- by Jennifer Sheshko Wood
in Answer Box
Clamps, paint and Plexiglas fulfilled one costume designer’s dream for Man of La Mancha
In the Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote chases an adventure, only to be shown the truth of his madness when the Knight of Mirrors shatters his illusions. In a recent production by the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre, I acted as the crafts artisan for costume designer Misti Bradford and had the pleasure of crafting the mirrors for this character’s armor. The question arose of how to make him as reflective as possible, but without using actual mirrors. The metal armor had many curved surfaces and we wanted to utilize these curves to shape the embellishment. I researched different options and in discussion with Misti, we decided to create the effect with Plexiglas sprayed with a mirror finish. This would allow us to customize the fragmented look of her design, to do it on a budget, and maintain control over the finished look.
Misti’s design called for mirrored parts all over the armor. The breastplate would have the most dominant pieces, while the gorget of the helmet, pauldrons, tasset belt, and the greaves would all have smaller pieces to match their segmentation. To make sure the mirror effect would work on them all we researched various techniques of baking acrylic and how those techniques worked with different mirroring products. We settled on using ¼-inch Plexiglas coated with Rust-Oleum Mirror Effect spray or Krylon Looking Glass paint. We found that while both worked well, the Krylon had a warmer undertone and the Rust-Oleum more silver. I used the Rust-Oleum on the more visible pieces, but as we had a limited stock in local stores, we mixed in Krylon on the tasset belt and greaves.
After cleaning the metal armor with mineral spirits, I marked out the shapes of the mirrors with painter’s tape so that we could see the intended size and composition. Using wax paper, I lifted pattern pieces from each taping. After transferring them to brown pattern paper, I trued up and labeled the pattern pieces. All told, there were 96 Plexi pieces cut, so labeling and creating a cutting list were key.
In prepping the Plexi for the band saw, I was able to nest my pattern pieces and mark them out, leaving room for tension cuts. I labeled the paper coating of each one, keeping them organized by armor piece. After they were cut, I smoothed all edges and points with sandpaper or a Dremel buffing attachment.
Baking the pieces in the oven to make them moldable was the most time consuming part. Because of how fast the Plexi cooled, I could only bake two-to-three pieces at a time.
I would bake a series of acrylic pieces, clamp them in place, and bake the next set while they hardened. Each piece was heated at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for 14-18 minutes (depending on size). To avoid sticking, the pans were lined in foil with little foil folds to lift the Plexi from the surface. I could then also use the folded pieces to pick them up. Working section by section, I clamped each Plexi piece in place to form over the armor, protected by felt pads.
To achieve the mirror finish, I lightly sprayed multiple coats (four or five) over the inside of each acrylic piece. Because these were curved segments, I had to fight the paint’s gravitational urge to drip or pool. I used thin coats of paint and created little troughs to hold the pieces, keeping them from rocking.
Because the metal armor was so smooth, I lined each piece of acrylic with black felt in order to attach them to the armor more securely. It also acted as a framing device for each piece, popping them out from the silver shine of the armor. Using 3M Super 77 spray adhesive, I mounted each mirror piece onto the armor, clamping them until set. Some of the more exaggerated curves and points of the Plexi would pull outwards as they cooled, and I had to re-glue/clamp the center front breastplate sections to make sure that no jagged edges protruded. In retrospect, if I had bent the Plexi pieces slightly further inwards as they cooled, I could have avoided this.
As a last step, I edged each mirror in about ¼-inch to 3/8-inch of black gaff tape, allowing for more separation between the pieces. This also further separated the silver mirrors from the metallic sheen of the armor and made them more visible to the audience that sat at least 20 feet away.
Being able to create mirrors for the first time was an exciting project. As a theatrical technique it was easy to accomplish, albeit time consuming, and has many potential versatile applications. Taking the time to test different techniques before committing was key in this situation. Since I was embellishing bought armor, there was no room for trial and error on the armor itself. With tests and collaboration with a great designer, we were able to create something interesting for a very important moment of the production.