Friday, May 6, 2022

Ground Rows and Small Flats

Ground rows and small flats are a great way to add depth to your set if you are on a budget. Here are some examples from a recent show that I worked on:

This small house flat added another layer to the set with very little effort.

This headstone is a wood ground row that was painted to look like stone.

This bush was especially fun to build. I drilled holes through the wood and added silk flowers that the actors could pick on stage.

Practical Sound Effects

There are lots of inexpensive ways to add sound effects to your show using practical devices. Here are some websites with instructions to build everything from crash boxes to wind machines:

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Stage Bread

There comes a time when you will need to make stage food for a show. Having been in shows where real food was used, it comes as a nasty shock when you go to dish up you portion and you are greeted with a large lump of mold. When possible I always recommend using fake food on set.

The first food item that comes to mind is bread, that staple food that has been around for centuries. The show I am currently working on requires several loaves of bread and is in a fantasy setting, so we needed to make rounded bread rather than rectangular modern bread.

The director recommended foam for construction, so I hunted out an old sofa seat cushion and set to work. 

First, I squared off sections of foam about the size of a bread pan using a knife. Then I used a pair of heavy duty scissors to round the corners and shape the loaves. The final step was to paint them a toasty orange/brown color to sell the effect.

As I grew more confident in my foam sculpting skills, I set out to make cinnamon rolls as well. 

The process was similar. Start by squaring off lumps of foam about the right size for the rolls, then round the corners. I drew a guide line with a sharpie to help me get the spiral right with the scissors. When I paint these I will add a dash of brown in the crevices to suggest cinnamon.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Micro Dimmer Board


Once you have a stage or acting area of some kind, the next thing you need to worry about is how to light it properly. In "ye olden tymes" dimmers and light boards were expensive and well beyond the reach of small production companies. Even now many schools are stuck with outdated track lighting that can only be used for basic washes of light on the entire stage. Lighting a specific acting area is out of the question.

In his book Stage lighting in the Boondocks author James Hull Miller puts forth a solution for just such situations. With off the shelf parts he explains how to build a small custom dimmer board as well as easily constructed lighting booms and PAR lights. With this equipment in hand he has helped produce hundreds of shows in less than ideal environments all over the United States.

With the advent of dimmable LED floodlights, a simple household dimmer switch can now be used to run lights for a show. The sample light board pictured above can be built for around $30 and allows for one dimmable circuit and one standard circuit. Miller recommends the cool light be used on the standard circuit and the warm lights on the dimmable circuit. This simplifies cues throughout the show.

To make this dimmer board you will need:

1 dimmer switch
1 light switch
2 power outlets
14 or 16 gauge coated wire
1 male replacement power cord end
1 4 gang electrical box
wire nuts

Here is a video of the Frugal Filmmaker building a similar dimmer for 2 prong lights. Ours will be significantly heftier so it can handle more than 1 light at a time.

Here is the wiring diagram from the book:

In his case he wired 3 outlets to the dimmer and 1 to the regular switch. I wired 1 set (or 2 outlets) to each, and I used a GFCI plug in lieu of a fuse so if I pull too many amps, I can reset right at the dimmer instead of hunting for the fuse box.

If you have never wired a plug or switch before, here is a short video to get you started:

Once you have your outlets and switches wired, the last step is to wire the plug on the end of your source cable. Just follow the green to ground, black to brass, white to silver rule, and you should be ready to roll!

If you need more than one dimmer box, Miller strongly recommends plugging them into outlets on different breakers so you don't overload the existing wiring. 

Monday, January 3, 2022

Stage Knife


A prop found in many shows, especially fantasy and mystery or suspense shows is a big knife. An easy way to make this prop is with a real knife and a dremel or grinding wheel. 

I found this knife at a second hand store for $2. I looked for one with a nice handle and a deep enough blade that when I cut the sharp edge of the blade off it still looked natural. I also rounded off the tip so it wouldn't hurt anyone on accident. This process essentially reverses the knife back to a blank, so that it is dull on all edges. 

Care should still be taken during the show so that the actors are kept safe. The prop master or weapon master should be on hand to give this knife to the actor as they go on stage, and to receive it from them as they exit. Not to say that actors mess around with props when they shouldn't, but it happens. Just play it safe and make sure it gets back on the prop table asap!

That being said, this is a gorgeous knife! And the glint of light on the steel blade really sells the prop to the audience.