Monday, January 10, 2011

In the beginning, there was neoprene

If we’re to document the process of our team’s designing and constructing these fifty-some-odd masks for this spring’s production of The Rover at the College of William & Mary, I suppose it would be best to start, O Gentle Reader, with where we first learned the basics of making neoprene masks.

It all began with an intensive seminar which lasted three weeks, from August to September, led by guest artist Vivian Appler and Prof. Liz Wiley (the Rover director). For three weeks, we (I think there was a dozen of us in the class) spent at least an hour of every day on our masks, though -- dear lord -- it was never just an hour. Each student completed two masks, which meant that the long, multi-step process of making a single mask had to be done in about a week and a half. The first mask took about two whole weeks, leaving the second mask to be done in just one week, but any task is easier the second time around. I digress.

When I say “multi-step,” I’m not kidding. Let me detail those steps.

Step 1. Each student had a mold made of his or her face out of plaster strips to be used as the first negative -- with the help of a partner, of course. That way, the masks made using the resulting positive (step 2) should fit that student’s face. It was very eerie to lie on the floor with one’s eyes closed, having one’s face slowly covered by cold, wet strips of a coarse fabric that slowly hardened and heated. It was somewhat like being buried alive, or wrapped up like a mummy.

Step 2. The plaster-strip negatives of our faces were then filled with Hydrocal, a white gypsum cement (sorry, no pictures, my hands were full). The cement-filled negatives had to be held for several minutes while they dried enough to be able to sit on their own, and, yes, they were as heavy as the adjective “cement-filled” would suggest. Thankfully this process only had to be done once, since we would use the Hydrocal positive for both masks. Hydrocal is so durable that a Hydrocal positive will last for years. Vivian’s being using the same positive of her face for thirteen years and counting! But, geez, are they heavy.

Step 3. Sculpting! We built clay sculptures on top of our Hydrocal positives to make the faces looked like how we wanted our masks to look. On the left, Francesca is in the first stages of her sculpting, just piling on clay into the general shapes of the features of her mask. On the right is Ellie’s finished fish mask-sculpture.

Step 4. The sculptures (which are positives) were then covered in plaster and left to dry for about 45 minutes, shaped up into those creepy-alien-egg-looking things. The inside of a plaster mold will be a negative of the mask-sculpture.

Step 5. After that 45 minutes, the Hydrocal-and-clay positive is pulled out of the plaster negative. The trick of this, as some of us learned the hard way, is to put plenty of clay around the base of the sculpture so that it pulls easily out of the negative. With my first mask, I had not done this. For several, several hours, I chipped away at the plaster that had leaked under my sculpture, trapping the edges inside. Eventually I used a screw driver and hammer like a chisel, and that worked quite well, though I vowed to never let that happen again. (Pictured is our mask guru, Vivian, assisting with the chiseling, using an old butter knife. Yeah, our tools are high-tech.)

Step 6. When the positive is pulled out, the clay of the sculpture is usually left behind inside the negative, so has to be peeled out. Pictured is Prof. Wiley’s positive and negative. All of her clay came off the Hydrocal positive, though that demonstrates how the negative is formed by the features of the sculpture.

Step 7. The clay is peeled out, exposing the clean negative of the clay sculpture. Pictured is my “He’s Very Concerned” mask negative, clay-free. See the forehead wrinkles?

Step 8. Liquid neoprene is poured into the plaster negative. While this step is easy, it takes the most time, because the drying of the neoprene has a very specific schedule. Pictured here is when the negative is completely filled. That’s left to dry for about two hours. After that, the excess neoprene is poured back into the container, using a strainer to keep out the oogie bits. What’s left inside the negative (after the excess is poured out) is a layer of neoprene about a quarter of an inch thick, which will be the raw mask.

Step 9. The plaster negative is turned negative-side-down and propped up so that the neoprene that’s still liquid-y drains out (and thus doesn’t collect and solidify in the noses or chins, disrupting the weight-balance of the mask). That’s left to dry from eight to twelve hours. So, while this step is easy because the materials just need to be left alone, it takes lots of time and has to be carefully scheduled so that the neoprene doesn’t get too thick or too hard. How we usually scheduled the steps is to pour mid-morning, pour out the excess around lunchtime, and return for Step 10 that night. (We felt very sketchy hanging out in the theatre building loading dock at 9pm!)

Step 10. The dried neoprene is peeled out of the plaster negative, creating the raw mask (a positive to that negative). At that stage, the neoprene is still kind of floppy, so the peeling is pretty easy, though noses are somewhat of a challenge if they’re particularly long.

Step 11. The raw mask is completely extracted from the plaster negative! Yay! Pictured is my “He’s Very Concerned” mask. See how the positive and negative are mirrors of each other?

Step 12. Trim away the excess around the edges, and create eye and nose holes (and mouth holes, if desired). Mat knifes or x-acto knifes are good for this. Also, though not pictured, we used a Dremel to sand the mask smooth, particularly the edges of the eye holes. Dremels are magical tools.

We’re almost done, I swear...

Step 13. The back of the mask is painted black. I’m not exactly sure why. Something about light not shining through, I think, though don’t quote me on that.

Step 14. Give the mask (the front, this time) a base coat, though the base coat doesn’t come through the final paint job as much as you’d think, as demonstrated by the 14 & 15 pictures.

Step 15. Add highlights and shadows. By far the most challenging part of the process for us who are challenged with paintbrushes. For my first mask, I actually used a flashlight to see how actual shadows were made by the mask’s features. (See how almost none of the base coat is visible? Told you. It’s all about the highlight-and-shadowing.)

Step 16. Perform with your mask! Trust me, when you have a finished mask, you can’t help but put it on. We did improv performances with the masks we made, each performing with another student’s mask so we could see our own mask being performed. It was a great experience. Pictured is Prof. Wiley modeling her own second mask, being adorable.

That was the three-week seminar. Crazy, huh? After all that, one might wonder why any of us wanted to do more of this, but it was actually a lot of fun. In my case, making masks was one of the few creative things I’ve been able to do in the theatre department, being mostly involved in stage management (not a very creative field), so the process was very exciting and gratifying for me. Everyone needs creative outlets, particularly us theatre kids. Thus, most of the class was eager to do more of this. Which brings us to The Rover...

In April, the College of William & Mary theatre department will be producing Aphra Behn’s The Rover, a seventeenth-century play that takes place during the Naples carnival (hence the need for many, many masks). A good chunk of the class applied to be part of the mask-making team for the show, and six of us were selected. The Rover mask-making team.

I’ve looked at the calendar and looked at the play breakdown charts, and it comes to about forty-seven masks that need to be made in a six-week period so that the masks will be ready for rehearsal. (And we thought two masks per student in three weeks was bad. Ha!)

This will be an extraordinary experience. It seems fit to document it.

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