Monthly Archives: May 2013

Rockin’ the Foam

I was looking up some info on making, buying and otherwise getting great looking corbels and pilasters (which I’ll be posting soon) and ran into these videos, which show some awesome things you can do in foam.

Now, for those (like me) who have all the sculpting skills of a rock – foam really seems intimidating.  The reality is it’s not, it just takes preparation, thought, patience, thought, patience, thought, patience… which probably is why a lot of us in high school theatre and small town theatre don’t use it as much as we should, and probably more importantly in the ways we should.

The fact is foam is cheap and it’s readily available and when it comes to making rock or stone it’s a great help.  A 4×8 sheet and a few minutes with a drill and a grinding wheel to sand in the shapes or grout lines – you paint and you’re ready.  For complex pieces it takes a bit more thought, but results are well worth it.

Really, a while back I was tasked with putting together a fountain for a set piece and we did it out of sheets of pink insulation foam we cut with saber saws and it yielded some very nice results.  If I knew then, what I know now… how to shape and sculpt with nothing but a few sanding blocks, some files and or a wire brush, well,  those results could have been really amazing.  In fact, I’m now going back in my head to reexamine any set pieces which require rock, trees, columns, any odd shape, in all new ways after seeing how after getting the basic cut out look accomplished it just takes a couple of extra very small steps to go much further.

A lot of designs I’d have had to not consider or price out a cost to have custom created, I’m now looking at – – large wall sconces, frescos, freizes, door and wall panels… now are something I’ll consider.image

Basically for foam – and you can get great results with the 3-4” 4×8 sheets you find at your local Lowes or Home depot, you just need the right glue, sanding blocks, a few files, a bit of paste (drywall compound, pulp paste, VSSD) to give it the texture you need and you can do amazing stuff you might ordinarily shy away from trying. 

The process with Foam sculpting is simple, you cut to shape, form and then form it some more.  There are a variety of types of foam – EPS – Expanded Polystyrene comes in a lot sizes and shapes and costs.  A very common form is, as I mentioned found and your local HomeDepot or Lowes – and you just cut your 4×8 sheets into the shapes you need – bond them with GreatStuff or Fabric/Plastic glues, cut shape and seal it or paint it.

One thing that will help with your look and costs is the sealer – if you’re using one other than just a good latex paint.  A lot of companies from Smooth-On to Rosco and Rosebrand have sealers.  Here’s a tip that’s cost effective.  VSSD. 

What’s VSSD??   VSSD, or Van’s Super Secret Dope as found in the Control Booth Forums (if you don’t know what those are… you’re missing out – here’s a link) .  This miracle of set building has about 101 uses for sets – and can save you a lot of cash as opposed to other sealers which are designed for architectural purposes.  You can use this stuff on Foam, Luan, you name it… it’s a wonder product for sets. 

Here’s a link… and the basic formula…

Quote Originally Posted by Van View Post

Vans Super Secret Scenic Dope
For those who don’t know it’s my favorite concoction for treating scenic elements that need a bit of texture. If you’re low on budget and can’t afford “Sculpt or Coat” this is a really good alternative.
about 1 quart of latex paint ( this can be pretinted, neutral base, or a “waste” paint, as long as it’s latex.

About 4 tubes of Latex caulk. Do not use Silcone caulk. Some Latex caulk are called ‘siliconized’ and those are ok to use as they are still latex based.

About 2 cups of drywall mud. Adds thickness and aids in setup time and helps leave a harder finish when dope is cured.

This is all you really need. Throw it in a 5 gallon bucket, and mix it all up with a drill motor paint mixer. Add more drywall mud to thicken it up, but not too much or it will get “cracky” when it drys, although the cracks can be very useful for some texture treatments.

For Rock I like to carve poly-styrene, then coat it with VSSSD that has been tinted to a grey or whatever base color rock I’m using. After the Dope has dried <usually 4 or so hours depending on how thick ou laid it on> you can recoat or drybrush / spatter / airbrush details ontothe rock.
Cement, Mix some sand < “playsand” availible at most hardware stores works great. White “ashtray” sand works well for finer finishes like sandstone etc.> Leave the dope a whitish, beige color, keep mixing as you are brushing it on the surface as the sand will tend to settle. You can brush or roll on the cement texture. Let it dry then treat with a clear coat, Flat or Semi-gloss are best for cement. there are many brands availible. Here in the Northwest Miller Paint sells a product called Acri-clear. It’s perfect.

Wood, This is a new one for me I just got worked out. Start the dope according the recipe then grab a trashed blender or food processor pour in a cup of water turn it on and start feeding strips of newspaper in. No “slicks” like the adverts or magazine sections just good old news paper. when the blender starts to bog down or it’s full pour the pulp into a nylon stocking or paint strainer. Continue making pulp ’till you have enough to cover the surface you’re treating. Ok Really Important Squeeze the heck out of the nylon and get as much water as possible out of the pulp. If you don’t get the water out it will thin down the dope and make it hard to work with. Ok add the pulp to the dope, SLOWLY, while your running the mixer. Make sure you get the lumps out. Play with amounts ’till youget the thickness your’e looking for. For Bark I like to use latex gloaves and put it on by hand, dragging your fingertips through the mix as you slop it on will give a really realistic bark look to the finish. You can put on an even coat then use a stylus to “draw” bark chunks on for a pine tree look.

There are a ton of uses. play with these recipes and post your discoveries here. Be sure to e-mail me any really good thing you come up with . I think of VSSSD as an Open-source operating system, It’ll only get better if every shares their own unique recipes.

Now… here’s a whole slew of videos to wet your appetites on ways to sculpt, create and do amazing things …


Posted by on May 8, 2013 in How To, Resources, Theatre, Tips


Tags: , ,

Continuity… for theatre?

When you work on video or film work, one of the most important jobs is ‘continuity’.  It’s not just a question of keeping the script with you and making sure all the set pieces are dressed properly.  You have to take that to a whole new level, things have to be dressed to just exactly the same spot – over and over.  A shot will be done on the average 4 or 5 times, from different angles and views. 

So a table needs to be set, over and over.  And… god forbid your actors drink or eat anything, break something, etc., because it has to be replaced, refilled or recreated – every time.  If they are using props you need to know exactly the order of their placement – for example (in the photo) in this shot, the jacket should ALWAYS be on the right hand side of the horse, not on it’s back, not on it’s left, and it will always be over the rifle, the rope always needs to be there.  The job is herculean and the props and crews use several tricks to make their jobs easier.  Many of these tricks are something that if you’re doing a stage play is really useful to learn and observe them. 

The first is a solid understanding of the script and the shot breakdown.  The next is a call sheet of items and props for each and every scene, who has what, where, and what needs to be replaceable, and so on.  The best thing they have is a digital picture taken just before each and every shot of tables, settings, etc., both at the beginning of the shot – and the end of the shot. 

For theatre – you can do the same thing.  Set you sets and take a picture of how things look – how they’re supposed to be – at the beginning of each scene.  Print those and attach them over the props table and in the props book.  When it comes time to dress the set – you’ve got a complete reference.  Naturally you can’t take the book or picture on stage with you but for rehearsals you can.  Practice during rehearsals with the sheet.

When scenes are done – completed – return them to the props table and make sure they’re all accounted for.  If an Actor is given a prop to take on to the stage – they need to return it to the prop table or to the props person.  Handing it over to another actor or stage hand, unless this has been discussed in advance, should never be allowed.  Once they return it to the table…it should be easy to verify it’s been returned and in the correct condition from the image.  In some shows, it’s not a bad idea to lay the items out on the props table – take a picture and print it up, and tape that picture to the place on the table it belongs.  Actors will more easily, and quickly be able to find them for scenes, and return them to the correct place on the table – if you do this. 

Leave a comment

Posted by on May 6, 2013 in Theatre, Tips



Getting it on paper…

It doesn’t matter what you’re building – whether it’s a set or a prop or a costume, you’re probably not gonna do it alone.  This is theatre, and even a ‘one man show’ takes about 30 people to pull it off.  You’re going to have to share your vision with someone to make it happen.

If you’re still (like me) drawing things on napkins and handing them to people or scrawling things on the back of a sheet of plywood and saying “Here’s my vision…”, you know that your results vary.  If you’re with people that know you well and can read your chicken scratching it’s not so bad.  But the fact is, a solid diagram will get more (and better) work accomplished for you.  There’s a lot of free software out there that can help you get your vision out there, and it’s easy to just dive in and start grabbing walls and flats and dragging them around to see what you can do.  But using an old fashioned pen and paper to start with is still your best way to go, get the ideas down there and then move them to design software to print out and share. 

But… before you can just start drawing – you need to do your homework.  If this is your first time doing a play, here’s a good set of steps I like to follow:

First… Play Analysis
1) Read
2) Annotate
3) Research

Yup… Research… before I do a set design – the first thing I have to do is to read the play.  When I do – I try to ignore the stage directions, ignore the notes – actually read and understand the play itself.  Know what it’s about. Get a feel for the actual play.  If you ignore the notes for the play  – the stage directions you don’t limit yourself by thinking, “Okay, I’ve only got 20 feet of space to put in 3 doors, stairs and a ramp…”.  Then you can actually get a feel for the play itself.  Some plays are dark.  Others are light.  Some are very fast paced – others are very slow and brooding … all of these descriptions have certain colors and emotions associated with them in our minds.  That helps me get an idea for color schemes and if I want to see shadows or bright colors or whatever in my head when I look at things. 

It also keeps me from putting limits on what I can and can’t do.  It’s important to know your limitations, but it’s also important not to be confined by them.  Just because the play says, “Henry exits through kitchen door beneath stairs stage left”, does not mean you will have a kitchen door stage left, let alone one under stairs.  Read it through first – get a feel for what the writer had in mind, not visually – but for the play over all.  You may not have a stage which can even accommodate that set of directions.  So all in all… ignore them the first pass on your reading. 

Then, go back through after your first pass – and make your notes.  Don’t apply these to your stage limitations yet – just be aware of them.  Now, go look at how other people have done this play.  Get some ideas. 

The first thing I’ll use is search engines.  Not just Google, but I’ll hit Google, Bing, Youtube, Deviantart – and do searches for the play you’re doing, and make sure you swap keywords for the searches – do them a couple of times with “sets” or “stage”  or “theatre” and look at Images. When I do this I want to see what others have done, and this is also a good way to get an idea of what is available for props and drops for the play. 

For example if I’m looking up Noel Coward’s “Peace In Our Time”, I’ll do a search for “Peace In Our Time Sets”… click on search and somewhere in the hundreds of photos, I’m bound to get a few like this one…+


And from these – I can move on to the second round of design, where I get my vision and meet with the director and the build crew and we get an idea of what we can actually do. 

Second …. Do the Pre-Design & Vision
1) Design : More Research, consider other plays that have similar elements (you might be able to reuse your set pieces if you do things right!)
2) Design : Resource Assessment
3) Design : Draft
4) Design : Walk Through
5) Design : Build Team Assessment / Review
6) Design : Approved

From this, as you can see on my list…  we’ll get some ideas.  And it’s at this point having software you can print up stuff for everyone is really important.  Why?  Because it keeps you from showing your research.  All those ideas you looked at to get ideas?  Yah, don’t share that.  Let me tell you why. 

You’ll go meet with the Director.  He’ll say he wants it to look just like your pictures… you’ll say… “I will never show the director pictures again!  You were right!!  Don’t ever show him research pictures!!  Now I have to try to build this stuff!!!”.    Because if you show the director pictures – that’s what he’s going to expect.  Most likely you’re a small school.  You do not have a full fly space, and a crafting budget, and a props budget, and a crew of 15 people, most of those volunteers who show up on weekends. 

Your director – and possibly cast – are hoping you can do a 3 million dollar broadway production… and that’s not happening. 

If you’re lucky, with your budget you’ll get some good stages, you get stairs and a few platforms.  And the ability to re-use the flats from the last show.  Most likely… reuse the paint as well.  You don’t get to put wood floors down (like the picture above).  Stair case that goes up to a second floor loft that rotates out over the audience?  Probably not in your budget. 

But all that research does give you ideas.  And ideas let you build amazing things.  So take your ideas – and grab a pen and pencil.  If you’re not an artist that’s fine.  There’s a lot of free software out there which can help you design a set.  And heres a few programs I’ve found you can do some great stuff with… and they’re free.

Google Sketchup has a free version.  And you can download literally hundreds of theatres, props, you name it  – premade. 

SNAGHTML1086675 SNAGHTML10a81d1 And there’s theatre flats and all kinds of set props you can add to your sketchup to get an idea of what the over all look will be. 

You can print these or even create little movies to give the Director and everyone a chance to see what you have in mind.  Since these are all in actual measured sizes you can do some very impressive planning all on your computer.

Now… what if you want to actually DESIGN a set, and you’re not all that … into the complicated CAD thingy like sketchup?  imageTry Autodesk’s Homestyler – it’s free and pretty easy to use.  You drag and drop walls, etc., of the sizes and shapes you want to your stage area.  You can even add furniture and it works well with tablets or mobile devices.  image



And as I mentioned – it’s free.  Drag and drop the items you want in 2D, then click a button to see them in 3D.  Although it’s not as robust as Sketchup – SNAGHTML118803cthe learning curve to use it is such you can generally be designing things within a few minutes.  Once you have “Your Designs” in mind – show those off to the director instead of the sets of Broadway productions and it will make your life much easier all the way around.

Having it here, also allows you to turn it into easy to understand build instructions for your crew.  For example… Sketchup features imagetons of flats – all pre-set for building with measurements… just print and hand out.  Smile  

Want people to see which walls need to be stone, brick, orSNAGHTML123195f whatever… just click… and click, and print. 

Oh, and my “Third Step”…  pretty self explanatory here…
1) Build: Estimate Build Time/Cost for Pieces, Props
2) Build: Get Materials…
3) Build: Build, build, build…

Leave a comment

Posted by on May 2, 2013 in Books, How To, Resources