Feature Film Props

 

Smeagal (aka Gollum)

Smeagal (aka Gollum)

I recently saw many feature film props when I visited the Weta Cave in Miramar, Wellington. Miramar is a suburb of Wellington which is the heart of the film industry in New Zealand. The Weta Cave is a showroom of some of the film props and creatures that the company has created for movies including “King Kong” and “The Lord of the Rings”.

Precious film props

Walking in you are greeted by a life size model of Smeagal from “The Lord of the Rings”. He is every bit as creepy in the flesh as he appears on screen. There is a wide range of film props and fine sculpture work available that you can purchase. Many are very collectable and surprisingly affordable. The skill of the craftspeople is really extraordinary and the attention to detail mind numbing.

If you are in Wellington is well worth a visit. Entry is free and there is a fascinating 20 minute video presentation of behind the scenes film props work that the company has been involved with over the years. You can also purchase top quality sculptures of your favourite characters if you so desire.

Going to Mars

Certificate of participation of going to Mars

Decoworks is off to Mars in 2011. Our name will be on a list of contacts on a microchip if anyone needs to decorate something or, at the very least, to do some dusting!

Mars Rover mission

The Mars Science Laboratory rover mission is due for launch in October 2011 and promises exciting new discoveries. It will assess whether Mars ever was, or is still today, an environment able to support microbial life. In other words, its mission is to determine the planet’s “habitability.”


More company news can be found on this page.

Stainless Steel Security Door

Here is a nice example of Chinese lattice grilles being used in a security door. An otherwise bland stainless steel security door has been made interesting with the inclusion of a couple of lattice grilles. These still afford security while allowing ventilation and removing the need for a peep hole in the security door!

Stainless steel security door with lattice grilles

Stainless steel security door with lattice grilles

Detail of the lattice grille

Detail of the lattice grille

Art Deco Chandelier

Regent Theatre Art Deco chandelier

Regent Theatre Art Deco chandelier

The Art Deco chandelier that was salvaged from the demolition of Sydney’s Regent Theatre in 1990 has an interesting history. The Art Deco chandelier was made by Baccarat and was the centrepiece of their pavillion at the 1925 “Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes” in Paris. This important exhibition was the birth of the Art Deco movement and, as a result, makes the chandelier of world significance and a unique piece of Art Deco history.

Art Deco chandelier in pieces

Stored in pieces for many years in cardboard boxes in a basement in Sydney it was recently reassembled to prepare it for sale. In December 2010 it was sold to a buyer in Paris and the chandelier left Australia for good. More details and photos of the chandelier can be found on this page.

Further background information about the Art Deco chandelier and its lightweight replica can be found here.

Large Mould For Cactus

The technique for making a large mould has already been described in the post on making large moulds. A variation on this technique involves the addition of a sculpted polystyrene section to make the armature for the large mould. The object that was made using this technique was a large cactus.

Additional steps for the large mould

Again the basic technique is a plaster and vermiculite mix over a hessian covered timber armature. The only extra steps to make the large mould for the cactus involves using polystyrene to sculpt a part of the cactus armature that would be too difficult to make using templates. In this case the rounded top of the cactus was sculpted in polystyrene.

Step 1

Making a timber armature

Making the timber armature

Instead of using ply template ribs to define the shape we use thin strips of 4mm plywood. These are stapled between the top and bottom cross section shapes.

You could add additional cross sections if needed but this shape is simple and only needs a top and bottom.

The rounded top of the cactus was a little difficult to make in wood so it was roughly shaped from polystyrene. This was also covered in a vermiculite mix after being glued to the top of the base section after the main sculpting was finished.

Step 2

Covering with hessian and plaster

Covering with hessian and plaster

After the timber frame has been completed it is covered with a tight fitting layer of hessian. Next a thick layer of plaster is applied to the hessian. After this sets it makes a solid base onto which the sculpting mix can be applied.

It is a good idea to do as much rough shaping as you can when applying the plaster base coat at this stage. This will minimise the amount of sculpting mix that will need to be applied afterwards and also reduce the amount of sculpting work that will need to be done later.

Make sure you have thought through the logistics of how you will handle the armature as it will now start getting quite heavy.

Step 3

Sculpting the detail

Sculpting the detail

After the base section has been covered with a thick layer of vermiculite and plaster the finer sculpting can start. You can start before the mix has dried because it is a little easier to work. When all the detail has been sculpted the whole thing is given a light sanding.

Trace out the shape of the top and cut a block of polystyrene about 25mm smaller all around. This is roughly carved to the approximate shape which will then be fitted to the top of the timber frame.

Step 4

Finished composite shape

Finished composite shape

After the base section has been finished the polystyrene block that has been prepared is glued to the top of the base.

A layer of vermiculite and plaster is applied over the polystyrene and shaped to blend in with the bottom section.

The whole thing can be given a light sanding with fine sandpaper and put aside for several days so the plaster can thoroughly dry out.

Once it is totally dry the surface can be sealed with shellac in preparation for fibreglassing.

Step 5

Making the large mould

Making a fibreglass mould

When totally dry the armature is sealed with several coats of shellac. A wax mould release is now applied and polished to get a smooth surface on the large mould.

Since the cactus has undercut issues with the curved rib shapes in its surface a two part fibreglass mould cannot be used. To solve this problem a three part mould is used which will allow the mould sections to be removed easily from the armature.

The picture shows the completed fibreglassing of the first section of the large mould.

Step 6

Completed fibreglass mould

Completed fibreglass mould

The other two sections of the large mould are fibreglassed and, after bolt holes are drilled in the flanges so that it can be reassembled accurately, are removed from the armature.

The completed mould sections are given a sanding to remove any fibreglass splinters from the outside surface. This makes handling the large mould sections much easier and safer. This is an important step because, while not life threatening, fibreglass needles in the hands are very painful and you will be itching for days until they are out of your body.

Next the three large mould sections are bolted together ready for casting. Below is a completed cast of the cactus. The little horns were added after the main body was cast. Because the cactus was going to have lights inside clear surfboard resin was used so the fibreglass would be translucent.

Completed fibreglass cactus casting

Completed fibreglass casting

Making Large Mould Armatures

When big props or scenic elements are required for a stage show or special event a large mould generally needs to be made. Sometimes the mould can be made in-situ from real world objects such as tree trunks, a rock face or architectural elements rather than having the required object sculpted. This can save an enormous amount of time and money.

For smaller moulds it’s common for the armatures to be sculpted in polystyrene, plaster or clay. Polystyrene is the easiest to use but as the size of armatures increase so does the volume of foam required to make them. With plaster and clay it is the weight factor that becomes the big issue as armatures get larger. In most cases the major cost in making several big props or scenic elements is the cost of making the large mould armatures.

Considerations for large mould armatures

Usually a balance is struck when making large mould armatures between a cheap internal support structure and a thinner outer skin of foam, plaster or clay which is then sculpted to the desired shape. The method described below is a “Template” method for making armatures for large moulds. It involves connecting templates of different cross sections of the object together to make the initial armature base.This minimises the quantity of sculpting material required to make armatures for a large mould.

Step 1

Large mould timber frame

Making the timber frame

A rough shape is first constructed using ply templates to define the required shape. CAD greatly simplifies this task by providing accurate template drawings for marking out the individual section shapes. Use a solid base to build the framework as it will become quite heavy as more material is added. It is not a bad idea at this stage to attach four 100mm swivel castors to the base to make moving the armature around easier.

Always consider the logistics of moving any large object around before you start building. A little planning in the early stages can avoid all sorts of grief later in the process.

Step 2

Covering large object frame with hessian

Covering frame with hessian

Once the armature framework is built cover it with a layer of hessian. This can be simply stapled onto the ribs and battons of the framework.

We now have the basic armature over which we apply the sculpting medium. Hessian is the better base for plaster. If we were using clay, chicken wire would be the better choice because the clay can ooze through the mesh which holds it in position. Polystyrene, on the other hand, needs smooth flat ply facets so it can be glued in position. That can get a little complicated with large objects.

Step 3

Applying plaster for sculpting large shape

Covering with plaster

The hessian is now covered with several layers of plaster. It will need to be a thick consistency so it won’t run off the hessian. Make sure it bonds well with the hessian.

This forms the base layer of the armature and will need to be about 30-40mm thick. The basic shape of the armature can be roughly outlined at this stage.

Step 4

Sculpting large object in plaster

Shaping the plaster

Next make up a mixture of plaster and vermiculite. A 50:50 mix is a good starting point. The vermiculite makes the plaster easier to carve once it has set. Straight plaster is like carving stone. The mixture is applied and shaped as required and sanded smooth once it has dried out a little.

It should now be left a couple of days to dry out completely before the next step of making the large mould.

Step 5

Form ready for fibreglassing

Form ready for fibreglassing

After the plaster has thoroughly dried you can give it a very light sanding with fine sandpaper to get a nice smooth finish. Fill any small holes you find. The plaster is now sealed with shellac and several layers of wax is applied to act as a release agent.

Be fastidious when applying the wax release agent. By building up a smooth glazed wax surface now it will save a huge amount of unnecessary sanding work later if you happen to miss a section.

Step 6

Large mould fibreglassed section

Fibreglassed section

Because there were curved surface features on the object to be moulded it was necessary to make a two part mould. This ensures that the fibreglass shell can be easily removed from the armature. Any subsequent castings made from the large mould will be easy to remove as well.

The photo shows the finished fibreglass shell of the first half of the large mould.

Step 7

Completed large mould

Completed mould

Here is the finished two part mould of the large object. Since it is a symmetrical object we only need a mould for one half.

After casting two complete sections the two halves are fibreglassed together to make the finished object.

The making of large objects involves a huge amount of work. The making of the mould is the major expense incurred. If short cuts are taken with the mould it can lead to very expensive mistakes when the time comes for casting.

Plaster Bandage Mould

A plaster mould is the easiest and cheapest of all moulds to make. They are also the heaviest and most fragile. There are two basic ways of making them. The method described here is to use plaster bandage which is normally used to set broken limbs. The other method is to pour the plaster into a mould which is described in the post on Plaster Mould Making.

Simplicity of plaster bandage moulds

A plaster bandage mould is useful when taking moulds of body parts because it dries quickly and has no harmful solvents. Plaster bandage can also be applied directly to an object without having to make special dams or walls to contain it. To save money it can also be used as a support jacket in lieu of fibreglass when making a latex mould.

Step 1

Plaster bandage mould error

Who forgot the mould release?

For the purpose of description we will take a plaster cast of a foot. You need to put a release agent onto the skin to prevent the plaster sticking on skin or hairs. Even though it’s messy, petroleum jelly is the best to use. Even if hairs get caught in the dry plaster they can slip out without too much agony.

You can see in the photo of an arm mould that it *is* agonising removing a plaster mould if you forget this important step.

Step 2

Get a roll of plaster bandage, dip it in a bowl of water and start laying it on the foot, fold on fold. Rub the bandage to make the plaster soften and mix through the bandage. As the layer gets thicker keep kneading the bandage down and around the foot to ensure the plaster and the bandage get into all the crevices. Repeat this until the plaster and bandage are about half an inch thick. Keep smoothing it with your hands until you feel it getting warm and hardening.

Step 3

Take extreme care not to plaster all around the foot (or anywhere else!) otherwise you will not be able to remove the mould. After it has hardened sufficiently carefully pull the mould from the foot while it is still a little flexible. Feet are a bit soft and flexible as well so you shouldn’t have a problem.

Step 4

You can now make casts from the foot mould. Make sure you seal it with shellac so that mould release doesn’t soak into the plaster. Plaster bandage is a super quick way of making a mould where you don’t need a lot of definition. It also makes a good support jacket for alginate moulds of the face for example. Dental alginate sets quickly (minutes) and captures very fine detail. They are also very weak and need a support jacket. Plaster bandage is ideal because it can be applied directly, sets quickly and has no harmful solvents.

Prop Bookshelf

Set designs can involve having prop bookshelf or a library on stage. Real books can be used but their weight can be an issue. If weight needs to be reduced usually the pages are removed leaving only the spines which solves the problem. While this works for a small number of books in a prop bookshelf it becomes difficult with hundreds or thousands of them. You can buy faux books which are cast sections of book spines about 30 cm wide which are very realistic. They are also quite expensive, uniform in height. They also look two dimensional because they have no depth.

Prop bookshelf with depth

The technique described here produces a realistic looking prop bookshelf with depth. It involves making a fibreglass mould of a selection of books from which the fibreglass casts can be adapted to different configurations. It’s not a cheap option but the flexibility, weight saving and realism is worth the effort.

Step 1

Preparing real books for prop bookshelf mould

Preparing real books for moulding

Buy a variety of old books that fill one bookshelf section of your bookcase. Choose books that have embossed lettering on the spines or at least some sort of detail. Using a hot glue gun fasten them side by side, with the spines roughly aligned, on a board.

Step 2

Preparing the real books

Preparing the real books

The books all have different depths so draw a line corresponding to the depth of the largest book along the back of the books. Fit a vertical piece of wood along this line about 10cm higher than the tallest book. This will be the back of the mould. Fill the gaps between the other books and the back of the mould. You can use bits of ply or polystyrene. It doesn’t have to be too neat as it will be trimmed off the finished castings.

Step 3

Fibreglass mould of prop bookshelf

Fibreglass mould of books

After making sure all the gaps are filled and smoothed with plasticene give the whole thing a couple of coats of PVA mould release. Put a layer of gelcoat on first to capture all the detail on the book spines and finish the mould off with 3 or 4 layers of fibreglass. This is described in more detail in the post on making fibreglass moulds.

After the mould has cured remove the books and you will end up with a prop bookshelf mould as shown in the photo.

Step 4

Fibreglass castings of books

Fibreglass castings of books

Clean the mould thoroughly and prepare it for making casts. You can make as many as you need. Since they will all be the same you can add a bit of variety by cutting casts in half or quarters and fibreglassing them to other section. This mix and mash technique gives several bookcases a more random arrangement of books. If they were all the same the repetitive shapes of the books would look very obvious to the audience.

Step 5

Gold paint applied to spines

Gold paint applied to spines

Painting the casts is the next step. To get the gold lettering on the spines mix up some gold powder in some shellac and paint all the spines paying particular attention to the lettering.

You can now see why it’s best if the original books had embossed lettering.

Step 6

Painted books

Painted books

Now lightly brush different colours on the books taking care not to get paint inside the embossed lettering. Wiping a flat brush over the spine is best because the bristles don’t get into the lettering. Don’t worry about getting it too perfect. A bit of gold here and there actually makes the books look a little worn. Make sure you paint the books in matching positions in separate bookcases a different colour. This helps randomise the look when they are viewed together.

Step 7

Completed prop bookshelf

Completed books

Now mount the prop bookshelf sections into your bookcase. They can be screwed down from behind but every situation is different so choose the method that is best for you.