Bed of Coals

by Jay Duckworth

A moment from Shakespeare in the Park’s 2012 production of As You Like It, with a glowing bed of “fire.”How a propsmaker used glass to give life to a dying fire

"What we are ultimately looking for is a hot fire that they are cooking over that slowly goes out so you see the burned coals,” said my director on a production of As You Like It. “Because the scene starts at night slowly moves to the morning … au-vista.”

Ah, yes … “au-vista.” Literally translated as “in view,” most directors use it instead of “Abracadabra.” As in: “I want this room to start out pristine and idyllic to show what the family's life was before the Nazi’s invasion, then in the next scene we see the room transformed from all the years of the destruction of the war … au-vista.”

The weekend after this request was made I went camping with some friends and took some pictures of the campfire we had made. I only stopped taking pictures when I had to poke the fire. (A job that almost every guy takes on every three minutes when sitting around a fire). When poking the fire each played with the coals enough to placate our inner blacksmith. Watching this ritual it occurred to me to avoid the cliché of making a prop fire out of a teepee of logs and instead make a big bed of coals as if it had burned down. This would open the field of light up instead of hiding it.

So Monday back at the shop I took the long trek up to props storage—two flights up and on the other side of the building—to grab a few logs and look for something I could use as coals. I grabbed chunks of wood, rocks and, yes, BBQ briquettes to paint gray and red.

After making a ring of the small tree branches and trimming and painting them to look like burnt logs I grabbed some finely-cut red mylar and attached it to a log using 3M Super 77 spray adhesive. I thought it would look great when the light hit it, adding a look like burning embers. It looked good but I needed more “coals” to take a test picture. I was heading back up to our storeroom to grab some, but in the restock shelf just outside our shop I saw a large amount of fake ice that had become tea-stained yellow from fake “whiskey.” What the heck, I thought, we were going to throw them out anyway. I decided to just spray paint the clear ice black and use that for the photo.

Painted glass on a grate with an orange filter created a look of glowing embers.After a lunch break to let the paint dry, I brought the ice into the shop. I left the bottom of the ice unpainted because I didn’t want to have to wait for another coat of paint to dry—I needed to get the test photo done. In the first couple of pictures I could see the light coming through the ice because it wasn’t opaque enough, thanks to the unpainted side. And that’s when I had an idea. I stole an orange gel from lighting and gaffed it to a grate, then lit it from underneath with a flashlight. The ice cubes glowed orange when the “uplight” was on, but when it was turned off, the black paint made them look solid.

The completed fire. ​After the small test I bought some big chunky sea glass and again painted it all black, except for one side. I placed the glass over a large screen and built a wooden fire around the edges of the screen. Each log was trimmed down and painted gray and black with small bits of red mylar on them to show how they had been burned away. Lighting was able to light the “coals” from underneath and then hide directional lights in some of the half rocks that we positioned  downstage on the fire ring so they could show how bright the fire was. Once the lights went down it looked like the fire went cold… all au-vista.