Thursday, November 6, 2008

Set Construction and How They Are Built

Thanks to Dave from Perth, here is another topic you might enjoy knowing about. Or not.  Even though construction was not part of my Set Decorating, I had been a carpenter-designer-painter-electrician for 15 years in the theatre before Magnum so I do know a bit about behind the camera construction.  Ok, stay will be tested on this later.

Basic wall units are called flats (just like in the theatre) only the frames are built on edge and covered with a thin plywood (sometimes called door skin).  You put enough flats together and you have a wall. The camera obviously can see closer to these walls so they not only have to be covered with something (texture, wallpaper, surface decoration, etc.)you have to be careful about the spaces between the flats since they are usually made in 4' wide modules because that's the normal width of the plywood.  One of the ways you can always tell a set wall from a real interior wall is by all the jogs or angles in the walls.  Sometimes they are small jogs only about 1 inch and sometimes maybe a large architectural element like a pilaster (engaged column) to break the flatness and hide the seams.  These jogs are so you don't have to cover a flat seam and sometimes to be able to take the wall completely out.  These are called "wild walls" and are designed to be removed from the set so that the camera can shoot from a different angle and not be hampered by the wall.  It's the only way you can film  inside a small room or space.  Even when Tom was crawling in a tunnel, one side of that tunnel was open for the camera and could be put back later.

Many of the Magnum permanent set walls had a form of plaster (usually dry wall paste) we called mud.  I did address this in an earlier post, but it created the look of rough, aged plaster and also bridged any gaps in the walls made up of smaller flats.  Many walls were wall papered and sometimes painted walls only had something like masking tape that was painted to cover the crack between the flats.  This seam could always be cut with a knife if the wall needed to be taken out.  They sometimes pre-painted more masking tape if they had to recover it if the wall went back in place.

The basic construction framing material is wood--weather it ultimately looks like marble, stone, brick, or tile.  Tile was usually ready made wallboard tile or sometimes even scored masonite which is sort of a thin fiberboard with a smooth surface.  So 500 words later, it's time to answer David's question about bricks (are you still with us David?).  By the time Magnum was around, Universal Studios had one of the best molding (moulding) mills in Hollywood.  They could make just about any kind of trim.  They also had vacu-form wall surfaces like bricks, stone, and things like "dirt skins" for caves and exterior ground.  As I recall, the bricks in Higgin's den were vacu-form plastic (heated plastic sheets over a form, air pulled out, plastic conforms to the underlying shape).  They came in large sheets and could be painted. They also had "Z-brick" which were a fake brick veneer, but only came in about 3 or 4 variations.  Got any old pancake houses near you?  I do and it's still full of Z-brick. (sounds sort of like "brick" with a French accent).  It's getting late......  Another way of doing bricks (we used this in the theatre a lot) is to take a large sheet of 2 or 3" thick styrofoam (sometimes used for roofing insulation) and a rough file or rasp and digging out the foam for the grout area.  You can do large blocks of stone or smaller bricks or even stones with this.  Sometimes a soldering gun with a wide tip is used--but it does give off a toxic gas when it melts the foam.
     The 1970's and 80's had a lot of things like "Mediterranean" spindles, geometric plywood cut-outs, filigree panels, and other peculiar architectural elements that were used.  Often times you would see some sort of "entrance screen" into a room near the doorway.  These were used to help block the view beyond the door when it opened or to see the bad guy hiding before the good guy did or sometimes for the camera to shoot through.  Furniture and architectural elements located near the camera in the foreground are called a "cutting piece".  It's a way of providing foreground interest or sometimes to create the illusion of the 4th wall when all there really is is a low cabinet with a vase on it.

   Thanks for staying with me if you did.  You can pick up your diploma on the way out.



Anonymous said...

Just found you this morning and wow, I'm loving it! I'm an 80's kid and loved those shows Magnum, Simon & Simon, Airwolf, RipTide, Knight Rider, etc. Love your post and the behind the scene trick and pictures....Keep up the great blog!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Magnum Decorator said...

Thanks Anonymous (sure are a of of people with the same name). It was TV from our era before MTV made 2-3 second shots normal, before cars blew up every 5 minutes, and blood splattered on the wall was a daily occurrence. Long live nostalgia! (I think there is a pun in there somewhere?)


Mike (N1095a) said...

Thank You for your inside photos and stories. All of us at are totally (80's term) enjoying your blogs. It's a great inside view of the mechanics of how the greatest television show ever was made. I do have a couple of questions in no particular order. I read that you built Higgins' model of the bridge. I was wondering just how many models there were of the bridge since it was destroyed numerous times, and did you build all of them? Was it really built from match sticks?
I also read that you didn't build the permanent sets, but the guesthouse set for example was redressed several times for flashback or years gone by shots, It was even painted red at one point. The guesthouse facinates me for some reason. Were you involved in redressing that set for those episodes? Also, was the bathroom and bedroom actually connected to the main room in the guesthouse, or were they stand alone sets? I don't believe there were any shots of the area where the large boat doors on the actual building were shown in the set, was that an issue in setting up shots? How close was the guest house set made to match up with the actual building exterior? Lastly (for now) any idea why the guesthouse was portrayed to be in a completely different part of the estate than the boat house actually was located?
Thanks so much for your time in this. Your words and photos are invaluable to us.
Mike (n1095a)

Magnum Decorator said...

Hi Mike, Thanks for the great questions! I think I need to remind people that I was involved in almost 100 episodes of Magnum 20-25 years ago with most of the episodes overlapping. Remember each ONE individually is difficult. You saw one each week, I worked on 2-3 a week at the same time! I have only watched a few episodes since then and I don't always remember if I even did them or not until I see the credits. If I see my name, I did it!

Any set that happened in seasons 4-6 I would have been directly responsible for and slightly responsible for season 7. I may not remember what I did, but I did it!

I built the original model of Higgin's bridge. There were 3 - a beginning, a partially completed, and a finished one for that episode. I did have to cheat and use chopsticks for structural and time constraints, but you would never have noticed even in a close-up. I was also just off camera to remove or reglue any piece that John Hillerman used on camera for the many takes. Apparently there were other episodes where it was destroyed or damaged. I don't remember fixing it, but maybe I did or maybe someone else did. Sorry if I can't give a definite answer 25 years later!

Yes, Tom's bedroom set directly adjoined the guest house living room (camera right), If it was not going o be used in that episode, another set might occupy it's place with the bedroom walls taken down. I believe the bathroom was on the left when you came in the bedroom. Again if it was going to be used, it was thee, if not, it probably would have not been set up. Once sets were permanently established or set up, it was up to my crew to maintain them. I might occasionally inspect them, but they were pretty good about maintaining them on their own.

I don't believe there was any particular attempt to match the actual front of the boathouse with the guesthouse on the stage. I don't know why they didn't use the existing / actual guest house or servants quarters behind the actual boathouse at the Anderson estate. As I already stated, it is a little unbelievable that you would have a room like the living room set below the water line that close to the ocean, but that was all done before my time.

Hope that answers your questions and glad to be of help. If nothing else it's good to exercise the memory once in awhile!


Dave from Perth said...

Hi Rick,

Thanks for the post on this topic - answered my questions :)

On the topic of the bridge - having built it you must have almost shed a tear when magnum blew it up in season 7! That was a classic scene - very funny.

Thanks again,

rubber chicken said...

Another question... Do you happen to remember what you were looking at when you made the bridge? A VHS or BETA videotape of the movie? Or a still picture sent from Los Angeles? Something else?

Today of course a picture of the bridge can be found in a few seconds on the web, but it would be interesting to know what your solution was back then.

Magnum Decorator said...

Wow, my brain is hurting trying to remember that answer! I think they gave me a picture from a magazine or maybe a still from the movie. I'm pretty sure there were only 1 or 2 photos at most. I used to build a lot of stage set and architectural models so I had to make the bridge look a little less professional since Higgin's was doing it. Considering the materials I used, it couldn't have been too accurate anyway. Yes, the internet has certainly changed our research methods--not always for the good, however!