Monthly Archives: June 2013

Bars and Selling the illusion …

I just did a bar for Cascadia Community College’s “A Peace In Our Time”, which was, a ton of fun and really easy.


Here’s the finished bar.  Pretty simple.  A 2 ft by 3 ft by 8 ft frame made out of 1×3’s, 1/4” luan and some trim.  For an authentic ‘bar’ we added table legs attached to hinges with a bit of elastic to them to give them a ‘pull back’ like actual taps, and then hid that behind a left over chunk of trim from the base.

As you can see it looks very nice once it’s stained, and it’s the stain and wood grain that give it the illusion that it’s actually more of a bar than it really is.  This is pretty painfully visible from the side which isn’t facing the audience. 

WP_000489When we built the bar, there was some concern about coverage – but since it’s placed on stage the way it is in the top photo, we really don’t need the weight or work that an extra side would bring.  What is needed is bracing.  Bracing, and some decent weight, allows the actors to lean on the bar without it rocking or falling over. 

The actors from there – also have to sell the fact that it’s a real bar by leaning on it from time to time, and pulling items from a small table placed under it which holds props.  image


The trim, can either be a crown moulding which is, generally more expensive but for small projects like this – where appearance is more important it’s a wise choice; or chair rail moulding. 

HomeDepot or Lowes, will have several styles to choose from.   imageYour upper bar trim, should be as ornate as you can pull off, and generally 3 1/2 to 4 inches in width.  Use a 2 1/2 to 3 inch baseboard across the bottom, which should be grooved, now you can go with plain but I don’t recommend it.  Grooved lines, will look better under the lights but it’s your call. 

Measuring down 4-5 inches from the bottom of the top trim piece, add a piece of half round moulding, or rope trim moulding, and then again up from the bottom a similar distance another bit of trim.

This provides the illusion that the bar is made in pieces and paneled as opposed to one big sheet of luan that you stapled on there.

Speaking of staples… let’s talk about them.  There’s a real love of them for speed and ease of use, but they tend to leave these very shiny backs visible.  So instead of staples consider using either paneling nails, or long brads.   Personally, I’m a brad lover.  They become almost invisible, and they pull out of the wood in some cases easier than staples when it comes to tear down.  Some people use brads available for staple guns, and these can be fine but they don’t have the grip often that a real brad does. 

The reason for the staple gun type brad popularity is largely due to the convenience of them.  Here’s a very cool (very cheap) tool everyone should have in their tool box.  You’ll probably not find it at the local home depot but they can order one for you.  It’s called a Brad Pusher.  Finish carpenters have used these for years and they’re invaluable for hanging pictures, or anything related to small nails that are hard to hold and nail into things. 

imageHere’s a link to various places you can order them online, and a picture of what they look like.  They range anywhere from $3 to $25 or so, and I got mine by ordering it at my local true value hardware store – I got 2 of them because I’m always giving one of them away to people once they see one in action.

Pretty simple, slide the brad into the tip, put it against the wood and push.  (Push hard for some woods, and occasionally you’ll need to grab a hammer and give it a tap or two.)

You’ll also find them called “Brad Drivers” or “Wire brad tool” depending on which catalog you’re looking at.  Trust me, once you use them on a project, you’ll keep one always in your tool box.  Nothing hides a nail or a brad better with wood.  And that’s the key to faking a solid object is – to look as real as possible.  Sure we can faux grain it to look almost like anything, but when your audience is going to be say… (as they were in this case) 15-20 feet away, you want the extra level of detail.  So real wood, actual stain.  That’s the key.  

The big thing is since we’ll be using real stain on the wood – we want to use real wood trim, using form molding with white that you can ‘faux stain’ will make it stand out.  So its detail, detail, detail – and the real wood really sells the look. 

Cut corners obviously with a miter saw and miter box if you don’t have a radial saw or chop saw for clean cuts.  Since there’s the ‘40 foot rule’ don’t worry too much about perfectly matching – at 40 feet, no one can see that you’re an 1/8th or a 1/16th off or there’s a small gap.  If it’s really bad, apply some inexpensive wood filler and then stain. 

The bottom of your bar, should have a small grooved baseboard, as I mentioned because of lighting.  Things near the floor of the stage – will tend to reflect the floor light, and also the heavy key light you’ll find on stages.  This means the lights coming in at a 30 to 50 degree angle vertically most likely – so it’ll wash out flat surfaces and those grooves will allow the baseboard to stand out.  Smooth baseboards, will just reflect the light so aside from where they jut out from the board they’ll tend to blend. 

Illusion dictates that you want people to think this is a large heavy object, and large heavy objects have baseboard trim – so make it noticeable but not too noticeable.  For this reason avoid using ornate trim on the base so grooved lines work well.  Add the corner round or rope trim, heck even faux panel by making them into rectangles so they look like paneled segments to break up larger bars or back rails and you should be good.

imageIf you really want to go the extra distance.  Pickup  a few corbels, like the imageone shown here.  Make an Angle Cut on the back of them so they and be screwed into the frame of the bar at a 45-50 degree angle. 

Or simply grab some 3/4 plywood, and cut out some “wrought iron’” frame shapes like this one.  Since it’s going to be black, you might get away with just painting it a flat black.  If you’re concerned about getting it closer on the detail level, grab some bondo and fill in the wood groves, and add a bit of shaping to the sides for them.  Once that’s done…

Attach a 2 1/2 to 3 inch PVC pipe to them, and paint it bronze or copper colored… or alternately, maybe wrap it in a length of copper or bronze/gold colored mylar wrapping from a party supply store.  Attach this to the corbels which are mounted just above the base board and you’ll have an instant bar foot rail.  (Make sure you remind the actors it’s a prop… and will not actually support their full weight.)

Details like trim and panels sell the illusion of a few pieces of thin wood being a very large, heavy bar. 

When all these elements come together, placement, stability and ‘selling the effect’ the audience is completely drawn into the effect.  People are extremely visual creatures, $15 worth of wood trim a bit of stain and a couple hours and you have a very solid illusion. 

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Posted by on June 13, 2013 in How To


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What is your set design’s motivation?

What’s the point of a set? Why is it there?  What’s it doing?   If you haven’t ever thought about that because … “Well, duh, that’s obvious!”, take a moment and think about it for each and every scene in the script you have. 

If a play or video is really well done, does it need a set? We often hear about how this actor or that actor ‘carried the show’ or ‘swept me away’… but you don’t often hear that about the set. Great Actors, carry a scene – or steal a show because their characters come a live.  But no one (well almost never) ever says, “The sets carried the show and raised a mediocre set of background characters to a new level by challenging them.”  The reason is that sets, are literally in the background. No one ever talks about how the sets kept everyone riveted in their seats.

At least, unless it’s Cirque or something like that – we really hope that isn’t the case because when sets are done right people forget they are there. They’re a way to immerse the audience, and it’s really hard to immerse someone if you’re the only thing they think about. They’re literally the background, the canvas, on which all the other artists that make up the performance will paint.

So if you haven’t asked yourself what the point of the set is – for each scene in a play – you’ve missed out on a very important set of details in your planning, which is that it has to be a part of the story itself, it has to take and grab the viewer and make them forget their in a theatre, or watching a video or whatever medium they’re viewing in.

Here’s a set that’s really impressive.  It’s got the floor of an ancient desert temple in Egypt, even the clouds in the sky are eerie realistic.  They even have a vehicle on the stage. 

Most of us, will never have the kind of budget to do this – there’s so much carved foam here it’s almost more sculpture than set.  It’s an amazing job. 

But the truth is, for as awesome as the first set is, this set, which is very humble and very simple for it’s purpose (video production) is just as impressive.  It’s the dressing.  It’s the way it’s to be used and will it immerse the viewer – that makes it a great set.  It looks like a small apartment.  Sure here in this photo your not immersed.  Look at it through cropped shots with adjusted depth of field and yeah, it could easily fool you. 

The best sets are built first by reading the script and understanding what the sets purpose is for each scene.  Once you understand what the set will be used for, then you can begin the process of design.  Get as detailed as you can – view it in your mind over and over – and then draw it out, and don’t miss any detail, just add them to your annotated drawings. 

Greg Chown, on his website has some awesome detailed sketch designs for  projects he’s done, and they’re not just a set design – if you follow his sketches – they become a character themselves setting the mood, the feel of the scene in a way no actor can.  He sets moods with side comments about key elements, colors. 

Look at his “crappy hotel room” set design sketches and see how they really made the room…

When Greg sets up the design – he makes a point of little details like “* No Toys *”, even details like “T8 x 2” fluorescent lights – which if you’re familiar with those – they give a particularly crappy color light to a scene, they flicker sometimes, really you usually see them in shops not hotel rooms  — they’re what you’d expect not just in cheap hotel room but a cheap hotel that has busted up or burned our stuff and its been replaced with even cheaper/older/wrong kinds of things as a part of maintenance.  The pink/baby blue refrigerator and stove really set a specific time and type of room from the late 60’s/70’s – so he’s really describing the room’s age and oddities by calling that out. 

He’s actually defining the room the way an actor would define their character. 

The set, is in a lot of ways an actor.  And part of what every actor does, is ask themselves –  for every scene, “What’s the point of my character?”, “What’s my motivation?”, “Why are they here?”, “What are they doing”?”.    A good set design, will do this as well. 


Posted by on June 3, 2013 in Resources, Theatre