience no one ever noticed but me. If I were to make these again, however, I would probably cut the curve I wanted from a piece of plywood and use that in place of the 1x2 to get a cleaner line. 
To give the finished pieces the look of being made of metal I used a roll of aluminum tape to cover the edge of each shield. Once they were painted I used a light piece of sandpaper to sand the color back off the edges. It made the shields look used and a bit roughed up, and the metal peeking through the scratched paint in those places tricked the eye into believing that there must be metal under the paint on the entire shield. 
for the actors to hold the shields I attached two strips of industrial 2 sided velcro (sold in hardware stores for bundling cables and tying down supplies in trucks). 
The two-sided velcro allowed each actor to custom fit the straps to fit snuggly on his arm each night, and to get in and out of the shield quickly. 
I used a coat of red spraypaint to color the shields. Here is another thing I would do differently next time. The concrete tubes have a waxy coating on them which the paint didn't stick very well to. It scratched off easily and I had to do several touch-ups as we were going through tech. Next time I would sand the surface of the shield before painting or dust it with spray adhesive first to give the paint something to adhere to.
To paint the shields I blew up a picture of the roman shield pattern and printed 1/4 of it (the design is symmetrical and printing only 1/4 allowed the design to fit on a legal size paper so I didn't have to pay for a large format printout). I then glued the printout to a piece of posterboard and cut out my stencil.
Then slowly over the course of the night, allowing each section to dry before spraying the next to avoid smearing paint, I painted each section of the three shields. 
Unfortuantely I never got around to taking a final picture of the completed pieces, but this gives a pretty good idea of how they turned out.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

This is my job...accepting morbid situations

Lesson from tonight- 
It doesn't matter if they are actors in the show (or the writer for that matter) and know exactly what you are doing and why you are doing it; when you are sitting on the floor in the lobby of the theatre, sewing dummies up in sheets, everyone will look at you funny.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

To my high school physics teacher

A couple of nights ago I was called into a theatre, where I regularly work, to help last minute, with a special effect that the designer was having trouble with. Almost immediately I saw the problem. The spring he was using to power the mechanism was in the wrong place, and even better, it could be easily moved. "The spring is too close to your pivot point," I told him, "If you put it here instead, the spring has to do far less work to achieve the same result." Hearing an explanation like that come out of my mouth solidified my need to write this post.

In high school I disliked science. To be perfectly honest, all the way through school, science was my least favorite subject. That probably had something to do with the fact that I was an over-achiever and a perfectionist, and my lowest grades were always in my science classes. But also I think it had quite a bit to do with my confidence that science would have nothing to do with my life after graduation. I was going into theatre after all, why did I care about DNA pairing or the periodic table? Junior year of high school though, I took a physics class with Mr Wojak. He was fun, he cracked jokes, he broke information down with clever analogies and sometimes songs.

Having so much fun in Mr Wojak's class gave me the confidence to try physics again in college when the chance came up. I worked harder to understand that class than almost any other I took in all four years. I found a homework buddy, and together we worked through the assigned problems once a week, then, almost without fail, the two of us would parade over to the professor's office to ask him to explain that one problem (or two or three) neither of us could figure out.

And the point of all of this is that it worked. Though I had no idea at the time that I would use these things (I was just doing it because I had to take a science course and physics had been the only science I had ever previously enjoyed), it turns out I use my physics knowledge more on a daily basis than almost anything else I learned in the course of my schooling. I rarely use the specific formulas, and when I do I have to look them up, but I use the knowledge, the understanding of forces and how they relate to one another, every day.

I use my physics knowledge to understand how to re-enforce a piece of furniture so that it will withstand the abuse of actors using it every day through the run of a show. I use my physics knowledge when I am constructing a puppet, to understand how to use the potential energy of a spring to make a head nod or a mouth talk. I use physics to construct all sorts of rigging, knowing how to use pulleys and angles to direct force so that a magic trick can be triggered by someone across the room. I use my knowledge of friction and forces to analyze and understand gears and levers, allowing me to take apart, fix and reassemble broken antiques (a lighter, a clock, a hand powered drill, etc). I could go on for pages with specific examples of projects that have asked me to use my knowledge of physics, and I'm saying this now because no one ever told me. Even once I decided I was going to go into technical theatre, I don't remember anyone recommending I take a physics course.

For several years after college, as I started to do more and more of this type of work, I thought that these things I was working with were common knowledge, logical reasoning, a basic understanding of the world. Recently though, I have realized that this knowledge is not as obvious as I had believed. Not all of my colleagues have these skills. My strong base of physics understanding sets me apart; it is a specific specialty I have and an advantage in the job market. So thank you to Mr Wojak, and to my college physics professor (whose name I am ashamed to say I have forgotten), though I am sure I did not show you enough appreciation at the time,  the lessons I learned from you have turned out to be incredibly valuable. And to any current technical theatre students, look into your university's physics offerings, you'll be glad you did.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Independently controlled clock hands

Another post where the pictures are not as awesome as I would like (the next three or four might be like this) but the project was cool so I'm posting it anyway. 
This clock needed to have two independently controlled hands so that the time could be reset by the actor every few minutes (when he would pop through the face as a Cuckoo clock bird.
For the actor, we marked each time on the back and gave him an exact landing point for the wire he was moving (since he had no visual of the front of the clock).
The minute hand was attached to a 2" copper tube. On the front side this simply required a bit of glue, and a bit of gaff tape, to hold the foam-core clock hand to the tube. On the back side, to affix the wire the the actor manipulated to the tube, I needed to use JB weld (if you haven't used it before, JB weld is a two part adhesive designed specifically for attaching metals, it is available at most hardware stores and is amazing).

Once the hour hand was set, the minute hand was easy. I attached the hand on the front directly to my wire, fed the wire through the copper tube, and bent it over in the back to make it easy to turn.
While the back of the clock looks pretty silly when the hands started moving on the front of the clock it looked pretty magical. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Just because I'm impressed ...

Every year at christmas I am excited to see what sort of new lights come out. In the past few years, as LED technology has progressed rapidly, there seem to be newer and cooler versions of small battery operated LED lights every season. 
In this show (a twist on a pretty typical cabaret show) we decided it would be cool for the music binder to glow when the magic arrived and the music began.
This year martha stewart came out with a line of LED lights that were about the size of a grain of rice, and ran in series along two thin, uncoated wires (those little white flecks in the image above are the lights).
When one string of lights, shining out from behind the pages wasn't enough, I decided to fold the lights into a piece of reflective tape, to try to multiply the points of light.
The tape worked reasonable well, and the light got more and more impressive (to me) as I added a second and a third strand.
The whole rig was almost invisible when the lights were off, and I hid the battery pack inside a hollow stack of foam core, that blended perfectly into the stack of sheet music.
In this image, and the one below you can see (sort of) the lights lit inside their rig. (it was considerable more effective in a dark theatre.

I wired a switch into the circuit, and placed it on the side of the book where it was very easy for the actor to slyly flip it on. 
It worked like I wanted it to, I was very proud of it, and then during tech it was cut. What it came down to was that, as impressed as I was with my new toy (these awesome new lights), the director wasn't. This in no way should be taken as a bitter statement. The director wasn't impressed because, while there were over 90 points of light around the edge of the book, they were still visible as individual points of light. For a show where all of the other magic was smooth and crisp, this book still looked like a "trick."

When I looked at the book, my thought was, "that looks like magic, because before now I never could have put so much light in such a small space." The audience doesn't know how hard that is, and would probably just think, "look they hid a light inside that book."

This was still a really great project, a great experiment with some new technology, and something I might copy again on a different show, with a different feel, where the audience is a bit further away. For this specific show though I had to be willing to let go of something I liked, because it wasn't working in the moment with the rest of what we were doing. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Dish and the Spoon Puppets

I wish I had many more process shots of these puppets, but decided that it was worth sharing them anyway.
The dish and the spoon were mostly 2D puppets for Goodnight Moon. Part of the challenge was that they each needed to be easily operated with one hand, because the same actress was operating both puppets at the same time (in addition to playing a third character herself, quite a feat). To start I created a base shape for each puppet on a piece of 1/4" ply.
The mouth operated similar to the mouth of the parrot and the curious child that I built previously. The mechanism requires a plate on a pivot to function as the jaw, a string to pull the jaw down on the pivot, and a spring to pull it back up.
On the two previous projects, where I was creating mouths in heads that had dimension, I was able to attach the pivot point of the jaw somewhere inside the head. In this case, since my 2D puppet did not have a place like that, I used heavy gauge wire to create the fixed pivot. To attach the plywood of the jaw to the wire pivot I drilled a series of holes in the plywood and used another wire to create a series of loops (like a spiral notebook)
Once it was completed, the actor could easily operate the mouth with her thumb, while holding the spoon with one hand. 
To create the look of the front of the spoon, I first added a layer of foam board on the handle and around the face. In addition to giving the spoon some basic dimension, it also served to reinforce the plywood without adding almost any weight. I sculpted the rest of the dimension of her face with Crayola model magic. After the model magic was set, I took a large piece of stretchy lycra fabric and used it to skin the entire puppet. To attach the skin I used spray adhesive, spraying on bit at a time working from the most detailed portions of the face outward to the smooth edges. At the opening of the mouth I cut several slits in the fabric so that I could pull and attach the fabric to fit smoothly around the opening. Add some paint for red lips, pink cheeks and blue eyeshadow, some large googly eyes, and some pipe cleaner eyelashes, and she was ready to go.
The mechanism of the spoon started off in a very similar way, but the operation of the mechanism ended up being very different.
Since there was no way for the actor to hold the dish below the mouth, and be able to pull directly down, I had to use a series of eye hooks to move the strings to a place the actor would be able to access it. As you can see, my initial design had the actor holding the spoon by a handle, where her thumb would have been able to pull in on the string closest to the top.

In the end, she found it worked much better for her hand to be placed directly against the back of the spoon, and to pull up on the string by using a ring attached to her thumb.

To create the face, again I used foam core to create the basic dimension along the lip of the plate, then model magic to sculpt the face. I used a cream colored lycra to skin the plate, and then added a bit of paint, and of course the awesome felt mustache and uni-brow.