Required Reading – “Backstage Handbook”

You can never have enough good reference books. Even with the seemingly endless information that’s available on the internet, having a good reference book close at hand can save you hours of searching internet sites for a critical bit of knowledge.

There are certain books that are part of my kit that I make sure to always have with me because the information they contain is so useful and job-specific that I’m sure I’ll refer to them numerous times during a show.

One of these is the Backstage Handbook. It’s subtitle, “An Illustrated Almanac of Technical Information”,  is a perfect description of it’s contents. Profusely illustrated with crisp black and white drawings, the book is a visual reference of hardware, materials and architectural elements. Written by  Paul Carter, the book was originally written for those in live theater. Now in it’s third edition, the book includes chapters that pertain more to film work as well.

I’m now on my third copy of the book as they often fall apart from heavy use. The book becomes my repository for notes, tables and other bits of technical info that I want to keep in one place.

It’s a nice compact volume that provides a quick way to look up typical fasteners, steel sizes, material weights and sizes and a lot of other information you’ll often need without resorting to sifting through a McMaster-Carr catalogue or various other books.

It’s published by Broadway Press and retails for $18, although you can sometimes find it cheaper through Amazon. This is definitely a book you should own.

Camera Tools For Sketchup Pro

( Note: There is a half-day seminar on using the Camera Tool plugin on January 15 in Sherman Oaks. The cost is $50 but ADG members get in for $25. See the site below for more details: )

Years ago Sketchup developed a plugin for the industry called the Film & Stage plugin which allowed you to view a model with a set aspect ratio and allowed you to control the focal length of the viewing window.

The plugin was never updated for newer versions and was eventually put aside once the company was acquired by Google. Many of us have moaned for years, begging for an update. I devised a way of setting the view window to get a correct view with specific focal lengths, but it was a tedious process and a painful one to try to demonstrate to others.

In March Sketchup released a completely retooled version of the plugin that was everything I had hoped for and more. The new plugin, now called Advanced Camera Tools allows you to view your model with virtually any camera now available with any aspect ratio and with any focal length you choose. There is even a method of adding new cameras.

Nearly every camera in use in the industry is included with the pre-sets as well as all the RED cameras.

Aidan Chopra, product evangelist for Sketchup told me that updating the plugin really hadn’t been on the company’s radar until they held their semi-annual Basecamp last year in Boulder. The event was attended by Local 800 member Brad Rubin who pitched an update to them at that time. While it still didn’t make it onto their hotlist, the idea was intriguing to one of their software engineers, Brian Brown. The company offers to let their employees use 20% of their time working on side projects and Brian decided to use his time reworking the old Film & Stage plugin. So, we really have Brian and Brad to thank for making these tools available again.

While the plugin is as intuitive to use as Sketchup, there are things about the plugin that work differently when you are working inside it as opposed to the normal Sketchup tools.

The plugin is free, but works only with Sketchup Pro versions.

You can get it here:

With a little effort you can quickly save multiple camera views and know that they are fully editable without having to create entirely new views if the lens or camera information changes.

Gifts For The Set Designer Who Has Everything

Can’t figure out what to give that special Set Designer on your list? Well, if you’re fresh out of $100 bills, which would be my preference, here’s some ideas for stocking stuffers –

If your favorite guy or gal woes the day they had to give up their lead, you’ll have them sobbing with joy when they open the box and find three hand- sharpened pencils.

New York’s David Rees has reinvigorated this age-old art form and will send you three needle sharp pencils along with a certificate of authenticity which certifies that they are now deadly weapons.

Or maybe they’d prefer a big block of wood. Actually it’s a big stack of post-its camouflaged as a block of wood. Somehow I doubt it’s actually 1 cent, but you never know, it is just wood pulp after all.

Or, how about a high tech computer monitor adjustment tool. It’s just the thing for fixing a finicky monitor. It comes with two faces, one for the traditional lined CRT monitors and the other for the standard square pixel monitors. Just apply the proper face to your screen several times, or until you’ve calmed down. I’ve found it works great on sticky keyboards too.

Heck, it’ll fix just about any gadget that’s causing you trouble. And you’ll feel so good afterwards. The price does not include a replacement monitor.

But, maybe you’re sick of those slick high tech gadgets and want something that’s a little more environmentally friendly. Well. how about something that’s ‘green’ and has historical provenance (sort of).

James Townsend & Son ( ) carry a reproduction of a brass and ivory notebook like one carried by Thomas Jefferson. It’s sort of a forever-notepad.

brass and ivory pocket notebook

The brass cover contains four ivory leaves that are reclaimed from 150 year-old pianos. You write on the leaves with the brass closing pin that contains a replaceable lead. To clean the sheet you just wipe it with a moist finger or cloth. If the $90 seems steep, just remember that this will still work perfectly 100 years from now, long after that iPhone is at the bottom of a landfill.

For something a little lower on the price scale, they also carry reproduction Porte Crayon for $15 that come with handmade lead refills. They refer to them as mechanical pencils in their online catalogue.

Happy shopping!

Reproduction 1750's porte crayon (lead holder)

The Classical Orders Are At Your Fingertips

So, you need to work out the proportions of Doric or Ionic column and you left your reference books at home. They must be on the web, right? Yes they are, if you look in the right place.

The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art has a nice on-line reference of the five orders that’s very clear and easy to use. You can download each of the pages as a PDF, or just bookmark the site for easy reference. You can find it here.

Each of the drawings is accompanied by a brief but thorough explanation of the order and the proportions and nomenclature for each of the components.

Now you don’t need to panic if you can’t remember how to lay out the entasis on that column.

Doric capitol and entablature

No Dogs or “Movies” Allowed

‘[ In the early 1900’s] some citizens of Hollywood regarded the activities of the motion –  picture people with dismay, feeling as though their respectable town had been overrun by gypsies. Film people were called “movies” by Hollywood residents, who were unaware that the term referred to the product, not the personnel. The word conjured up the right sort of vision; it was vaguely suggestive of irritating insects.’

“The Parade’s Gone By” p. 37

Early motion picture personnel were at the bottom rung of the ladder as far as the locals were concerned. Apartment buildings often had signs posted declaring neither persons owning animals nor those having employment in the film industry would be rented to. The iconic  and once luxurious Garden Court Apartments, which stood on Hollywood Blvd., held out against admitting actors until 1918.

The town was flooded by young people, believing it was easy to break into the glitzy new industry as ‘extras’. Thousands arrived, particularly young women who were shocked to find that not only had thousands of others had the same idea but the studios were not centrally located and were actually many miles apart making it difficult just to visit the various casting offices in a single day.

The town soon began publishing notices around the country, trying to impress on young wanna-be actors as to the reality of the situation and discouraging them from coming to Hollywood without a contract or contacts. Hordes of youth faced starvation, poverty, and sometimes even suicide.

1920 notice published in other city newspapers by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce

By 1922 there were over 30,000 people in Hollywood seeking extras work. The oversupply naturally led to exploitation of young women and the industry soon had a PR nightmare on their hands. Some officials were calling for government regulation which is the last thing the production companies wanted. Republican Party leader Will Hays, creator of the infamous Hays Code, would try to alleviate the situation by creating Central Casting as a way to control the pandemonium which was occurring daily at the studio lots. It gave the process legitimacy but it failed to stem the flow of eager youth into the once-sleepy town.

Central Casting Office in 1929

Estimating Building Heights Using Sketchup & Google Earth

( UPDATE 2/2/2015 – In a recent post I mentioned that Google Earth Pro is now available as a free version. Most building heights can be measured much more accurately using the built-in tools that come with it. )

There are many times when you’re studying an arial photograph of an area and realize it would be great to have some idea of how high a building ( or tree or other object ) is.

I figured out a way to do this using Google Sketchup that’s fast and pretty accurate, depending on the quality of the photograph of the object.

First, you want to find the location in Google Earth, not Google Maps. The reason is that in Google Earth, each photograph will have a date stamp in the bottom left corner. You need the exact date the photo was taken.

Google Earth snap showing date stamp location

Then, with a new window in Sketchup open, click the “Add Location” button in the toolbar at the top of the window. It’s a little icon that looks like a folded map. Or, you can go under ‘File’ to ‘Geo-Location’ to the ‘Add More Imagery’ sub-menu.

This opens the new location window

Navigate to the same location on the map and you’ll see that it’s the same arial photo as in Google Earth. Zoom in as close as possible and adjust the grab frame to include only what you need. In the example, we’ll grab a photo of the New York Street backlot facades at 20th Century Fox Studios.

adjust grab frame to include only what you need

Click the ‘Grab’ button in the upper right to bring it into Sketchup. Open the ‘Layers’ panel in the ‘Windows’ sub-menu. You’ll notice that there are two new layers, Google Earth Snapshot and Google Earth Terrain. For the most accuracy, be sure the Google Earth Terrain layer is turned on by checking the box.

Now, under the Window menu, you want to check  Shadows to open the Shadows Setting dialogue box. Enter the day and month of the Google Earth date stamp and click the box in the top left to turn on the shadows. Be sure the ‘on ground’ box at the bottom is also checked.

Now, using the photo as a guide, draw the outline of one of the buildings and use the push/pull tool to pull it up slightly. You will now see the shadow of the form in relation to the shadow cast in the photo.

Using the Time slider in the Shadow Settings box, slide it back and forth until the two shadow lines meet.

Then use the push/pull tool once again to pull the building up until the top of its shadow matches the photograph shadow. Pull the other surrounding buildings up to meet their shadows as well.

The accuracy of the final measured height will depend on a number of factors: the quality of the photo, how close the model terrain is to that at the actual site, how accurately you have drawn the position of the footprint of the object, and the shadow length ratio. You’ll get better results if the shadow length is longer than the actual object height. Of course if the shadow is obscured or non-existant, you’ll have to find the height by going there.

In my next post I’ll show you three different ways to find a building’s height; high-tech, low-tech and no-tech.

The Unfortunate Truth Of The Matter


Rooftop studio of Lubin Pictures in New York, early 1900's

“The more successful the art direction, the less likely it is to be noticed. Only when it fails, only when a set looks like a set, does the work of this much-overlooked department become apparent. Set Design, set construction and set dressing are items taken for granted by audiences. Unhappily, they are often taken for granted within the industry itself. . . Art Direction, or production design, determine the look of a picture almost as forcefully as the lighting. For it dictates the atmosphere – and atmosphere, particularly in the films of period reconstruction, is tremendously important.”

Kevin Brownlow, “The Parade’s Gone By”