The trials and tribulations of prop building.
Having just had the weekend from hell, I thought that I’d like to make a blog entry on how sometimes, the most simple things in making a prop can give you grief to the point that it goes well and truly beyond the pale. I have to tell you that I was almost at my wit’s end with this particular commission. Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but put it this way, I didn’t have a good time with it.
As you may recall, I had a last minute job on where I was tasked to take an existing prop and do some further work on it to finish it off and then correct the final colour – all in readiness for a photo shoot in London, which happened to be yesterday.
The first issue was that I got this job just as I was getting ready for bed. The phone rang and unusually for that time of night, I actually answered it. I was then offered the work and I naturally said yes without thinking. It was then pointed out to me that my wife was going away the next day and wouldn’t be back until Sunday evening, leaving me with the kids and Daddy duties. So how would I be able to go and pick the prop up? Obviously I couldn’t, so it had to be couriered to me.
The next problem was getting it into our property as the beast was over 2 meters tall and about 85cm wide – too big to fit through any door way so we ended up lifting it in over my garden fence, which was no easy task in itself because this prop was made from 1″ wide box steel tubing and subsequently was rather heavy. It took two of us to do all the hauling with our arms stretched out over our heads as we tried to navigate over the fence and gate, but under the over hanging trees and various other obstacles.
Oh what joy.
Once inside, you’d think that I could start straight away, wouldn’t you? After all, there’s no time like the present and the deadline was already counting down. Nope, I would have to wait until Saturday until our special mix of paint would arrive. Okay, yes I could do the prep work, a bit of damage repair and suchlike, but this meant that I would only have the one day to start and complete the paint job - Saturday, leaving all of Sunday to allow the paint to fully cure and harden to the point where it’d be durable enough to take on being manhandled out of my place and into a van, ready to be taken to the location site.
So, Saturday came and the prop’s baby brother arrived along with the three cans of our very expensive, high grade, professional automotive paint that had been mixed to our precise specification. Originally it was to have been just the two cans, but I requested (or should I say “insisted”?) that we have a third can for just in case – you never know, something could go wrong… and it did.
The very first can just exploded. Paint went everywhere, all over the prop that I’d finished and prepped the previous day, up the walls, over me and across the floor.
Many swear words ensued. Take a guess, I probably used which ever word it is that you’re thinking of.
I had to carry on and carry on I did. Unfortunately all three cans were faulty – the other two could not maintain a constant pressure, so they were coughing and spluttering like an aging asthmatic, but I dutifully continued with great care and managed to get the prop resprayed, lightly sanding it back between each coats. The problem was that by the time that the final can was empty, I hadn’t applied the top coat that would have given it its lovely glossy finish. As it stood, the finish was pretty immaculate, but it was matt, not gloss.
The rest of the day was spent trouble shooting, looking for alternative ways of getting around this issue and in the end I found a solution that would be cutting things close to the wire; have the spray shop just around the corner from me do the final top coat on Monday morning, bake it until the early afternoon at which point I’d quickly pick it up, drive it into central London and then act all natural and casual-like with the client as if there hadn’t been any problems whatsoever.
See? Sometimes a job where you think it’s just too simple to have any issues at all can get out of hand very easily and very quickly. I’ve since been told that this job has been jinxed from the get-go, everything went wrong with it from start to finish. Never mind, we sorted it all out in the end and the client was over the moon with it – the photo shoot was a roaring success by all accounts.
Oh look. This watch looks familiar, where have I seen this before? Oh yes, of course – the 7th Doctor’s pocket watch. See, another simple task that I just cannot stop tinkering with because I’m just never happy with the final product. So far, I’ve made two of these things and while the last version was really, pretty good, I knew that it was only about 95% accurate and to me, that’s just not good enough.
Yep, I’ve bought another watch, with the help of my good friend Doctor Jon. This 1920′s vintage pocket watch is absolutely identical in every way to the original that Mike Tucker used. Now that I’ve got the exact same watch, I’m currently considering a Mk III build – completely from scratch, effectively meaning that I’ll build a new face plate and do all the same stuff that I’ve now done twice before – but don’t worry, you’ll not see an entry on that as I’m sick to the back teeth of writing about it.
Thankfully because this is a personal prop build (if you can call it a build at all), I don’t have any clients breathing down my neck, waiting for it to turn up. No, I can do this one at my leisure thank you very much.
And here’s something else now that I’ve been working on for pretty much as long as I can remember. A perfect replica of the 4th Doctor’s long, multicoloured scarf in a monumentally sentimental gesture of attempting to recreate an iconic piece of television history that stands testament to my childhood.
Over the years, I’ve had loads of these knitted for me by my very talented Mother – I can’t knit to save my life – but they’ve never even remotely been accurate. Then in around 1996, I made a concerted effort to arrive at a scarf replica with some level of accuracy.
The first issue was the pattern. Previous scarves of mine had been random colours in a random order, but back in the days before I had access to the internet, I used several decent photographs of Tom wearing his scarf to not only get the colour order right, but also the rows and stitches it took to make it. So I used many references from all manner of books and magazines to nail this down and I used the two images above as my primary colour map – purely because Tom is wearing the scarf unravelled here. From here, I’d use other close up shots to identify row and stitch counts.
One small issue that I had at the time was although I could identify the numbers of rows that made up each colour block, I couldn’t accurately tell what precisely the stitch count was. All I could make out was that it was somewhere in the region of 60 to 65 stitches. Much later I would discover that actually, I was almost bang on the money. High resolution photographs would reveal that one half of the scarf was 66 stitches wide, while the other half was 60!
So anyway, back in the mid 1990s, I went off to our local wool shop and purely by eye, I chose 7 earthy tones and got my dear ol’ Mater to knit the scarf up… and this was where I hit my second problem – one that would bug me for years and years to come.
On their own, the colours looked fine, but when knitted up together, they just didn’t look right. Worse still was that when the scarf was photographed, the images made it look even worse and they didn’t bear any resemblance to what the actual object looked like in hand. Throughout the following years, I’d find myself buying samples that seemed close, even when matched to a photograph of the real thing, but again, when bundled together, it was clear that nothing married up tonally. Frustrating.
Then came the age of the internet and I stumbled upon a site dedicated to exactly this scarf by a chap called Chris, sorry, I cannot recall his surname. While I didn’t agree to the pattern that was presented, plus a number of other pieces of advice that was given to make it, I couldn’t help but be convinced by the wool colour choices that he’d made, especially since he had his own replica placed next to the original and his almost perfectly matched.
Salvation. It’s unusual for me to defer to other people’s research as I like to rely on doing things myself (being a bit retentive, I can’t help this) but here in his photograph was the proof that his choices were excellent. So off I went and stocked up on his colour recommendations… bar the brown which I could see was not very good at all and I’m still trying to hunt down a perfect tone several years later.
Above is a shot of the 10 colours that make up the scarf. Those with eyes in their heads will be able to detect that there are a couple of doubles too. The reason for this is that while both sides of the scarf are effectively the same colour palette, there are tonal differences (two shades of tan, yellow, purple etc) and because I want this thing to be as accurate as possible, I’m going for this shade difference too, plus keeping in with the fact that the scarf has a number of very obvious hack job joins - these will also be recreated.
Now, the above photograph demonstrates one of my colour problems to a tee – the issue of colour matching that has bugged me for nearly two decades. What colour is the ball of wool in the centre? You may say grey or grey with a touch of blue in it and yes, in the photo it does in deed look this colour and matches the greyish blue as seen in any shot of Tom Baker wearing the original.
However, in reality, (in ball form) it looks BROWN.
I’ve asked my kids, my wife, my Mother, random folk who’ve visited my house and ended up leaving, crying their eyes out that they’re being tested about colours when all they wanted to do was convert me to the Mormon church etc, everyone has said it was brown – not grey, not greyish blue, but brown. The only person who claimed that it was grey was my old mate Alister.
Now like me, he’s good with colour recognition – we’ve both worked in an industry that heavily relies on this ability, so why were we at loggerheads about this? We both had the exact same wool, but he saw grey, while I saw brown. Perhaps then, I suggested, that it only looks grey in photographs and also when nestled in with the other colours once it’s been knitted into the full scarf – that was the only explanation that I could come up with…
And here’s the proof. A fully knitted scarf in all the colours that I have, sitting in my house and looking as near to perfect as you can get. The grey looks grey when knitted up as I suspected, it also looks grey in the images of it, but as a ball of wool, in hand, looking at it with your own eyes in any type of light, it looks brown.
This just goes to illustrate that colour matching from photographs is nearly impossible and is precisely why up until now, I have never completed my own replica… in fact, I still haven’t completed it as I’m searching for one last colour. Funnily enough, a brown.
A couple of years ago on a forum that I frequent, the issue of doing a group run of material that makes up the waist coat which goes with the scarf that I’m making, came up as a topic of conversation. I gave my two penneth worth by suggesting that the piece should be screen printed and I also provided some high res shots of the pattern for them to work with. Here we are now and the material is pretty much ready to go.
The swatch above is what will be produced. It’s not 100% accurate, that’s fairly plain to see if you know what you’re looking for, but it’s pretty damned close and reads perfectly well for what it is. I only hope that they have the scaling correct, otherwise there may be issues when it comes to fitting the piece with the pattern. Regardless of this potential problem, I’m happy to put my order in and I’m sure it’ll all be fine. All I have to do next is get someone to turn it into a waist coat for me. The exact type of buttons are easy to come by, as is the material for the back, so hopefully one day I’ll be able to get the correct boots, trousers and coat made up so that I can dress it all on a mannequin and have it as a display piece to represent my all time childhood hero, Tom Baker as the 4th Doctor.
Anyway. I guess the point of all this is that sometimes, making a prop can be very straight forward and thusly completed without issue and in not much time, but by the same token, easy things can be full of issues or simply take forever.
When it comes to client work though, you have to be able to handle any problem that may occur just to get it in on time for the deadline, but when it’s a personal project, you have the luxury of being able to take things at your leisure or go back several times to refine what you’ve done thus far until you’re happy with the final outcome.
And so endeth the lecture.