Monday, February 14, 2011

A Change of Focus

I've let this blog slide for the past month. Although I designed one show, mixed another, and consulted for three more (one which opens next week), I've been downplaying sound and sound design. My focus for the last several weeks has actually been, of all things, on a prop.

I used to do props. I started on the carpentry side of the house. Designed scenery in High School, went on to do a handful of small shows outside (what I call "Back of the Pick-up Truck" set designs...your "shop" is the tools you can carry with you, you purchase all the materials and rent all the props yourself, and often as not you have a table saw set up in the back of your pickup truck.)

Even after I went over to the Dark Side...I mean, to the Electrics side of the house (aka lighting and sound), I tinkered with a proplike project or two using some of those same old theatrical carpentry skills.

Within the last few years I did a quick-and-dirty "Steampunk" re-dress of a flashlight (I was working onstage for a Steampunk-themed production of "Tales of Hoffman.") I also built an amp for a vintage headset and stuck it in a cool box with some 40's trimmings.

And now I'm building a prop gun for a friend.

I have a very Commander Data way of working. I don't know if you remember Star Trek "The Next Generation" but the gag was, when Data got a bug in his positronic circuits about something, he'd start by reading up obsessively. The gag usually came out in the form, "I have read four thousand, five hundred and sixty-eight books about humor, and the complete biography of Joan Rivers. I have also memorized twelve million and ninety-one knock-knock jokes."

I have been archive-trawling through Star Wars and other movie prop replica forums, reading up at Micro-Lathe, at Instructables, reading up on aluminum casting and CNC routing and how to operate a Bridgeport Mill and leatherwork and casting and sculpting...

I purchased a whole handful of cheap tools, gambling that my long shop experience would help me both avoid the really bad deals and work around the bad spots in the tools I did get (so far, the major disappointment has been the cheap Harbor Freight jigsaw, which is, well, quite useless.) I've been practicing on, and learning on, a variety of new techniques and materials -- expanding on the surprisingly wide variety of materials and techniques called for in theatrical "carpentry."

An aside. As a theater shop person, you knew basic woodshop and carpentry, but you also knew a little bit of finish carpentry and cabinet making, plumbing, simple metal work, welding, soldering, basic electronics, sculpting with several materials, and painting. You worked with plywood, veneer, hardwood, expanded foam, mild steel, muslin, celastic, casting resin.

So I went into this project knowing (more or less!) how to hot-bend metal, how to cut threads with a tap and die, how to sculpt in clay, how to use drill press and bench grinder, and so forth. I still had to learn such things as how to braze, and how to work with epoxy clay, as well as how to apply the techniques I knew without a proper shop and the kinds of tools I was used to having.

As with so many things I've put aside for a few years only to come back to, I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed doing this. I don't know how (or even if) I want to add prop commissions to my list of income generating jobs, but I am already (even as I have another 40 hours to go on the current prop) looking forward to the next prop to build.

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