Saturday, February 24, 2007

File Transfer and PDF Converters

As a TD I often have the need to trade files. Some of these are large, and sometimes I have problems sending the files. The below resources have been either very useful, or are products I have bookmarked so I can find them again when I need them.
File is stored remotely – no attachments
Free, no file size limit, no limit in number of files sent.
Files are stored remotely, have a wide range of services, though it is a PAID service. I have not used this service, though it could have been an alternative for the Basecamp project management tool I have been using (it is paid as well). At any rates, it allows you to send, receive, organize and share files online.
Files can be sent up to 100 MG, and exists for 7 days and can be downloaded 100 times.

While I am speaking of online files, I want to mention some PDF converters.

This is software that you must download and install. However it allows you to print as a PDF from most programs that print. I have used this with excel and word successfully. It is free, so it’s even better. However, to get it to work when I first installed it I needed to set my permissions to allow users full control. This may only be a windows vista problem, however. Nevertheless, since I have changed the permissions setting, it has worked great.
There are 3 versions, all of which are free (you see advertising at the start of each use), but have some powerful capabilities beyond the above product.
Also downloads, and works as a print function. It is free and advertises no watermarks or ads.
This converter works online and sends the file to your email address.
Works well for converting web sites to pdf. Emails pdf to your email address.
only allows 5 for free, but has ocr technology.

Loctite Adhesive Catalog

At the above link you will find a full catalog (152 pages!), of a great variety of adhesives produced by Loctite. There are over 1400 products ranging from glues to hold down fiber optic cables to the threadlocking adhesive we expect from loctite. Its a great resource for a TD, or any one in a Scenic or Prop Shop. Take a look at their site where many other resources are located and download their resource catalog.

Foam 101

As I was working on updating some information on a few past shows, I ran into several shows where I used foam - different types and different coatings. I thought it would be of benefit to write down a few notes on the matter. However, it should be noted up front that this topic is a pretty large one, and 1 post will certainly miss alot of the finer details of working with foam.

Types of Foam
EPS (Expanded polystyrene) or bead foam. This foam is available in various densities.
A chart discussing each density and the relative strengths is at the following link:
Generally speaking, if it will take abuse (such as being climbed on) or if it needs fine, detailed carving, a higher density will be needed. Of course, the higher density is more costly, and weighs more. In my latest show, I sandwiched thin sheets of commodity (the least dense) foam between 2 sheets of 1/4" luaun for great looking, odd shaped doubled sided flats.
While many densities can be manufactured, commodity board (the least dense), 1 and 2 are the most common.

Extruded Polystyrene foam (Dow is one manufacturer) is often sold in colors (blue, pink, yellow).
It uses a different blowing agent and a different manufacturing process. White molded EPS, unlike extruded, and is available in many different densities and thicknesses. Extruded foam seems to be closest to the no 2 EPS foam.

Then it gets more complicated:
AB foam, Spray foam, Handi-foam versus Great Stuff.....
Some you put on your self, some companies you will need to send your set pieces out to, and some will come in and spray it on your set while it is in the theatre.

Companies and products to watch for: Smooth On, Great Stuff, Handi-Foam, Moore products froth packs as well as many others.... In the phone book looking under plastic / foam should find a few places to start with locally.

Things to think about
Vertical or horizontal orientation
Result needed (some dry in beads, some are easier to carve)
Costs / labor for each
Available to truck out pieces, or to have time during load to have the set coated in place
Substructure (solid block of foam, frame with wire or muslin) I have had very good luck with large scenic pieces being very stable for a show, yet be movable for transitions being made out of large solid pieces of foam.

3M Fastbond contact adhesive
White Glue
Spray or 2 part (ab) foam
Liquid Nails FRP in 1 gallon buckets

Methods for getting the foam paint ready. This is probably as problematic as choosing the method of using foam in the first place. Some foams will have a hard exterior and will not need anything more than a priming coat. Other foams will need to be sealed. Some inherently take paint, others like ethafoam (permaprep works very well on this material) inherently rejects paint. And on top of all of the ambiguity, it will depend on the show and the paint treatment on which method is ultimately best, as well as how the scenic element is used in the show (displayed versus abused for instance). Finally, the different coating have different flame retardant effects, so take care to test and confirm that your end product meets applicable codes. But the following are some basic ideas:

Sculpt or Coat
Super 88 (great food grade adhesive sold at
Glue, paint and joint compound mixture (flex glue helps to keep it not brittle)
Wet blend tile mastic
Cheesecloth or muslin and glue
Elastometric roofing polymer
Perma Prep (a latex vapor barrier primer sealer)
Scrape coatings of drywall compound

While this entry is long, it is by no means a complete primer to using foam onstage. The capabilities of foam and its scenic uses are numerous, and subject to much debate over the best practices. However, as each scenic element has unique functions, all of these options can create a prop or set piece that performs well for almost any production budget.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Innovative Lighting Choice - CeeLite

The post is about CeeLite -
The company makes flat sheets that lite up. The largest size is 3'x6' but there is a wide variety of sizes available. The product is flexible, printable, and dimmable. Though it is somewhat costly, it allows for light in places that would not be possible using normal fixtures. It can operate through DMX for programmable effects. The website has alot of information, as well as downloadable documentation. While I have seen this product used more for trade shows, I have seen places where it would be effective in theatre; particularly for displays, and potentially for floors or built into flats for windows, ect.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

3-D printing and carving

I have recently come across a tool that seems like it would be an asset in theatre, particularly perhaps in props. It is the Carvewright woodworking system- essentially a c and c router/carving tool that is able to move in 3 dimensions (the x, y, and z axis).

It can carve on wood, plastic and foam. maximum material size is can be 14.5" wide, 5" tall and 12' long, and the maximum depth of cut is 1". A very deep object would thus have to be carved out of multiple layers and the assembled after the carving was finished. It can carve from raster or vector images, making it a versatile tool and it comes with its own software for programming. It can be used for simple edge routs, simply cutting a board in two, or complex carving. It can print in several modes, similar to a printer, draft, regular or best. The time is a bit of a concern though as it can take multiple hours to carve a piece depending on the complexity of the piece and the printing mode. Cost of course is also an issue since it is rather expensive, especially considering that this would be a specialty tool in any shop.

Several other nice features is that you can change out bits, you can carve on both sides of a piece of material, and you can actually cut all the way through the material. You can even use photographs to carve from.

For a well equipped shop that does alot of custom props where quality is very important this tool could prove to be an asset. I think that if it proves to be reliable, and competitors come onto the scene this may be a common shop tool in a few decades. As it is now, it reminds be of the cut awl - a great tool, but so expensive that many shops don't use it, and currently endangered by the rotozip.

On the issue of 3-D carving, I am also including a link to a brief article on 3-d printers.
many of these machines have came about for creating prototypes, and are costly. However, the prices are coming down in price, and many places will print single items fairly economically. These two I think are worthy of increased research. There are several different methods for shape creation, and options for either complete replicas of for individual parts which can then be assemble. Either of these alternatives could be very useful for props creation, especially for custom designs or hard to find antiques. The size of the object is once again limited, but could be circumvented by designing the object to be assembled after being printed.

Either way, it wouldn't surprise me to see these being utilized in theatrical shops of the future.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Today's topic is a review of Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko. i would highly recommend this book as a part of any TD's collection. The book is about idea generation and problem solving. As these are both useful skills in technical direction, the fit is self explanitory. The book is not meant for a sit-down read a book type of read. It is best used by reading a section, and using ideas from that section, and then moving on. As I have used some of the topics, I have noticed that some work really well for me, and others are best used in certain situations.

One of my favorite ideas from the book is a "mind map". In this exercise you start with a central idea, and then as you think of items that relate to it you write them in. Then you draw lines and connect the thoughts in meaningful ways. Since my mind doesn't always work linearly, but jumps from topic to topic, this way of brainstorming works well for me since it shows the connections, and areas which my thoughts are either weak or strong.

I think another one of the techniques is also well formed for theatre, and with a little tweaking would be even better. it is the SCAMPER technique which is short for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to other uses, Eliminate, or Reverse. Within these categories are series of questions to ask / think about in terms of what you are trying to accomplish. I think this technique works well when thinking of alternative materials or construction methods that would either make an element nicer, easier to build, or cost less.

In essence this book asks that you questions you assumptions, and try to look at things from viewpoints that you wouldn't normally look at. It relates to Chris Argryis' theory of skilled incompetence in that the more skilled we become the less we question certain basic assumptions. Our skill teaches us common ways to solve common problems, and blinds us to solutions that may be more basic than our working assumptions. While certainly skill is important, and safety is our priority, it is helpful sometimes to think about what best serves a show as opposed to common process in the shop. The best example I have of this is that even as something as basic as platform legging has alot of alternatives. For instance (even ruling out the differences casters make on these decisions) there are compression legs, regular legs, studwalls, posts, joist hangers, and other alternatives that are all viable options depending on the object you are building, your labor situation, your budget and your other resources. On the other hand, a TD's job is complex enough that every decision would be weighted down by hours of deliberation. The choice is, as always in theatre, dependant on the situation.

Nevertheless, for any project where immediate ideas are needed, this book can guide you through a numerous amount of methods for idea generation that will help you come up with a solution. To me this book speaks to the heart of part of what being a TD is all about and is exciting and fun to read and experiment with.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Review of Invention by Design

Invention by deisgn: How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing by Henry Petroski was one of my latest engineering related reads.
The book starts off with the design of the paper clip. The show patents and improvements on this basic design. The book progresses through skyscrappers and bridges. The book is easy to read and entertaining. plus, it is informational. The book also works well as a combination read with Mario Salvadori's Why Building Stand Up and Why Buildings Fall Down.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Review of Getting to Yes by Fisher and Ury

Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury lays out a new framework for negotiating. They claim that the process is usually performed positionally, and argue that it is more effect to go through a principled process.

Positional negotiating includes:
  • Defining a position an sticking to it (the budget for scenery is 10,000),
  • Often involves "games" (if I tell the designer the budget is 7500....)
  • Is a win lose situation.

Principled negotiation attempts to:
  • Separate the people from the problem
  • Focus on interested not positions
  • Invent Options where both groups gain (expand the pie of resources)
  • Using object criteria that both parties agree on.

I think this book is valuable for Technical Directors and other in a theatrical setting.
  • First, our main interest is a collective product (the show).
  • We often need to negotiate- over budgets, over time, labor and other scarce resources.
  • People are important to the process so we don;t want to alienate them through the process.
  • There are often ways to create alternative resources (stock, labor from other areas, cheaper alternatives, and so forth) so expanding the pie is often very useful.
  • Relationships can be strengthen through the process.
  • The show will be better since everyone involved will have a better idea of the essence of each show due to the negotiation process.

So, in short, pick it up and give it a read. Its pretty fast and easy to read, and it may help some of those future budgeting discussions.

Online Project Management Software

Basecamp an 37 signals have a website ( for project management. I have been using the site for my current production of Pirates of Penzance. I am currently using the 1st level of the paid service as I needed to be able to share files. The primary reason for me to try this was that my ATD and I (the TD) have had very different schedules over the production period for this show, and we needed a way to share files and keep track of where the show was in while in process.

The good stuff:
-it is very simple to use and set up
-others can see and alter the site as needed in the project (like mark off done items)
-the free site is good, for files, the upgrade is still economical
-it has really worked well to keep all of the members of my team on the same page
-the file exchange is nice. It would be even better if you could have a free account with a file exchange. 3 projects at a time aren't of use to me, but the files are important

The not-so-good stuff
-lack of flexibility - for instance, some of the terminology is different that what we normally use, and you can't alter it. Also, more formatting options would be nice.
-printing options could be better, for instance allowing you to print only what needs to be done on a list
-archiving a finished project to an offline document would be great. the current option is to archive it on the site. If you are a paying customer you can downgrade to a free account to maintain the archived projects
-web address universal through all projects. I would have used a different address had I known this to start with

Overall a good system. I would use it again in a similar situation. If you have a situation where members of the team work on the project at different points in the process this may work well for you also. Plus, you can try it out for free and then upgrade it if you need the files sharing services later.