I have written many times about how to build machines or how to put together control systems for various effects; I can't recall a time when I wrote about how to construct a particular visual effect. We have had a really cool element to tackle the last week at Dorset Theatre Festival that I really wanted to share. The set designer has called for a full ceiling in our production of The Whipping Man (yes, the backwards ceiling from last week!); she also has called for a chunk of that ceiling--about a 5' by 6' area--to look as thou the plaster has fallen and the lath behind it has broken, as if a Civil War-era cannonball flew through it.

What a cool project! I'll admit I was a little concerned at first that a hole this big would weaken the integrity of this giant overhead piece of scenery, but that was easy enough to solve with some careful framing choices. In order to create the look, we built the hole up in layers, starting from the "plaster" and working our way backwards into the ceiling.

The outer layer is simply Lauan; when we built the flat, we left a large area--roughly 8'x8'--unframed, but covered with Lauan. This would be the area where the hole would be. Behind that, we glued 1/2" thick rigid insulation. The stuff we had available is the high R-value, metal-foil covered style. The foil was not exactly what we wanted, but the white foam inside was perfect--it breaks in interesting ways, and I like the texture of it.

Once the glue set up, our scenic artist cartooned the rough outline of the opening. Amanda, our carpenter, cut out a rough approximation of that shape--slightly smaller than was drawn. She proceeded then to make a series of straight relief cuts from her cut out outline to the cartooned one. Once she'd made a number of these cuts in an area, she proceeded to use a hammer to break the Lauan-and-foam "plaster" which came off in chunks. The result looked great.

Once this was done, Amanda applied the lath strips (which had been stained by our charge previously). Behind these, she attached 2x4 rafters which had also already been stained. After identifying some areas where more breakage should occur, Amanda scored the backs of the Lauan lath strips with a sharp knife and proceeded to break them out using a hammer and her hands.

I'm sure we will do some additional work to the unit once the designer sees it in the space, but I think it is a really great start on achieving a pretty cool visual effect! Words don't do the process nearly as much justice as photos, so check out the photo gallery below which documents Amanda's process.


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Comment by Rich Dionne on July 8, 2013 at 10:36am

Thanks, Michael! We'll keep that in mind as the designer adds the finishing details with us this week. (We didn't want to do too much until she got here to give approvals on the final steps.)

Comment by Michael Powers on July 8, 2013 at 10:16am

Consider stippling a bit of white paint/JC around the lath to simulate bits of plaster still adhering to the lath.  Also remember that for plaster on lath, the plaster was forced between the lath and allowed to "sag" a touch to form an anchor.  There is usually areas where "chunks" remain.  Just a thought.

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