As part of the final play production I helped put on at NIDA, I created a 4 mtr high replica of Michelangelo’s David which resides in Florence. My role on the play was both manager and maker, overseeing 2 assistants and co-ordinating the budget, scheduling, sourcing and construction of all the props for what turned out to be a mammoth of a show.
The David was just one of a large number of props that needed to be constructed, sourced or altered for the play, so I wasn’t able to spend all of the 6 week production period working on him. After looking back at my timeline ( I was tracking time spent on all the areas of the show ), I realised I only spent about 10 days from initial design to final scenic. It was a tight turnaround, but I’m really pleased with what I was able to do in the time I had.
The whole point of a prop like this is to hide the method and materials used in it’s construction. So, I’ve documented the process here to shed some light on what actually goes into creating a fake marble statue for the stage. This replica had to be light enough to be wheeled about on stage by crew, but strong enough to support it’s own weight.
After getting enough reference to build a mental model of what I’m creating, I draw up a plan for the skeleton, or armature, which will support the polystyrene that makes up the actual shape. This is welded together out of thin steel, following the lines of the body – similar to a skeleton – and it’s purpose is similar. The armature will support the weight of the light, brittle polystyrene so it won’t crack under stress at thin points like the arms and ankles.
A booth was constructed around the statue, with a couple of walls filled in with clear plastic for light. The booth protected the rest of the workshop from being contaminated with the polystyrene that would start coming off the statue as I carved.
The polystyrene is attached to the outside of the armature, sandwiching the metal between sheets of poly.The rough shape is drawn over the poly and the silhouette begins to appear.
More poly sheets are layered on the front and back to bulk out the shape. The side profile is drawn on and cut down. If I wasn’t working with off-cuts to create this piece I might have been able to carve the body out of a single, large block.
Once the basic shape is blocked out the real sculpting can begin. The arms are attached in much the same way as the foam on the body, with liberal amounts of expanding foam to fill the gaps.
It was around this time I decided I should really get his head on there. The size of the head can really affect the apparent scale of a body, so I had to see how the whole statue was coming together to keep everything in proportion. To keep things simple I carved the head out of one solid block of poly, using the same side and front silhouette method to get the first general proportions. The trick to whittling down the block is seeing the shape as a series of flat planes, smoothing the shape involves identifying the finer and finer planes – essentially knocking the edges off the blocky shapes.
With the arms attached I could begin to see the whole sculpture for the first time. Getting the correct angle on the head was tricky, as I had to keep climbing down from the ladder and getting a couple of metres away to see the whole thing. Working inside the little booth was tricky as I couldn’t always get enough distance from the sculpture to check the proportions. But, knowing the audience would be seeing the statue from a distance of about 8 metres meant it was important to view the statue in terms of it’s whole silhouette.
Once I was happy with the carved shape I coated the entire sculpture with a thick layer of Gyprock topping coat. This is actually a material builders use to fill in gaps in plasterboard walls, so it’s very strong and durable. It provides a hard shell that can be sanded smooth and then painted to create the effect of marble. If I’d had a longer production time for this statue I would have used several thinner coats, sanded back in between. But I needed to get this step done in a matter of hours to meet the opening night deadline.
Once the statue had dried enough it was attached to the wooden base, which would be later covered in Megafix, or tiling cement, to create the effect of a stone plinth. I got to see it on stage for the first time during that evening’s dress rehearsal. As huge as it looked in the workshop, it shrunk dramatically next to the Florentine buildings in the set.
The next day I spent 3 hours up a ladder sanding the surface smooth, ready for painting.
The venue was too dark to allow us to paint in there, so we moved the mammoth prop out into a larger workshop for the final step of scenicing. This took another 3 hours, and a lot of climbing up and down that ladder. Our David was the one kept outside in the weather, so the designer wanted him to look worn and weather-stained. Lots of washes of darker paint over a lighter grey base coat gave that effect.
Finally! On stage and under lights.